Hundreds of worshippers packed into Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square Friday morning before sunrise in hopes of entering the Hagia Sophia museum-turned-mosque join the first prayer of Eid al Adha – or Bayram, as the Islamic festival of sacrifice is called in Turkey – to be held inside the historic building in more than 80 years.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert the site from a museum back to a mosque has drawn controversy.
Erdogan decreed the site to be a mosque earlier this month after a lengthy legal battle that ended with a court annulling its museum status.
Critics have seen the move as a push toward political Islam aimed to pander to Erdogan’s conservative base and have raised concerns as to whether the Christian aspects of the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site’s heritage would be preserved.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a statement said she “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia.”
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” she said. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”
But the crowd that lined up to pray Friday, representing the religious conservative demographic Erdogan aimed to appeal to – both in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world – was ecstatic.
Egyptian pediatrician Mohammed Essam, who came with his wife and children, said he believes the mosque will be part of a move toward a more conservative approach to Islam.
“I hope that this symbolic thing will be the reason for the return of Muslims to implementing Islam in their lives and a return to chastity and dignity in Islam,” he said. “The greatest hope is that Islam will not just remain in the mosques but that it will be part of real life.”
Nuri Karacan, a car parts salesman from the Black Sea region of Turkey, said he believes the Hagia Sophia’s reopening as a mosque heralded a better life for the country.
“I believe there was a curse on the country because it was turned from a mosque to a museum and in my opinion, its return to being a mosque will remove this curse,” he said.
While the site has remained open to non-Muslim tourists since its conversion, portions of the building that were previously accessible have been closed off. Male and female visitors must line up separately – although they are not prohibited from mixing inside the building – and women are required to cover their hair to enter.
The marble floor is now covered in a green carpet, and Christian mosaics covered with curtains.
Esra Akcan, an associate professor of architecture at Cornell University and the 2019-2020 Frieda Miller Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, said she is concerned that aspects of the building’s history will be lost.
“Due to its inventiveness for its time, the typology and geometry of its plan, the technology and span of its dome, the additions over centuries for structural stability and programmatic appropriation, as well as the images, decoration and craftwork symbolizing both the Christian and Muslim faiths, among other things, the building has inspired builders for centuries,” she said. “It is a perfect document to trace the intertwined histories of different cultures and religions.”
Akcan added, “For a historian of modern architecture like myself, Hagia Sophia as a museum was also a rare monument that implied the acceptance of some accountability and need for reconciliation for state violence and imperial ambitions. It could have been turned into a symbol of acknowledgment that respect for multicultural art and architectural heritage should outdo nationalist sentiments—a unique attribute that is now lost with its conversion into a mosque. Turning the museum into a mosque erases both the secular and Christian history engraved on the building.”
In response to concerns some have raised that the conversion to a mosque might discourage tourism by non-Muslim visitors Bilal Huzaifa Ozdemir, a truck driver from Istanbul who came to pray there Friday, said he believes, to the contrary, that the site will draw more visitors now.
“Of course, it will increase the number of visitors, and with regards to non-Muslims, there is no prohibition,” he said.
“They can enter and visit, even without paying – before they had to pay to enter…True Islam is not the enemy of any other religion or sect.”
Ozdemir said he had prayed inside the site the first day it was reopened as a mosque last week. He returned to pray the first prayer of the Eid there, although this time as the mosque was already full when he arrived, he prayed in the courtyard outside.
For Ozdemir, who supports Erdogan, the reconversion to a mosque had political as well as religious significance.
“Of course, this thing is a symbol that Turkey has become stronger,” he said. “Before, it was weak with regards to the West. Today Turkey can speak and implement what it says.”
Selahattin Guler, a Turk of Macedonian origin, said he remembered his grandparents talking about praying in the Hagia Sophia.
“And I’m living the same atmosphere now,” he told Al Arabiya English. “…I’m not able to express the feelings I have now in this atmosphere.”
Built in the sixth century as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453, and then turned to a museum in 1934 amid a push toward secularization of the Turkish state.
The worshippers included a significant number of non-Turkish Muslims who praised the conversion to a mosque – although reactions in some quarters of the Arab world have been critical, calling it an opportunistic move by Erdogan.
“This mosque is famous all over the world, among all the Muslims,” said an Uzbek visitor who gave his name only as Elyas, who had emerged after praying inside. “It has value and benefits not just for Turkey but for all Muslims.”
Salam Mohammed, an Egyptian married to a Turkish man, said she believes the mosque will draw pilgrims from abroad. “Of course, there are a lot of people who want to come to the Ayasofya, but there is the situation of corona and a lot of routes are closed,” she said.
Most of the visitors Friday wore masks as a precaution against COVID-19 transmission, but despite signs urging social distancing, prayer mats were crammed close together.
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