ISTANBUL — Since it was constructed within the sixth century, altering palms from empire to empire, Hagia Sophia has been a Byzantine cathedral, a mosque below the Ottomans and eventually a museum, making it one of the world’s most potent symbols of Christian-Muslim rivalry and of Turkey’s more moderen devotion to secularism.
Now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making strikes to declare it a working mosque as soon as extra, fulfilling a dream for himself, his supporters and conservative Muslims far past Turkey’s shores — however threatening to set off a world furor.
The very concept of altering the monument’s standing has escalated tensions with Turkey’s longtime rival, Greece; upset Christians world wide; and set off a refrain of dismay from political and non secular leaders as various as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Mr. Erdogan’s opponents say he has raised the problem of restoring Hagia Sophia as a mosque each time he has confronted a political disaster, utilizing it to stir supporters in his nationalist and conservative non secular base.
But given the severity of the challenges Mr. Erdogan faces after 18 years on the helm of Turkish politics, there could also be extra cause than ever to take the speak severely. Having misplaced Istanbul in native elections final 12 months, the president has watched the standing of his social gathering proceed to slide within the polls as the Covid-19 pandemic has additional undone a vulnerable economy.
On July 2, a Turkish administrative court docket dominated on whether or not to restore Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, its Turkish identify, as a mosque, and revoke an 80-year outdated decree that declared it a museum below Turkey’s secular state. The ruling will likely be introduced inside two weeks, after which Mr. Erdogan is predicted to make the ultimate choice.
For greater than 25 years since he turned mayor of Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan has been working to depart his stamp on his beloved house metropolis. He cleaned up the Golden Horn, constructed bridges and tunnels throughout the well-known waters and positioned new mosques on the most distinguished websites.
But it’s Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest and architecturally one of probably the most spectacular cathedrals on the planet, that instructions delight of place on the historic peninsula.
Completed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia stood for practically a millennium on the coronary heart of the Christian world, crowning the fabled metropolis of Constantinople. It is unsurpassed for its grandeur and immense dome.
In 1453, Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, and though his troops plundered what they may carry, the constructing was saved and was a mosque. For 500 years it was the commemorated heart of the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Turks document with delight that Ottoman rulers doted on the good constructing, assigning the most effective architects to embellish it. Minarets have been added, and later the good Ottoman architect Sinan constructed huge buttresses to forestall the partitions from buckling below the load of the dome, which was broken in earthquakes.
With the autumn of the Ottoman Empire, the standing of Hagia Sophia modified once more. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the fashionable secular republic of Turkey, ended the position of faith within the state and closed non secular establishments. Byzantine church buildings, together with Hagia Sophia, have been made into museums, ending their non secular operate and opening them up for tourism, conservation and examine.
But Mr. Erdogan’s supporters converse of the constructing because the third holiest website in Islam, after the Grand Mosque of Mecca and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and demand that when a mosque it ought to by no means be unconsecrated.
Mr. Erdogan, who comes from a conservative Muslim custom, has overseen a regular chipping away of the secular guidelines of the Ataturk republic, with a concerted effort to revive the glories of the Ottoman period.
At the top of May, he gave his strongest sign but on Hagia Sophia, as he opened — remotely, as a result of of the coronavirus — a ceremony and sound-and-light present to commemorate the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim military of Mehmed II the Conqueror.
For the primary time in additional than 80 years, an imam seated on a carpeted dais earlier than a copy of the Quran recited the verse referred to as the Conquest surah, which celebrates the Treaty of Hudaibiyah between the individuals of Mecca and Medina.
The recitation upset many. The Foreign Ministry of Greece, which sees itself because the inheritor to the Byzantine Empire — which was Greek-speaking and Christian — denounced it as unacceptable and a breach of Hagia Sophia’s standing as a world heritage website below UNESCO.
The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, who’s the non secular chief of the Eastern Orthodox Church from his seat in Istanbul, mentioned the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would disappoint hundreds of thousands of Christians world wide and would divide Muslims and Christians when it had been a place of worship for each.
“We consider it as detrimental,” he mentioned in a sermon final week, “for Hagia Sophia, which, due to its dedication to the Wisdom of God is a point of encounter and a source of fascination for the faithful of both religions, to become, in the 21st century, a cause of confrontation and conflict.”
He urged the Turks to honor what he described as their obligation to the world. “The Turkish people have the great responsibility and the highest honor to give prominence to the universality of this exquisite monument,” he mentioned.
Mr. Pompeo urged Turkey earlier than the court docket listening to to respect the various traditions and faiths of Turkey’s historical past and preserve Hagia Sophia as a museum accessible to all.
Many in Turkey see the whole debate as a political ploy by Mr. Erdogan to stay forward of his many rivals, particularly as former members of his Justice and Development Party have damaged away to type their very own political events and threaten to draw away some of his conservative Muslim base.
He has made it a nationalist challenge, lashing out at Greece for interfering in his nation’s affairs and insisting that Turkey was continuing in accordance to the legislation.
“Is it you managing Turkey or us?” he mentioned. “Turkey has its own institutions.”
His nationalist coalition ally Devlet Bahceli weighed in with a speech on the identical day: “Hagia Sophia is the conquest Mosque of the Muslim Turkish nation. This truth will not change.”
“This shows that there is something catching fire, something burning in the dynamics of this country,” Mr. Erdogan added.
Even a former member of Mr. Erdogan’s cupboard, Ertugrul Gunay, who served as minister of tradition for 5 years, mentioned Mr. Erdogan was making a fanfare over Hagia Sophia solely to present he was nonetheless grasp of Istanbul after his electoral loss.
“The need to be more visible in Istanbul and to claim ownership of certain rituals about history and religion emerged,” he mentioned in a tv interview.
“There are multitudes of grand mosques spread throughout Istanbul,” he added in a textual content message. “This discussion of Hagia Sophia to be converted to a mosque done by the conservatives of Turkey is an old and unnecessary discussion.”
Beyond politics, artwork historians and conservationists fear that they may lose entry for examine and analysis if the monument turns into a working mosque, and vacationer corporations and metropolis authorities worry that guests will likely be deterred from coming. The monument is probably the most visited vacationer website in Turkey, with 3.7 million guests final 12 months.
“I am more interested in preserving Hagia Sophia as a cultural treasure,” mentioned Zeynep Ahunbay, a conservation architect who has labored on the scientific committee for Hagia Sophia for 25 years. “The best way to preserve and present it is by the museum function.”
The biggest fear is what is going to occur to the incomparable medieval mosaics, amongst them depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, alongside uncommon portraits of imperial figures together with Emperor Justinian I and Empress Zoe, one of the few girls to rule in her personal proper.
The mosaics have been whitewashed for the greater than 5 centuries throughout Ottoman rule — the depiction of the human type being thought-about idolatry — and have been uncovered and restored solely after Hagia Sophia was was a museum within the 1930s.
“We don’t know what will happen to the mosaics and frescos,” mentioned Faruk Pekin, founder of Fest Travel, which makes a speciality of cultural excursions and led 80 nighttime excursions of Hagia Sophia final 12 months.
One of the delights of touring the constructing at night time, he mentioned, was that the dome appears even bigger and the gold mosaics gleam extra brilliantly within the dim gentle. Visitors pay double for the nighttime tour, and most of his prospects are Turkish, he mentioned.
If the museum turns into a mosque, the mosaics can have to be lined throughout Muslim prayers by some means, together with seraphs excessive up on the base of the dome. Tourists and non-Muslims could also be restricted to sure areas, he mentioned.
“I still hope it will not happen.”