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Church, museum & UNESCO heritage site, mosque — Turkey’s Hagia Sophia has been all that & more

Built as a cathedral, it was made a mosque in 1453 by Ottomans. In 1934, it became a museum, but was redisgnated a mosque in 2020. On Saturday ‘taraweeh‘ prayers were held here after 88 years.

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New Delhi: After decades of being a religiously unaffiliated museum, the iconic Hagia Sophia in Turkey’s Istanbul is marking its first Ramadan as a Muslim place of worship.

Built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as a Christian cathedral, it was turned into a mosque in 1453 — after Ottoman forces under Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople or present day Istanbul. In 1934, it became a museum and in 1985, it was designated a component of a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Historic Areas of Istanbul.

In 2020, however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan redesignated the sixth-century monument as a mosque.

Erdogan made the announcement in July 2020, after a high court in Turkey annulled the 1934 decision that had made the domed structure a museum.

Widely viewed as an attempt to undo Turkish secularism, Erdogan’s decision was met with widespread international criticism, which included reactions from neighbouring Greece, UNESCO, the European Union, the World Council of Churches, and many international leaders like Pope Francis and US President Joe Biden, a presidential candidate at the time.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, and the Palestinian terror group Hamas were among those who had welcomed the verdict.

However, the spread of the Covid pandemic and the resulting restrictions on physical gatherings, delayed the actual opening of the monument for worship.

On Saturday, for the first time in 88 years — since the Hagia Sophia was made a museum in 1934 — ‘taraweeh‘ prayers, a special evening prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, were held the Hagia Sophia. The monument had been declared open to worship for Muslims on 24 July 2020, however the mosque could not be used until now due to Covid pandemic restrictions.

ThePrint delves into the significance of the Hagia Sophia, a monument revered by Turks and Greeks alike, which has been described by as “a cultural collision of epic proportions” by the Smithsonian Magazine — one that entwines the legacies of medieval Christianity, the Ottoman Empire, resurgent Islam and modern secular Turkey.

Also read: How Erdogan’s dictatorial economics is fuelling Turkey’s inflation, throwing lira off track

Church of Holy Wisdom

Known as the Turkish Ayasofya, Latin Sancta Sophia or the Church of Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia is a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably, Turkey’s most-visited tourist attraction.

The domed structure is located in the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The lofty central dome is approximately 102 feet in diameter and 184 feet in height.

Its interiors are decorated with ornamental stone inlays and multicolored mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, angels and other Christian symbols. However, ever since the monument was turned into a mosque in July 2020, Turkish authorities have covered these symbols with curtains.

One of the earliest depictions of the monument is in a wood carving by Pieter Coecke van Aelst in 1553. Made available by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the work depicts a procession of Suleiman the Magnificent, with the Hagia Sophia in the background, along the horizon.

The peculiar construction of the monument, however, has put it on shaky ground – literally. The building almost collapsed in an earthquake in 557, just 20 years after it was built, and crumbled once again, after an earthquake in 1346. Even in recent years, experts have expressed concerns that “one tremor” could cause the whole monument to crumble.

A church, a mosque, a museum

Hagia Sophia was built during the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century and is the work of Greek architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos. Completed in 537 CE, the monument was originally referred to as Megale Ekklesia (Great Church).

During the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia served as the site of imperial ceremonies, including coronations, and was considered the heart of Orthodox Christian faith.

In 1453, Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror captured Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, and with it, the Hagia Sophia. Subsequent sultans made additions to the monument, incorporating minarets, a library, a fountain and a mosque complex. Some mosaics were also plastered over.

After the fall of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, had the Hagia Sophia designated as a museum in 1934, as part of his reforms to build a secular country.

The monument was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.

Erdogan’s ‘distraction’ from Turkey’s economic woes

When Erdogan decided to re-designate Hagia Sophia as a mosque in 2020, he was accused of distracting attention from his country’s economic woes, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an op-ed for Forbes, author-journalist Melik Kaylan described the move as a “desperate act of political theater” by a populist strongman. “He [Erdogan] has tried every other gambit open to his kind, demagogically pushing the public’s emotional buttons while concentrating power and the (tanking) economy in his own hands,” added Kaylan.

An Arab News report, meanwhile, said the move was interpreted as an attempt to rally voters around the ruling party.

There were also claims that this was part of Erdogan’s efforts to deepen Turkey’s Muslim identity, and hark back to the caliphate. However, some surveys that sought to gauge the emotions of the Turkish people suggested that many, even among Erdogan’s supporters, weren’t completely satisfied with the direction in which their country was heading.

Turkey-Greece animosity

Greece and Turkey are both members of the NATO alliance and meant to be allies. But centuries of animosity — dating back to the time of the Ottoman empire — has soured the relationship between the two countries. The Hagia Sophia issue has arguably worsened ties between the two neighbours, who already compete within separate spheres of influence on the island of Cyprus.

In July 2020, reports emerged that the Turkish flag was publicly burned in Greece’s Thessaloniki in response to Turkey’s decision to redesignate the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Church bells were tolled in mourning across Greece.

A Harvard International Review paper points out that not only was the Hagia Sophia considered the heart of Orthodox Christian faith, but the redesignation by Erdogan opened up old wounds between Turkey and Greece.

While Greek Christians largely accepted Ottoman rule and experienced “high levels of religious toleration”, this changed with the bloody Greek War of Independence in 1821, which was fought with the successor of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, the paper explains.

The revolt paved the way for an independent Greece in 1832, but massacres occurred on both sides of the war.

“The Hagia Sophia controversy can be understood through a historical lens as a Turkish assertion of sovereignty, coupled with Greek outrage over wounded national pride,” the paper states.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: FATF keeps Pakistan in grey list, adds Turkey, says Afghanistan ‘a concern’


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