Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, mosque entrance

One year since the reopening of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as a mosque

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, tourists and faithful now share this temple built 1,500 years ago by Justinian.

Tomorrow marks one year since the reopening of the Hagia Sophia, an icon of Istanbul, as a mosque after 86 years functioning as a museum: a decision that today still has opinions for and against inside and outside Turkey, but which has not affected to visits to this magnificent monument almost 1,500 years old, one of the most visited by tourists.

Despite the fact that the last year has been marked by restrictions on activities and travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hagia Sophia has received more than 3 million visits, according to official data; the building, like the rest of the mosques, remained open despite the restrictions in Turkey by COVID-19 while most of the museums were closed.

Due to its reopening as a mosque, Hagia Sophia now has some extra incentives for those who wish to visit it as tourists: on the one hand, its opening hours are longer – it can also be visited at night – than when it functioned as a museum; but in addition, now the entrance is totally free.

Tourists and faithful now share Hagia Sophia

Some visitors have complained in the last year that access was restricted to some areas, such as the upper floor; however, this measure was related to some restoration works, and not to the function as a mosque of the building itself.

Others, however, regret that the curtains covering the religious icons in the dome above the mihrab, which had been announced to remain visible outside prayer hours – Islam prohibits images of people – are normally closed also to the public during visits.

Despite the difficulties of the last year, it is estimated that throughout 2020 and 2021 Hagia Sophia received an average of 5,000 visits from tourists during weekdays, and about 12,000 visits during weekends, although due to the pandemic, the use of a mask and maintenance of social distance are still mandatory.

The temple is especially appreciated by Muslim faithful, and on occasions – especially in prayer after noon – up to 1,500 people can gather to pray: a figure that triples during Friday prayers, in which many faithful have to settle in Sultanahmet due to lack of space inside.

In 1985 Hagia Sophia was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO

Hagia Sophia was built under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I; consecrated on December 26, 537, it is said that Justinian, marveling at the building, exclaimed when he saw it “Solomon, I have defeated you“, referring to the famous temple in Jerusalem built by the Israeli king.

The temple continued to function as an Orthodox Byzantine basilica for 916 years – except when after the conquest and sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 it functioned as a Catholic cathedral for several decades – until the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453; then, Sultan Mehmet II converted it into a mosque, a function that it maintained for almost five centuries until it was reopened as a museum in 1934.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, on July 10, 2020, a Turkish court declared the decree that in 1934 turned it into a museum illegal, so after 86 years the call to prayer sounded again in Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, already re-consecrated as a mosque.