At the time, Atatürk’s decision was viewed as a gesture of goodwill to the West. The Hagia Sophia, which is Greek for «divine wisdom,» was Christendom’s paramount church for nearly a millennium after it was opened by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537.
Today, it is Turkey’s top tourist destination, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors last year to admire its golden mosaics, considered masterpieces of medieval art, and domes that hover 30 meters above the earth.
But for some Turks, secularizing the space insulted the memory of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet, who decreed the cathedral would serve as a mosque for perpetuity after praying at its alter upon capturing the Greek Byzantine capital in 1453.
Calls to reconvert it to a mosque came from the fringe until a decade ago. But in recent years, it has gained steam as fascination with Turkey’s Ottoman past grew, encouraged by Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted government, which has rolled back many of Atatürk’s strict secular policies. A poll this month showed nearly three-quarters of Turks now want to see the Hagia Sophia open for Muslim prayer.
Few outside Turkey are pleased with the idea. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Ankara to keep the Hagia Sophia a museum to show its «commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey» and ensure the site remains accessible to all. Greece has complained to UNESCO, which has reportedly informed Turkey that World Heritage rules require it to consult with the U.N. culture agency before changing a monument’s status. UNESCO declined a request to comment on the matter.
The row has exacerbated tensions with Athens, which skyrocketed this year over Turkey’s search for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece says Ankara’s exploration activities are violating its and Cyprus’ maritime borders; the European Union has sided with its member states, threatening Turkey with sanctions.
Erdoğan — who has dismissed Greece’s objections over the Hagia Sophia — until recently resisted entreaties to make it a mosque again, scolding the faithful for coveting the museum when they failed to fill some of Istanbul’s other 3,200 mosques.
Earthly concerns may have changed his mind. Last year, during a bitterly contested mayoral election, the president reversed course and said the Hagia Sophia should be a mosque again. His party still lost the vote, the first time the secular opposition won control of the city in 25 years.
Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu — a member of the secularist party founded by Atatürk — has said the Hagia Sophia should remain a museum. He called on the government to refrain from using the controversy “as a domestic political device” at a time when it should be focused on problems like the coronavirus pandemic.
The outbreak has dramatically slowed Turkey’s economy, already wobbling from a recession last year. Discontent with double-digit inflation and an unemployment rate above 13 percent have driven support for Erdoğan’s ruling party down to levels it last saw when it first took power in 2002.
“Erdoğan is anxious to shore up support, and his preferred strategy has been to harden his illiberal, nationalist and Islamist positions. The conversion of Ayasofya would bolster that image on the international stage and fail to win him points in Europe,” said Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey program coordinator at the Project for Middle East Democracy in Washington.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians and heir to bishops who once presided at the Hagia Sophia, also fears international reverberations. He pleaded with the government this week to maintain Hagia Sophia’s current status as a symbol of “peaceful coexistence.”
“The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world, and Hagia Sophia, which, due to its sacredness, is a vital center where East is embraced with the West, will fracture these two worlds,” he said after mass at an Istanbul church.
Bartholomew’s seat remains in Istanbul, a vestige of the Byzantine empire, but his flock of Greek Orthodox in the country has dwindled to just a few thousand after a century of economic and political pressure forced most of Turkey’s Christians to leave. Few if any Christians still in Turkey harbor fantasies that the Hagia Sophia will return to its original function as a church, said Mihail Vasiliadis, editor of Istanbul’s Greek newspaper Apoyevmatini.
Historians worry the fight over the building may result in “careless treatment of Hagia Sophia … that historical and archaeological evidence could be damaged and works of art concealed,” according to an open letter signed by dozens of scholars on Wednesday.
Already, the state has appointed a muezzin to read the call to prayer from the Hagia Sophia’s minarets, and a separate masjid on its grounds hosts worshippers. This May, a special prayer was recited at the building to commemorate the 567th anniversary of Istanbul’s conquest.
Turkish newspapers reported prayers inside the building could be held on July 15, the fourth anniversary of a coup attempt against the president, and that Erdoğan has instructed officials to come up with a formula that would still allow in tourists when it is a mosque.
Judges hearing the case on Hagia Sophia may yet uphold its neutral status, offering Erdoğan an out if he worries the conversion would further strain relations with the West, on which he depends for trade and financing, particularly during the economic slump caused by the coronavirus.
But there are other omens that the Hagia Sophia’s days as a museum could be numbered. Erdoğan’s government has turned a string of historic churches that share the Hagia Sophia’s name into mosques across Turkey in recent years, putting mosaics behind screens due to Islam’s aversion to images of living beings.
And in a possible portent of Hagia Sophia’s fate, a sister court ruled last year that the secular status of another church-turned-mosque-turned-museum should be revoked. The court said that Istanbul’s Kariye Museum, a former Byzantine church famed for its prized mosaics, “cannot be used except for its essential function” — as a mosque.