Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree Friday allowing one of the world’s most famous landmarks – Istanbul’s 1,500 year-old Hagia Sophia – to be turned back into a mosque.
The move came after the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ruled the same day that an original 86-year old decision to turn the building into a museum had been unlawful.
“It was concluded that it is not legally possible to use [Hagia Sophia] for any other purpose except for a mosque,” the Council of State declared.
In an address to the nation later that day, President Erdogan said that decision was the “resurrection of Hagia Sophia, a coming out of captivity” and the “breaking of the shackles on our feet.”
By signing the decree, the Turkish president overruled protests from many Christian groups, as Hagia Sophia was originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral and still has huge significance for Christians worldwide.
The Russian Orthodox church lamented that, “The voice of the Russian Orthodox church and other Orthodox churches was not heard. The decision may cause larger disputes.”
The Turkish president also went against opposition to the change from the United States and European Union nations. Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni described the act as an “open provocation to the civilized world.”
The building’s museum status was also widely seen as a symbol of secular Turkey, having been converted to that usage by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The decree from the religiously-minded Erdogan highlights recent political shifts in the country – and may have international, as well as domestic repercussions.
Hagia Sophia – one of Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions – was originally constructed in 537 AD. It was the world’s largest building for many years and the centerpiece of the city then known as Constantinople – capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire.
A long and checkered history followed, including earthquakes, occupations, riots and eventually, in 1453, conquest by Ottoman Turkish forces. At that point, the building was converted into an imperial mosque and became home to several Ottoman sultans’ tombs over the following centuries.
Then, in 1934, Ataturk ordered the building converted into a museum, with recent years seeing restoration work reveal dazzling Christian-era frescoes and mosaics which have been displayed alongside the building’s Muslim religious symbols.
This helped the building achieve UNESCO World Heritage site status as an architectural masterpiece reflecting “universal values” and “the meeting of Europe and Asia over many centuries”, according to the UNESCO citation.
Yet the museum’s status has not been popular with certain Islamist groups, who have long campaigned for it to be turned back into a mosque.
One of these, the Perpetual Foundations Association to Serve Historical Artefacts and Sites, has been attempting to reverse Ataturk’s ruling for years, with all previous attempts knocked back by the courts.
This time, however, their appeal won, reversing a decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court made as recently as 2018 declaring the building should stay a museum.
Despite the ruling, however, “The decision to re-open Hagia Sophia as a mosque is a decision of the cabinet and the president,” says Can Selcuki, managing director of research at Istanbul Economics. “It could have been taken at any time.”
Erdogan has long had the power to convert the museum back into a mosque via a simple presidential decree.
“Erdogan has decided to do this now,” says Jocelyn Cesari, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, “because the timing gives maximum benefit to his regional and strategic position.”
In recent times, Turkey has taken a much more assertive role in regional affairs, with interventions in Syria and Libya now at a crucial stage. Negotiations are currently underway with Russia and other powers over the future shape of both countries.
Turkey has also aligned itself with Qatar in its ongoing dispute with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey now engaged in a range of regional hotspots in opposition to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
“Erdogan is using this move very skillfully to compete with the Saudis for leadership of the Muslim world,” adds Cesari. “By doing this now, he is sending a message that Turkey is strong enough to do as it wishes.”
Indeed, in his Friday night address to the nation, Erdogan said that Hagia Sophia’s re-opening was a “symbol of our strength,” and a sign that “Turkey is no longer the object of certain actions, but the subject – the actor.”
The move also appeals to Erdogan’s conservative and pious base.
“For many of Erdogan’s older conservative supporters, re-opening Hagia Sophia has long been something of a dream,” says Selcuki.
A recent poll by Istanbul Economics also shows that a majority – 46.9% – support making Hagia Sophia into a mosque, while 38.3% are against. Yet, many Turks remain skeptical over Erdogan’s motives in making this change.
Another recent survey, by Metropoll Research, showed that around 44% of Turks believed that the move was being made to divert attention from Turkey’s economic woes.
“For many, what is more important now is how to pay the rent and make up for the loss of income because of the Covid pandemic,” says Selcuki.