Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to turn Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia museum into a place of worship has been met with dissent, with leaders and organisations across the world urging the statesman to reconsider the move or at least consider discussing it. From the Pope to the UNESCO to even Turkey’s very own celebrated author Orhan Pamuk, everyone has looked at this decision with disfavour.
The apex court of the nation unanimously cancelled a 1934 Turkish cabinet decision to celebrate Hagia Sophia’s legacy and turn it into a museum on the ground that the colossal monument was registered as a mosque in its property deeds. While Turkey has defended its decision by virtue of it being well within its sovereign rights, one must also understand why so many churches and world leaders are opposed to changing the status of the sixth-century building.
To really get to the core of the contention, one must take a relook at its history.
The huge structure that Hagia Sophia is, was constructed 1,500 years ago, in the year 537, by Byzantine emperor Justinian. He had constructed a massive church overlooking the Golden Horn harbour. It had a huge dome and was considered the world’s largest church.
It remained a property of the Byzantine Empire for centuries until the year 1453, when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and performed Friday prayers inside the structure to celebrate his victory.
In no time, the Ottomans converted Hagia Sophia entirely into a mosque and added four minarets (a telling feature of Islamic structures) to the exterior. The ornate Christian décor and gold mosaics were covered with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy.
Again, for centuries it remained as a property of the orthodox Muslim Ottoman empire, until the year 1934, when it was turned into a museum during a political drive to give a secular makeover to Turkey.
Essentially, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish state, turned Hagia Sophia into the popular tourist site that it is now, attracting more than 3.5 million visitors per year.
Fifty years later, the UNESCO recognised it as a part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site.
However, within a few years, in the year 2005, a petition was filed in Turkey’s Council of State, claiming that the Hagia Sophia museum originally belonged to a foundation established by Sultan Mehmed II. Thus began the controversy over the 1,500-year-old monument that is revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
Erdogan has assured that though Hagia Sophia will be open to prayers starting July 24, it will still be accessible to tourists across the world. However, one must note that no time was spared before taking down Hagia Sophia’s social media channels.