Wednesday 8/5/20

Hagia Sophia open for Muslim prayers after 86 years as a museum

The floor has been covered with a turquoise carpet chosen by Erdogan. Intricate mosaics of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and other Christian symbols will be veiled by curtains at prayer time. Separate areas will be set up for men and women to worship.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Hagia Sophia ahead of its controversial reopening as a mosque. Photo: Turkish Presidency/dpa.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Hagia Sophia ahead of its controversial reopening as a mosque. Photo: Turkish Presidency/dpa.

Muslim prayers will echo on Friday from Istanbul's storied Hagia Sophia, the museum that Turkey reconverted into a mosque by an internationally condemned presidential decree.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-conservative allies plan to attend the prayers at the monument built by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 537 as the largest church in Christendom.

It was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, in 1453 by Mehmet II, known as the Conqueror.

Its status was changed to a museum through a 1934 decree signed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.

Two signatures determined the monument's fate: On July 10, the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, nullified the decree signed by Ataturk which ensured Hagia Sophia's museum status for 86 years.

Hours later, Erdogan signed the order converting it into a Muslim house of worship. The "dream from his youth," had come true, he said.

Despite being in power for 17 years, Erdogan was playing to his nationalistic base, with support eroding amidst economic despair and worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Hagia Sophia is a cultural landmark for both Christians and Muslims.

Towering over Istanbul's skyline, its breathtaking domes seemingly afloat, it is also one of Turkey's most popular tourist attractions, with 3.7 million visitors in 2019.

The United States, the European Union, Russia, UNESCO and various church leaders expressed concern at the change in status. Erdogan insisted it was Turkey's "historical and sovereign right."

Secular constitution

The decision dismayed Turks who view Hagia Sophia as emblematic of their secular constitution. But it was not roundly condemned by opposition politicians.

Erdogan pledged to keep it open to tourists and welcome those of all faiths. Entry will now be free.

Top religious authority Diyanet is in charge of the mosque. Its head, Ali Erbas, said between 700 and 1,000 people would be able to pray inside on Friday while maintaining a distance of 1 metre from each ohter.

The floor has been covered with a turquoise carpet chosen by Erdogan. Intricate mosaics of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and other Christian symbols will be veiled by curtains at prayer time.

In the sprawling square outside, separate areas will be set up for men and women to worship, according to state news agency Anadolu.

Most roads to the venue will be blocked and public transport curtailed. Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya asked for people to bring four items: "Masks, prayer mats, patience and understanding."

Some 736 health personnel, 101 ambulances and a helicopter ambulance will also be available.

In May, the Koran's al-Fath sura resounded from the then-museum to commemorate the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Erdogan joined the event via videoconference.

The president, who champions Ottoman symbolism and lauds Mehmet the Conqueror, has called the conversion a "second conquest."

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