Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part on Friday in the first juma prayers, after 86 years, at Hagia Sophia since the Istanbul landmark was reconverted to a mosque despite international condemnation.
Earlier on July 10, a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century monument’s status as a museum, that had been declared under Kemal Attaturk in 1934, and Erdogan ordered the building to reopen for Muslim worship, deeply angering the Christian community and further straining relations with NATO ally Greece.
First Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia mosque
The UNESCO World Heritage site in historic Istanbul was first built as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in May 1453, under Mehmet 2.
Some 3.8 million tourists visited the beautiful museum last year.
Muslims will hold Friday prayers at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for the first time in 86 years.
TRT World looks back at one of the most historic monuments in the world. pic.twitter.com/2yrsrSxV05
— TRT World (@trtworld) July 24, 2020
The Council of State, the highest administrative court, unanimously cancelled a 1934 decision by Turkey’s modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to turn it into a museum, saying it was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.
Read more: Turkey honours Hagia Sophia by converting it in to a Mosque
The head of Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, Ali Erbas, said on Wednesday that up to 1,000 people could take part in the Friday prayer, which will be preceded by a Koran recital.
Leaders and officials from several Muslim-majority countries were invited, including Qatar and Azerbaijan, Turkish media reported.
Nearly 20,000 security forces will be in the area to ensure the first prayer takes place without incident.
Historians express fear at preservation
The concern now for historians is over the preservation of Hagia Sophia.
Architects and builders have been working night and day to meet the Friday deadline, with scaffolding visible inside the monument and turquoise carpet laid for the faithful to pray.
I have prayed 2 rekah namaz for the freedom of Kashmir in Hagia Sophia… Dedicated to Kashmir and Pakistan pic.twitter.com/yCRsBlZYPb
— Ali ŞAHİN (@AliSahin501) July 24, 2020
Some experts are concerned about the speed of the conversion.
Read more: Hagia Sophia sparks Muslim-Christian fury once again
“(Two weeks) does not allow enough time to adequately consult with experts, deliberate, discuss and… come up with a sustainable strategy to preserve Hagia Sophia for future generations,” Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, of the University of Pittsburgh, told AFP.
“Steps taken in haste… can cause irreversible damage to this World Heritage site and its spectacular art,” Erdemir added.
Turkey allays concerns: authorities will “avoid harm”
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin vowed last Sunday that the authorities would “avoid harming the frescoes, icons and the historic architecture of the edifice”.
The Byzantine mosaics, plastered over for centuries when the building served as a mosque in the Ottoman Empire, will be hidden with curtains during prayer times since Islam bans figurative representations.
“Not a single nail will be hammered,” Erbas promised.
Erdogan’s decision has undone part of the secular legacy of Ataturk, who wanted Hagia Sophia as a museum so as to “offer it to humanity”.
Read more: Muslim world hails Hagia Sophia conversion
The timing of the first prayer is significant. Friday will be the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set modern Turkey’s borders after years of conflict with Greece and Western powers.
Erdogan has called for the treaty’s revision in recent years.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said Wednesday that the Hagia Sophia conversion was “not a Greek-Turkish dispute” and Athens would “highlight the issue through international initiatives”.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: a political base in Islam
Born in February 1954, Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up the son of a coastguard, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. When he was 13, his father decided to move to Istanbul, hoping to give his five children a better upbringing. He spent his evening reciting the Quran and was a keen student of Turkish Islamic scholars who called for an abandonment of the Turkish Union with the West and instead for Turkey’s realignment with the East, especially with the newly formed countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University .
Mr Erdogan has repeatedly denied wanting to impose Islamic values, saying he is committed to secularism. But he supports Turks’ right to express their religion more openly.
Read more: Erdogan’s dangerous populist gamble at home
Some supporters nicknamed him “Sultan” – harking back to the Ottoman Empire.
In October 2013 Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions – with the exception of the judiciary, military and police – ending a decades-old restriction.
Critics also pointed to Mr Erdogan’s failed bid to criminalise adultery, and his attempts to introduce “alcohol-free zones”, as evidence of his Muslim revivalist roots.
A father of four, he has said “no Muslim family” should consider birth control or family planning. “We will multiply our descendants,” he said in May 2016.
Hagia Sophia conversion: Erdogan harkens back to Ottoman Power
The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was an old dream of Turkey’s Islamists. In the Islamist political tradition of President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, Ataturk’s experiment in secular republican government was a foreign imposition on Turkey, and the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum a seal on the country’s spirit.
After 1950, when the Kemalist regime held the country’s first free elections, its political enemies began to organize. Ataturk had died more than a decade before, and the power of his memory was gradually waning.
When Mr. Kisakurek, the powerful Islamist poet, raised the rallying cry for the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 1965, it is likely that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at that time a child, would have heard the poet’s call. It is a point to be noted that Erdogan is President of Turkey because of his Islamist base, and this move has allowed him to position himself as a defender of Islam, thereby further solidifying his base.
Read more: Muslim world hails Hagia Sophia conversion
When Mr. Erdogan addressed Turkey on July 10 after the court’s judgment, he cited Mr. Kisakurek’s 1965 Hagia Sophia Conference and cited the other poets as well. The Turkish president wanted the entire nation, not just the Islamists, to make the spiritual journey with him.
In this address to the nation, Mr. Erdogan did not mention Ataturk by name. He did not have to. He quoted at length Mehmet the Conqueror’s will, which states that whoever changes the status of the Hagia Sophia “has committed the most grave sin of all” and that “the curse of God, the Prophet, the angels and all rulers and all Muslims shall forever be upon him. May their suffering not lighten, may none look at their face on the day of Hajj.”
Thus, it can be seen that Erdogan is masterfully crafting a narrative using the conversion of Hagia Sophia to position himself as the reincarnation of the Ottoman Sultans. Both of these are deeply imbedded into the Turkish psyche and are a rallying cause for Turks worldwide.
GVS News Desk with additional input by other sources