After 80 Years As A Museum, Turkey Orders The Hagia Sophia Become A Mosque

A Turkish court has ordered that the Hagia Sophia revert back to a mosque after spending roughly eight decades as a museum.

The Hagia Sophia, constructed as a cathedral, was completed in 537 A.D. under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The church was converted into a mosque nearly a millennia later and then into a museum in the 20th century, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long supported turning the world monument back into a mosque, and after the ruling issued a decree shifting control of the Hagia Sophia from the Ministry of Culture to the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Erdogan tweeted a picture of his order out on Friday with a caption that translates, “Congratulations.”

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia has been Istanbul’s top tourist attraction, receiving about 3.7 million visitors last year. The massive structure held services for both Christians and Muslims and is revered by many in each sect. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin promised that the monument will remain open to visitors, comparing the Hagia Sophia’s new status to that of the Notre Dame in Paris, France, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

“Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship won’t keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site,” Kalin told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

Erdogan’s decision has already brought strong backlash from the international community. Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni denounced the Turkish president. The Greeks consider themselves the heirs to the Byzantine Empire under which the Hagia Sophia was first constructed.

Erdogan’s order is a “direct challenge to the entire civilized world,” Mendoni said, according to The New York Times. “President Erdogan has chosen for Turkey its cultural isolation.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey against changing the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), under which the Hagia Sophia was designated a world heritage site in 1985, released a statement asserting that the holy site is still considered a museum under UNESCO guidelines. As such, Turkey must ensure “no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property” and that the site remain open and equitable to all visitors.

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Experts on Turkish politics view Erdogan’s act as a way to bolster his flagging approval rating after 16 years leading Turkey’s government. A poll conducted last month by MetroPOOL and reported by WSJ showed that roughly a quarter of Turkish voters would view Erdogan’s political party more favorably after turning the museum to a mosque, while roughly a third that number were likely to view the president’s party unfavorably.

“It’s all about domestic politics, in order to keep together the eroding voter base,” political analyst Murat Yetkin told WSJ.

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