Why Turkey’s Hagia Sophia is holding Ramzan prayers after 88 years

The sixth-century cathedral was converted into a mosque in 1453 by Ottomans. Turkey’s secular leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned it into a museum. In 2020, Hagia Sophia was re-designated into a mosque

Hagia Sofia, the sixth-century architectural marvel in Istanbul’s Turkey, held its first “Tarawih”, a special evening prayer that Muslims perform during the holy month of Ramzan, in 88 years on Saturday. The prayers will take place at the monument on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during Ramzan.

“Thanks be to God. For the first time in 88 years, the mosque… will welcome believers for tarawih prayers this Ramadan,” Ali Erbas head of the Diyanet, the Turkish public body responsible for overseeing religious worship, had announced last Thursday. “I will witness, God willing, this beautiful moment by leading the first tarawih prayer,” he added.

Why were the prayers not held for close to nine decades? What has changed now? A look at the brief history of the monument which has gone from being a church to a mosque and then a museum.

Turkey under Erdogan

In July 2020, the world-famous Hagia Sophia museum, which was originally founded as a cathedral, was turned back into a mosque. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the decision after a court annulled the site’s museum status.

Hagia Sophia was built more than 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral. After the Ottoman conquest, it was converted into a mosque. In 1934, it became a museum.

It was a long-standing demand of Islamists in Turkey to re-designate it into a mosque but secular leaders in the opposition opposed the move. The high court’s decision was welcomed by Erdogan but received criticism from across the globe.

“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” the Turkish PM had said in July 2020.

Explained Why Turkeys Hagia Sophia is holding Ramzan prayers after 88 years

Muslim worshippers perform the Tarawih prayer of Ramzan at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul. AFP

Pope Francis had said back then that he was “pained” by Turkey’s decision to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Speaking at a service in the Vatican, he added that his “thoughts go to Istanbul”.

US President Joe Biden, who was a Democratic nominee then, had said that Turkey needed to reverse the decision to convert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque. “I call on Turkish President Erdogan to reverse his recent decision to convert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque and to return this treasure to its former status as a museum, ensuring equal access for all, including the Orthodox faithful,” a statement from Biden said.

However, the decision favoured Erdogan, as his followers include religious conservatives and Turkish nationalists.

On 24 July 2020, Hagia Sophia was declared open to worship for Muslims. However, the mosque could not be used for community prayers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who built Hagia Sophia?

Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I on the site of a destroyed basilica of the same name. Completed in 537, it was among the world’s largest domed structures and went on to serve as the foremost Orthodox Christian church for 900 years. Imperial ceremonies, including the crowning of emperors, were held there.

The multicoloured mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, angels, and other Christian symbols of emperors and their families that centuries of rulers installed added to its reputation as an architectural gem, according to an Associated Press report.

From church to a mosque

For centuries, Muslim sultans were on a quest to fulfil Prophet Mohammad’s prophecy that a great conqueror would bring the holy city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) into Islam’s embrace.

Ottoman sultan Mehmet II defeated the Byzantine Empire and captured Constantinople in 1453. All of 21, he made his way to Hagia Sophia and prayed. He turned the majestic cathedral into a mosque; it became a symbol of Muslim triumph over the city.

It became an imperial mosque and sultans who came into power later further transformed it into a mosque complex, building minarets and covering mosaics that depicted figures. A school, library, and a fountain were constructed.

The rein of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

More than 450 years later, Turkey got a secular leader in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The war hero who founded the Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. Once the decision was taken in 1934, the mosaics were uncovered.

Hagia Sophia became a symbol of secularism; it celebrated Istanbul’s multicultural past.

It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and became one of Turkey’s most-visited landmarks.

What changed for Turkey?

The Hagia Sofia debate between Islamists and liberals, who believed that converting it back into a mosque would erode the country’s secular character, continued for years. After Erdogan came into power, he started supporting the move to reclaim the monument, partly as an effort to distract from policy failures and shore up waning popular support among his conservative voter base, reports Guardian.

In July 2020, the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court, ruled in favour of fully restoring Hagia Sophia’s Muslim heritage. “It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally. The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it had said.

Now that it’s a mosque again, many of the mosaics and other Christian symbols are being covered by Turkish authorities with symbols.

Last year, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee had asked Turkey to submit a report about the state of conservation of the Hagia Sophia, expressing “grave concern” over the consequences of its conversion into a mosque.

Turkey swiftly rejected the criticism of the conversion as “biased and political”.

With inputs from agencies

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