By / Aug 24

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that he will convert the longstanding landmark in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, back to a mosque after being a museum for over 80 years. This announcement follows Turkey’s Council of State’s decision to annul the 1934 presidential decree that originally designated the structure as a museum and a new presidential decree that transferred authority of the Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. 

What is the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia is the enduring architectural marvel that has stood as a significant landmark in Constantinople, or present day Istanbul, Turkey, for almost 1,500 years. It was originally constructed under the authority of Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 360 A.D. to be a basilica. The first construction of the Hagia Sophia was covered by a wooden roof and burned to the ground in 404 A.D. by political rioters. It was rebuilt in 415 A.D., but the second construction also burned down during the Nika revolts. In 537 A.D., the third and final Hagia Sophia was constructed, and it remains to this day.

For the Orthodox Church, the Hagia Sophia became the center of church life, faith, and ceremonies celebrating the new emperors. It was a pivotal part of Byzantine culture and politics for almost 900 years. During the Crusades, Constantinople was under Roman control for a short time, but the Byzantines reclaimed the city and repaired the damage done to the Hagia Sophia.

In 1453 A.D., the Ottomans conquered the city of Constantinople and renovated the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Much of the original Orthodox mosaics and art found in the Hagia Sophia were covered by Islamic calligraphy and other art. The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1935, when it was formally converted into a museum, operated by the government, that displays artifacts and art from every period of the church’s history.

Why is this controversial?

Given the Hagia Sophia’s history under different religions and rulers, there are multiple groups today that consider the landmark an important part of their history. Turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum honored all of the religious ties to the church and symbolized civil engagement between Christianity and Islam. It was even designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985 by UNESCO. The conversion from museum to mosque is a disruption of the peaceful status quo of the Hagia Sophia’s diverse history that has stood for nearly a century. 

Religious and political leaders that value the Hagia Sophia as a cultural site have stated that it is best left as a museum due to the highly contested nature of the building. For many years it has been a symbol of pluralism and served as an inspiration of awe for all who have seen the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. 

Surrounding President Erdogan’s announcement, the ecumenical patriarch of Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the foreign minister of Cyprus have spoken out against the decision to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque because of the division and discord it will bring in the Republic of Turkey. Secretary Pompeo argues that Turkey should continue to represent its diverse history through the Hagia Sophia and that it should remain accessible for all people to enjoy and engage. 

Why is this important?

Deciding to remove Christian Orthodox heritage and history from the Hagia Sophia is damaging to the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Turkey, and it will be devastating for Christians who still consider the Hagia Sophia as a sacred space for worship. This landmark of peace and inspiration for many religions is now being used for one religion alone to the exclusion of the rest. This change disrespects the Orthodox Church and the faithful who visited the Hagia Sophia to worship.

What happens now?

On Friday, July 24, thousands of people gathered at the Hagia Sophia to participate in prayers at the historic Muslim house of worship for the first time in 86 years. Erdogan promised that the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque is a place that “people of all religions can visit” and that it will still be a place that serves all believers. The artifacts previously displayed in the Hagia Sophia will be moved to another building in a separate museum. Going forward, the Orthodox Church will have to grapple with its history being removed from the Hagia Sophia and being further marginalized in the Republic of Turkey.

ERLC Intern Mary Beth Teague contributed to this article.