Hagia Sophia, a Shifting Symbol in Turkey, Once Again Opens Up to Islamic Prayers

    Hagia Sophia, a Shifting Symbol in Turkey, Once Again Opens Up to Islamic Prayers

    ISTANBUL—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended Muslim prayers in this city’s iconic Hagia Sophia on Friday, two weeks after he declared the building—a museum for the past 86 years— a mosque again in a controversial move aimed at reviving nationalist sentiment.

    Wearing a face mask and flanked by his defense minister, Hulusi Akar, Mr. Erdogan sat in the middle of a front row facing the imam. Throngs of people gathered on the square and in the maze of cobbled streets surrounding Hagia Sophia to take part in the prayers.

    With its huge dome and towering minarets, Hagia Sophia has long played a starring role in the life of Istanbul. It was once the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, as the city was then known. It later became a mosque after the Ottomans conquered the city. Modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, decreed it should be a museum in the 1930s, sending an international message that his young republic had taken a secular turn.

    But beginning in 2013, Mr. Erdogan told supporters he would support turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque if others were full and worshipers needed more space. Seven years later, he put his full weight behind the campaign to turn it back into a mosque, and has since brushed aside criticism from the U.S., Greece, the Russian Orthodox Church and the United Nations as he pursues his longer-term project to boost Islam’s place in an assertive Turkish republic.

    In a July 10 speech announcing his decision to resume regular Muslim prayer services at Hagia Sophia, Mr. Erdogan described the period during which it was a museum as a painful episode, lamenting that precious Ottoman-era praying carpets were squandered. In contrast, he said the conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century and the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque were “among the most glorious chapters in Turkish history.”

    Mr. Erdogan’s push for Hagia Sophia to become a mosque again coincided with a series of political setbacks, most notably last year, when his Justice and Development Party, which is rooted in political Islam, lost control of a number of cities in municipal elections, including the largest, Istanbul.

    Now 66, Mr. Erdogan has governed Turkey for 18 years and has often sought to use religion to strengthen his political position. Among other things, he lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves in public institutions in 2013.

    The latest twist in the history of Hagia Sophia has had little effect on public opinion in Turkey, however. Polls suggest many Turks are more interested in how their government will tackle the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit tourism and other important industries hard. Some view the move to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque as a ploy to steer political discussion away from Turkey’s mounting economic problems, including a slumping currency and a growing concern among investors that it is heading toward a balance-of-payments crisis.

    Longer term, converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque might enable Mr. Erdogan to portray himself as a strong leader at a time when Turkey is involved in military conflicts in Syria and Libya—lands once ruled by the Ottomans—and relations with both the U.S. and Russia are under strain.

    Hagia Sophia’s history began in the sixth century when Constantinople was the heart of the Byzantine Empire, which had adopted Christianity. The cathedral’s subsequent conversion into a mosque in 1453 accompanied the spread of Islam across the Middle East and parts of Europe.

    Throughout its life, Orthodox Christians as well as Muslim clerics have debated what to do with its icons, mosaics and frescoes, and whether they are symbols of devotion or idolatry.

    At various points in Hagia Sophia’s life, depictions of Christ and other images have been plastered over and then carefully restored. Turkish officials have taken pains to say that during Muslim prayers, such images will be covered carefully, and have insisted that people of all faiths are welcome to visit the site outside of prayer times and entrance would be free. Mr. Erdogan, too, has said that turning the site into a mosque again wouldn’t compromise its complex cultural and religious identity.

    Sources: Emily Neumeier, Temple University; Benjamin Anderson, Cornell University; Frédéric Hitzel, France’s CNRS research center; Gülru Necipoğlu, “The Life of an Imperial Monument: Hagia Sophia After Byzantium;” Robert Van Nice, “Saint Sophia in Istanbul: an architectural survey,” Dumbarton Oaks Research Library (illustrations); Columbia University Media Center for Art History, Archaeology and Historic Preservation (early floorplan); Archnet (1453-present floorplan)

    David Gauthier-Villars, Alex Newman, Vivien Ngo, and Roque Ruiz/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

    Orthodox Christians are unconvinced, including those in Greece and Russia, who revere the site, which is now called the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, as one of the original seats of their faith.

    “From our point of view, this decision violates the fragile interreligious and inter-confession balance that has been achieved in today’s world,” Metropolitan Hilarion, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a statement. “For the Orthodox Church Hagia Sophia is the same as St. Peter’s Cathedral is for the Catholics.”

    Ahead of Friday’s prayer, thousands of square feet of marble floor under the dome were covered with a thick, dark-turquoise woolen carpet while some of the Christian mosaics and frescoes were outfitted with sails-like curtains to veil them during the religious service.

    “Without even pounding a single nail,” said Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, upon inspecting the curtain system on Thursday.

    Write to David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com

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