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After 85 Years as a Museum, the Hagia Sophia Will Become a Mosque

Art historians and conservationists worry Turkish authorities might remove the centuries-old Byzantine mosaics that adorn it.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey (Brian Suda/Flickr)

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia will be converted into a mosque after 85 years as a museum, according to a decree issued today, July 10, by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The decision has drawn fierce criticism in Turkey and worldwide.

Erdogan’s controversial decree came in conjunction with a Turkish court announced that it would revoke the structure’s status as a museum. The Hagia Sophia was formerly a Byzantine cathedral and Ottoman mosque.

The over 1,500-year-old World Heritage Site has religious and historic significance to both Christians and Muslims in Turkey. Built in 537 CE by the Byzantine emperor Justinian as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, it was converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453 and into a secular museum in 1935. The awe-inspiring structure draws millions of visitors every year.

Hagia Sophia, visited by millions every year (Dennis Jarvis/ Flickr)

According to reports, tourists will still have access to the site, although it might be closed to visitors during prayer time. But art historians and conservationists worry that the Turkish authorities might decide to cover up or remove the centuries-old Byzantine mosaics and Christian iconography that adorn the celebrated structure, as was done in other converted churches in Turkey in the past.

Critics of Erdogan have slammed his decision as divisive and nationalist. Some have interpreted the move as an attempt by the president to divert attention from the country’s flailing economy and cater to his base of Muslim conservatives, who have been demanding the reclassification of the museum for years, at a time when his approval rates are suffering.      

UNESCO, which listed the Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site in 1985, said in a statement today that it “regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities” which was “made without prior discussion.”

“States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories,” the statement said. “UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee.”

The UN body said that it had shared its concerns with the Turkish government in several letters prior to the decision, but its requests to engage in dialogue were rejected.

“States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories,” a statement by UNESCO said (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Officials from countries around the world — including the United States, France, Russia, and Greece — have also expressed their concerns over the decision.

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” said Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in a statement earlier this month.

He added, “We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”

In a statement today, Greek’s Culture Minister, Lina Mendoni, called the decision “an open provocation to the civilized world.”

Correction 7/10/2020 6:10pm EDT: An original version of this article stated that the Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 BC. This is incorrect, the mosque was completed in 537 CE, according to Brittanica.

Update 7/22/2020 1:07pm EDT: Some of Hagia Sophia’s Christian mosaics will be temporarily concealed during Muslim prayers, a Turkish official said in an interview on Sunday, July 19.

Speaking with the broadcaster NTV, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that some mosaics of the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel that are positioned in the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face during the mosque’s five daily prayers, would be covered with curtains. The mosaics will be uncovered during tourist traffic between prayers. 

Kalin added that other mosaics depicting Jesus and other Christian figures that are not facing Mecca should not pose a problem during Muslim prayers, but he did not clarify whether they would remain visible at all times.

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