ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday led the first prayers attended by thousands in Hagia Sophia since the iconic Istanbul cathedral was converted back into a mosque.
The Unesco World Heritage site in 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 1453.
The Council of State, the highest administrative court, on July 10 unanimously cancelled a 1934 decision by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to turn it into a museum, saying it was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.
Erdogan then swiftly ordered the building to reopen for Muslim worship, deeply angering the Christian community and further straining relations with Nato ally Greece.
He recited a verse from the Holy Quran on Friday while wearing an Islamic skullcap after earlier recitations from the holy book in the morning inside Hagia Sophia.
The sounds of the call to prayer from its four minarets reverberated around the area and on Turkish television screens.
Erdogan said 350,000 people had taken part in the prayer in and around Hagia Sophia, but it was not possible to independently verify the figure.
The head of the state religious affairs agency, Ali Erbas, later delivered the Friday sermon inside Hagia Sophia, holding a sword as a symbol of conquest.
“The reopening of Hagia Sophia... is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function,” Erbas told the congregation.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, tight crowds formed on Friday morning around the landmark. Several people had spent the night in the area.
The prayer was also attended by Erdogan’s ally and the leader of the ultranationalist MHP, Devlet Bahceli, but none of the leaders of the opposition parties participated.
The two men also visited the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II who conquered the city in 1453.
One of those attending Friday’s prayer came especially from the Aegean region of Izmir.
“We see this as the second conquest of Istanbul,” Selahattin Pamukcu, 33, told AFP.
Experts say Erdogan’s move to reconvert Hagia Sophia is an attempt to galvanise his conservative and nationalist base amid economic uncertainty exacerbated by the virus outbreak.
Erdogan’s decision has also undone part of the secular legacy of Ataturk, who wanted Hagia Sophia as a museum so as to “offer it to humanity”.
The timing of the first prayer is significant. Friday is the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set modern Turkey’s borders after years of conflict with Greece and Western powers.
Erdogan, who professes nostalgia for the Ottoman empire, has called for the treaty’s revision in recent years.
For many Muslims, the reconversion was a landmark event.
“This is the moment when Turkey breaks its chains. Now it can do whatever it wants, without having to submit to the West,” Selahattin Aydas, from Germany, said.
But the Friday prayer is set against a backdrop of tense relations between Nato allies Ankara and Athens, particularly related to Turkish hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Greece has strongly denounced the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, seeing it as a provocation to the “entire civilised world”.
“What is happening in (Istanbul) this day is not a show of force, but proof of weakness,” Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a statement.
“Especially to us Orthodox Christians, Hagia Sophia today is in our hearts more than ever. It is where our heart beats.”
Church bells around Greece pealed at midday on Friday with their flags at half-mast to protest what the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, has called an “unholy act of defiling” the former cathedral.
Ankara rejects international criticism in the name of “sovereignty” and insists tourists will still be able to visit the mosque and see the mosaics.
Around 3.8 million tourists visited Hagia Sophia last year.
But not everyone was happy. Israfil, who sells carpets in a shop near Hagia Sophia, was critical of the “sensational manner” in which the reconversion took place.
“All this show is for political, electoral reasons,” said Israfil who did not wish to give his full name, adding: “This same crowd won’t be here next week.” Some experts are concerned about the speed of the conversion as turquoise carpet was laid for the faithful to pray.
The Byzantine mosaics, plastered over for centuries when the building served as a mosque, will be hidden by curtains during prayer times since Islam bans figurative representations.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2020