On July 10, the President of Turkey made an announcement by formally converting the 6th century Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque. It is also declared to be open for worship for Muslims. This decision is being celebrated grandly in the Muslim community.

 

Source: Shutterstock

 

But questions arise as to why this decision has managed to cause a huge controversy amongst international leaders? What is the history as well as the significance of the Hagia Sophia? Why this decision is leading to divisions amongst various religious groups?

Here’s a breakdown for the same.

The Historical Significance of Hagia Sophia

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During the 6th Century, Hagia Sophia was built by Emperor Justinian of Byzantine. It served as a place of worship for Christians for around 1,000 years. Then, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople through a bloody siege.

Being the largest cathedral of the world for hundreds of years, the Byzantine emperors were crowned at the same place. They sought blessings from the Greek Orthodox Church which was adorned with mosaic decorations and ornate marbles. Post the downfall of Constantinople, it was renamed Istanbul by the Turks. The famous cathedral was turned into a mosque. The Turkish architects installed the minarets which now highlight the sky of Istanbul.

After the fallout of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, the secular government of Turkey converted the historic building into a museum in 1934. This was made possible by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the famous secularist of Turkey. Since 1935, this famous museum has managed to attract a good number of tourists

 

The Mosaic of the Apse at Hagia Sophia

Source: GreekReporter

Various Mosaics that depicted Mary, Christian saints, and the Holy Jesus were discovered due to excellent restoration work carried out for the museum. These mosaics were said to be covered in plasters highlighting the Islamic rules. Until recently, Hagia Sophia was amongst the popular museums of Turkey. In 2019, the museum attracted around 3.7 million tourists.

On 11th July 2020, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey formally converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The Muslim prayers will also be resumed in the compound within the next two weeks. The officials of Turkey have given statements that the site will remain open to everyone and that the Christian mosaics and icons will not be damaged.

What will Hagia Sophia function as?

A copy of the decree signed by the President was posted on Twitter.

Source: Twitter

As soon as the administrative court of Turkey annulled the 1934 cabinet decision which had converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree which handed the museum to the Religious Affairs Presidency of Turkey.

The President also stated that the first prayers will be held on 24th July inside Hagia Sofia and has urged everyone to respect the decision made. In addition, he also stated that Turkey has the sovereign right to decide as to what purpose Hagia Sofia should be used for.

However, the declaration of the site as a Mosque which previously served as a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims is now being viewed as marking the place exclusively for Muslims. However, the President has rejected such claims.

He rather stated that just like all other mosques of Turkey, Hagia Sophia will always be open to all foreigners and locals, Non- Muslims, and Muslims.

Mr. Erdogan, who is a known devout Muslim has always raised the issue of Hagia Sophia to gather strong support for his Islamic-based party. In the last few years, Islamic prayers have also been held in the Hagia Sophia. In 2018, Erdogen had also recited the Quran’s opening verse to demonstrate a symbolic move.

What celebrations followed this decision?

As soon as the formal announcement was made about the status of Hagia Sophia, jubilation broke outside Hagia Sophia. Hundreds of people chanted the greatness of Allah as soon as the court ruled out the decision. A prayer was also offered outside of Hagia Sophia by the huge gathering.

Even a few legislators stood out in Ankara and applauded the decision which was announced in the Parliament.

What criticism is this decision receiving internationally?

The decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque has received global backlash. Kirill, the patriarch of Russia is of the opinion that this move is a serious threat to the entire Christian Civilization. Pope Francis stated on Sunday that just thinking about St. Sophia is now quite painful.

UNESCO also issued a statement to the authorities in Turkey against taking up any decision which can impact the site’s universal value. This decision has managed to attract criticism even from the US and Greece administration.

Few critics such as Orhan Pamuk are also of the opinion that this move is a blow to the secularism of Turkey.

However, Erdogan, the Turkish President, has managed to shrug off such complaints by stating that this bold exhibition is an exercise of the sovereignty of Turkey. Even the country’s opposition parties of Turkey have not reacted strongly to this decision.

 

We may just have to wait and see how this historical decision will affect Turkey’s relations with its neighbors and other international allies.

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