After nearly 85 years as a museum, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to revert Hagia Sophia to a mosque. In a televised interview on March 23rd, Erdogan stated ‘Hagia Sophia will no longer be memorialised as a museum. Hagia Sophia will be commemorated as a mosque […] This is our people’s expectation, and that of the Muslim world. Our people have longed to see Hagia Sophia as a mosque for years.’ The pledge preceded local elections, which took place yesterday, in an attempt to rally conservative support for the president’s AK party, also known as the Justice and Development Party.
Hagia Sophia has been a museum for the better part of the last century as a compromise for Muslims and Christians as they both have sacred ties to the historic place of worship. During Erdogan’s decade and a half of power, he has continuously rebuffed the pleas of nationalists who asked that Erdogan allow them to pray at Hagia Sophia. He continued to uphold Hagia Sophia’s position as a museum even after the people of Turkey put pressure on the government to revert the museum after it was reportedly mentioned by name in a note left by the gunman who murdered Muslim worshipers in New Zealand. The day after the New Zealand attack, Erdogan gave a speech that seemingly ruled out converting the 6th century building into a mosque. In the past, the US State Department has urged Turkey not to allow for state-sponsored Quran readings as to not encroach upon the historic sight and it’s complicated past. Last year, however, Erdogan himself recited prayers at Hagia Sophia.
If Erdogan decides to follow through with the conversion, he is likely to get a lot of backlash from various countries around the world. When Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by Byzantine emperor Justinian, it was the epicentre of religion for the Byzantine Empire. Hagia Sophia, which means ‘divine wisdom’ in Greek, remained a Greek Orthodox cathedral until Ottoman Turks took over Istanbul, historically known as Constantinople, in 1453 the cathedral was declared the imperial mosque by Sultan Mehmet II. It would remain as Istanbul’s principle mosque until 1616 when the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque, was completed. Hagia Sophia was then turned into a museum in 1935 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic, pronounced it so. In Erdogan’s interview, he said that Ataturk’s choice was ‘a great mistake.’
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has condemned speculation from Erdogan to convert the museum into a mosque. Additionally, converting the museum could endanger Hagia Sophia’s standing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If changes were made to Hagia Sophia’s stance as a museum, its ‘outstanding universal value’ could be in jeopardy.
‘It is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries,’ said George Katrougalos, Greek Foreign Minister, ‘it also belongs to humanity. It has been recognized by UNESCO as part of our global cultural heritage […] So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law.’
In elections on March 31st, Erdogan remained in favour in Turkish local elections garnering 51% of votes despite losing Ankara and barely remaining in favour in Istanbul, itself.