By: Elissar Zabaneh
The Hagia Sophia that stands today was initially built as the cathedral for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as Byzantine), during the reign of Roman emperor Justinian I, it was the largest interior space and the first to employ a fully pendentive dome. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of Architecture. Hagia Sophia became a mosque in 1453 with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.
It remained a Muslim house of worship until the early 20th century when the Turkish government secularized the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum in 1934. More than 50 years later, UNESCO included Hagia Sophia as part of its Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site.
In 2005, a group petitioned Turkey's Council of State, the country's high administrative court, claiming the historic structure originally belonged to a foundation established by Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman leader who conquered Constantinople in 1453.
The July 10 decision, does not mean that the Hagia Sophia will immediately close to secular visitors and become a full-time place of worship. Erdogan signed a decree annulling the Hagia Sophia’s museum status, reverting it to a mosque. The call to prayer was broadcast from the minarets shortly after the announcement of the change and rebroadcast by major Turkish news networks. The Hagia Sophia Museum’s social media channels were taken down the same day, with Erdogan announcing at a press conference that prayers would be held there from July 24, 2020.
The speech began at 20:53, with some Turkish media reporting that the specific time was chosen in advance, as it symbolizes the year 2053 and 600 years since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
A presidential spokesperson said it would become a working mosque, open to anyone similar to the Parisian churches Sacré-Cœur and Notre-Dame. The spokesperson also said that the change would not affect the status of the Hagia Sophia as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and that "Christian icons" within it would continue to be protected.
Sharon Gerstel, a professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at UCLA, told National Geographic, that while the decision has provoked an international outcry, much remains unknown about what next steps may be taken with the status of Hagia Sophia.
"It still remains a symbol for all Orthodox Christians—it's the centre to which their compass points," Gerstel observes. "So any threat to the building will raise a lot of passions."
"Personally, I think people need to sit back and see what this week is going to hold in terms of what we will be told, but I think there needs to be a lot of clarification about what Erdogan intends to do," she added.
Concerns over Art at Hagia Sophia
Many of the concerns regarding the change in status of the Hagia Sophia centers on the future of the stunning Byzantine paintings and mosaics that attracted 3.7 million visitors to the building just last year. During its centuries as a mosque, many of the Christian-era interior decorations that violated Muslim proscriptions against the depiction of living beings were plastered or otherwise covered over, only to be revealed again during restoration work once the building became a secular museum.
“It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try and obliterate the images,” says Gerstel, noting that most of the images—apart from the soaring Virgin and Child in the apse, and a few depictions of Christ and other biblical figures in the galleries—are of members of the Byzantine Imperial court. “It is the top tourist destination in Turkey. I think they would be very leery of losing that revenue.”