Istanbul, Hagia Sophia mosque

86 years later, Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque again

Thousands of faithful, including President Erdoğan, attended a historic event on Friday in which the Muslim call to prayer resounded in Hagia Sophia 86 years later.

Thousands and thousands of people gathered this Friday inside and outside the historic Hagia Sophia to participate in the first Muslim prayer after its conversion into a mosque, after 86 years operating as a museum, in a massive ceremony attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and also members of the opposition.

Thousands of faithful also from other cities in Turkey gathered from early Friday morning for this historic day, possible after a ruling by the State Council on July 10 -following a lawsuit filed by a cultural association- declared that the conversion in 1934 of Hagia Sophia -which had been a mosque since the fall of Constantinople in 1453– into a museum under the Atatürk government, had been illegal.

Strict security measures were taken around the historic Byzantine building, with the police establishing a cordoned off area on several streets around Hagia Sophia that was only allowed access after going through a security check and verifying that a mask was worn and proceeding to disinfecting hands.

From the air, the images taken with drones showed both Sultanahmet Square and the surrounding streets full of faithful, who attended the historic ceremony in such a mass that many even had to attend prayer from the Yenikapı square, located 2 kilometres away from Hagia Sophia.

Among the politicians who were seen attending the event were former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, and the former presidential candidate and chairman of the opposition party CHP parliamentary group, Muharrem İnce. The president of the MHP nationalist party, Devlet Bahçeli, also participated in the Muslim prayer; for her part, the president of the İYİ Parti, Meral Akşener, who initially planned to attend, could not do so because she was quarantined by COVID-19. However, CHP President Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu declined the invitation to attend.

Great security measures to access Sultanahmet

In total, 11 access control points were established in which the temperature of the attendees was also taken, as well as 17 health care points with 736 members of the medical staff supported by 101 vehicles and a helicopter. For its part, the Istanbul City Council also took measures by providing free transportation to Hagia Sophia and distributing free water, masks, hand sanitiser and disposable prayer rugs.

Within Hagia Sophia, the floor of the temple had been covered days ago according to Islamic tradition with a huge carpet, in this case green in color and decorated with 17th century Ottoman motifs; the icons, mosaics and religious images were covered with a system of retractable curtains during the Muslim prayer, but they will remain uncovered and visible the rest of the time so that they can be admired by visitors.

President Erdoğan himself, dressed as another faithful, was present during the Muslim prayer inside Hagia Sophia and even had the opportunity to recite some verses from the Koran in public, before the call to prayer resounded in the Ottoman minarets of Hagia Sophia for the first time in 86 years.

Ali Erbaş, president of Turkey’s Office of Religious Affairs (Diyanet, a state institution that is the highest religious authority for Muslims in Turkey), led the Friday prayer, while two imams and four muezzins have been assigned to serve in Hagia Sophia; following the ancient Ottoman tradition, the two imams are reputed experts in Islamic theology and have also won several international Quran recitation competitions.

How will Hagia Sophia work from now on?

Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox Byzantine basilica for 916 years -except for the interval when, after the conquest and sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, it served as a Catholic cathedral for several decades- until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when it was consecrated by Sultan Mehmet II as a mosque, a function that it maintained for almost five centuries until in 1934 it was reopened as a museum.

Now that it’s opening again as a mosque, Hagia Sophia will be managed in terms of religious services by the Turkish Office of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), while the Ministry of Culture and Tourism will continue to be in charge of managing the restoration and conservation works on the building.

One of the most visited monuments by tourists travelling to Turkey, and an inseparable part of the historical silhouette of Istanbul, in 1985 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Like the rest of the mosques in Turkey, now it can be visited for free by people of any faith except during the five daily Muslim prayers, during which the Christian images and icons of the interior will be covered.