Posted on July 10, 2020

From Museum Back to Mosque: Turkish Court Defies Global Pressure in Ruling on Iconic Hagia Sophia

Saphora Smith, et al., NBC News, July 10, 2020

A court ruled Friday that Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia can be converted from a world-famous museum back into a mosque, in a big victory for the Islamic conservatism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s top administrative court, the Council of State, said that a 1934 decision to convert what was then a mosque into the museum was unlawful, according to Reuters, paving the way for its restoration as an Islamic place of worship despite international concerns.

“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” the Council of State said, the news agency reported.

The president had proposed restoring the UNESCO World Heritage site into a mosque, placing the almost 1,500-year-old building at the center of a struggle between those who want to preserve Turkey’s secular roots and the president’s aspirations.

Erdogan signed a presidential decree Friday that said the Hagia Sophia would be handed over to the directorate of religious affairs, a government department, which would open it up to worshipers. {snip}

The sixth-century structure was the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral before it was changed into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic in the 20th century, then turned the majestic domed building into a museum that attracts millions of tourists each year.


“Mehmet the Conqueror took the holy city with his sword, he always wanted Hagia Sophia to be a mosque,” Ozlem Kaya, 52, a homemaker from Istanbul, said ahead of the decision, referring to the 15th-century Ottoman sultan who captured the city, then known as Constantinople.

“With Erdogan, Turkey will be a more powerful country in the near future,” she said by telephone. “There is no need to be secular anymore.”

The Hagia Sophia site has been a part of a centuries-old struggle over the identity of the region that sits on the fault line between the East and the West, and between Christianity and Islam.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said ahead of the ruling that converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque will “disappoint millions of Christians around the world” and will “fracture” the East and the West.