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Turkey Converts Istanbul's Iconic Hagia Sophia Back Into A Mosque

Jul 10, 2020
Originally published on July 10, 2020 8:18 pm

Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the Hagia Sophia museum, one of Istanbul's most famous landmarks, to be converted into a mosque.

He made the announcement on Friday, hours after a top court cleared the way for him to make the change.

The Hagia Sophia, a major draw for tourists, has a long and complicated history. The architectural marvel was built as a church by the Byzantines in the 6th century and then converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

In 1934, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Cabinet decreed that it be turned into a museum. It is widely regarded as a symbol of peaceful religious coexistence.

Friday's court ruling invalidates the 1934 decree. It grants Turkey's president the authority to restore the museum to its status as a working mosque. The decision said the site is listed as a mosque in its title deed and that cannot be changed, Turkey's Anadolu news agency reported.

Erdogan had previously signaled that he intended to make that change. In his decision Friday, he said the site would be transferred to the Directorate of Religious Affairs and will be open for worship.

In a speech later that day, he said the mosque would open for Friday prayers on July 24.

The president added that the mosque would remain open to non-Muslims. It will "continue to embrace everyone," Anadolu quoted Erdogan as saying.

When Hagia Sophia issued the Muslim call to prayer on Friday afternoon, a crowd in the nearby plaza broke out in cheers, an Anadolu video showed. The museum has been broadcasting the call to prayer for several years.

The Turkish government has "allowed Quran readings there on special occasions" in recent years, Anadolu reported.

Previously, a presidential spokesman offered assurances that no changes would be made to the interior. The domed site retains its Christian iconography, and minarets were added during its time as a mosque.

The possible change to the museum's status has been widely condemned internationally.

"As museum, Hagia Sophia can function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam," wrote Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians.

He warned that the museum is a place where "East is embraced with the West" — and if converted, it would "fracture these two worlds."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that converting the Hagia Sophia would limit "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."

Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor focused on geopolitics and religion at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said the Hagia Sophia decision was a "tragedy, quite candidly, although it's not surprising."

The Hagia Sophia, she said, "has been a lightning rod for a synthesis of religio-nationalism and instrumentalized as a symbol by the Erdogan government."

"It's just another example of the long pattern now of Turkey's turn away from its commitments as a member of the NATO Western alliance, and its commitment to the norms that are associated with democracy," Prodromou added.

On Friday, the plaza in front of the Hagia Sophia, normally packed with visitors standing in long lines to get in, was nearly empty, after officials warned against large public gatherings that could spread the coronavirus. Visitors strolled in and out of the building without waiting.

A 32-year-old man named Sahib held his prayer mat and said he made the trip to the Hagia Sophia in hopes of performing Friday midday Muslim prayers there. Speaking before the decision was announced, he said, "I am hoping the Council of State reverses this wrong decision, so we can do our prayers in the Hagia Sophia." He said he'd be back next Friday to pray.

Elena, a Russian on her first visit to Istanbul, said she doesn't favor converting the museum back into a working mosque. "Well, even being Muslim myself," she said, "I think it still has to stay as a museum."

She said visiting the Hagia Sophia was an unexpectedly thrilling part of her visit.

"As I was about to enter, I didn't expect that I would feel so excited," she said. "It was really breathtaking."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Despite international opposition, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today ordered the sixth-century Hagia Sophia museum to return to its former status as a mosque, something it hasn't been in nearly a century. Erdogan says it will be open to all free of charge. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: That's the sound of the Muslim call to this afternoon's prayer emanating, as it has in recent years, from the minarets around the Hagia Sophia. It was originally built as a magnificent Byzantine church, with a massive dome and brilliant Christian mosaics. Ottoman Turks added the minarets following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Now today's shift is the latest twist in a saga that's stretched for nearly 1,500 years. Erdogan signed the presidential decree hours after a Turkish court released its ruling that a 1934 decision by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk converting the then-mosque into a museum was illegal.

Standing outside the Hagia Sophia just hours before Erdogan signed his decree, a young woman from Russia who only wanted to give her first name - Elena - said after her, quote, "breathtaking visit" she hoped the change wouldn't happen.

ELENA: Well, even being Muslim myself, I think it still has to stay as a museum.

KENYON: She said in this time of polarization, she didn't want to see another decision that could drive people apart. Standing nearby, a young history student named Kaan Korkan had a more practical worry.

KAAN KORKAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: Apart from whether it's a museum a church or a mosque, he said, we need to consider that this is a very old building barely standing. They need to help it withstand large crowds. Elizabeth Prodromou directs the Religion and Diplomacy program at Tufts University's Fletcher School. She calls this decision a tragedy motivated by what she calls Erdogan's need to play to his conservative base and change the subject from his party's recent electoral defeats and a slumping economy.

ELIZABETH PRODROMOU: So this is part and parcel of neo-Ottoman foreign policy melded with his base, which is a nationalist, Islamist base.

KENYON: Both Greece and Russia condemned the move. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had urged Turkey to reconsider. The U.N.'s culture agency UNESCO confirms that in light of the change, it will review Hagia Sophia's status as a World Heritage Site. Erdogan promises to keep the Hagia Sophia open to all. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF D NUMBERS' "XYLEM UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.