Hagia Sophia stripped of museum status, paving its return to a mosque

The 1,500-year-old World Heritage monument has been the contested religious centre of both Christian and Muslim empires—now the world is waiting to see what happens next.

Monday, July 13, 2020,
By Kristin Romey
The 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, now Turkey's most popular tourist attraction, has been stripped of its museum ...

The 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, now Turkey's most popular tourist attraction, has been stripped of its museum status by Turkey's highest court.

Photograph by JLImages, Alamy

The future of one of the world’s most iconic monuments remains uncertain following last week's decision by Turkey’s top administrative court to invalidate the status of the Hagia Sophia as a museum.

The Hagia Sophia that stands today was originally built as the cathedral for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century, and became a mosque in 1453 with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It remained a Muslim house of worship until the early 20th century, when the Turkish government secularised the Hagia Sofia and turned it into a museum in 1934. More than 50 years later, UNESCO included Hagia Sophia as part of its Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site.

In 2005, a group petitioned Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s high administrative court, claiming the historic structure originally belonged to a foundation established by Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman leader who conquered Constantinople in 1453.

Last week the Council of State agreed with the petitioners, concluding that the original deed under Mehmed II designated the building as a mosque, and any other use would be illegal. Following the decision, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan promptly transferred oversight of the building from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque...to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Unclear Status

Today’s decision, however, does not mean that the Hagia Sophia will immediately close to secular visitors and become a full-time place of worship.

A spokesperson for Erdogan says visitors will still be welcome to visit Hagia Sophia, which is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. “Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship won't keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site,” Ibrahim Kalin told the Turkish news agency Anadolu in an interview earlier this week.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear to cultural heritage professionals whether the monument will be used only for occasional events or regular observances, and how, if at all, the World Heritage site may be altered or modified.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia today reveals a visual legacy from its role as both a Christian and Muslim center of worship.

Photograph by Scott S. Warren, Nat Geo Image Collection

“I think it’s going to be a moving target, I think it’s going to change day to day as they announce new things,” says Jonathan Bell, vice-president of programs for the World Monuments Fund.

Sharon Gerstel, professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at UCLA, also stresses that while today’s decision has provoked an international outcry, much remains unknown about what next steps may be taken with the status of Hagia Sophia.

“It still remains a symbol for all Orthodox Christians—it's the centre to which their compass points,” Gerstel observes. “So any threat to the building will raise a lot of passions.

“Personally, I think people need to sit back and see what this week is going to hold in terms of what we will be told, but I think there needs to be a lot of clarification about what Erdogan intends to do,” she adds.

There are also questions regarding the future of the monument’s World Heritage status. The Hagia Sophia is part of the “Historic Areas of Istanbul” property inscribed on the World Heritage List, and as part of that property the monument is specifically designated as a museum. Under the World Heritage charter, any modification of the building’s status requires prior notification by Turkey to UNESCO and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee. 

In an official statement, UNESCO says it “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia,” noting that the world body had repeatedly shared its concerns with the Turkish government regarding any modifications that would impact the monument’s “outstanding universal value” and stressing the importance of input from various stakeholders and communities.

The return of the Hagia Sophia to a place of active worship would not necessarily preclude World Heritage status. Roughly 20 percent of the thousand-plus properties inscribed on the World Heritage List have a spiritual or religious connection, including Vatican City and the Jameh Mosque of Ishfahan, Iran.

“Our primary concern is that the authorities ensure proper conservation and public access to the site,” says Bell. “I personally feel like it can totally exist as a place of worship and still fulfill its role as a world heritage site, as long as there are other safeguards in place.”

Art and iconoclasm

Much of the concern regarding the change in status of the Hagia Sophia centres on the future of the stunning Byzantine paintings and mosaics that attracted 3.7 million visitors to the building just last year. During its centuries as a mosque, many of the Christian-era interior decorations that violated Muslim proscriptions against the depiction of living beings were plastered or otherwise covered over, only to be revealed again during restoration work once the building became a secular museum.

“It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try and obliterate the images,” says Gerstel, noting that most of the images—apart from the soaring Virgin and Child in the apse, and a few depictions of Christ and other biblical figures in the galleries—are of members of the Byzantine Imperial court. “It is the top tourist destination in Turkey. I think they would be very leery of losing that revenue.” (See pictures of beautiful mosques around the world.)

But the change in the status of Hagia Sophia may indeed have a major impact in the revenue that the monument generates—and that authorities depend on for the non-stop upkeep and conservation of the 1,500-year-old building. Religious authorities will have to decide whether it will be acceptable under Islamic law to continue to charge visitors £11 each to enter the Ayasofya Mosque, and if so they will need to rationalise why the 17th-century Blue Mosque, which sits directly across the plaza from Hagia Sophia, allows free entry to visitors outside of prayer times.

Appealing to the base

Today’s decision was seen as a victory for Turkish president Erdogan, who has rejected the secularism of the Turkish Republic and advocates for restoring the great achievements of the Ottoman Empire. He has campaigned for years to see the architectural jewel of the country’s capital return to its role as a religious center, and now, at a time when Turkey is mired in international conflicts and struggling at home with the coronavirus pandemic and a weakening economy, the decision on Hagia Sophia takes on an even more outsized role.

“This is undoing another piece of the secular legacy that he’s wanted to get at,” says Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation who recently authored a report on Turkish nationalism. “It appeals to his more pious and nationalist base.”

Gerstell agrees. “I don't want to undervalue the symbolic capital that Hagia Sophia holds for whoever is ruling over its territory. It always has, it always will. It’s [Erdogan’s] worldview of reconstituting the Ottoman Empire in a way with himself as sultan.” (Related: Why the Ottoman Empire rose and fell.)

The professor of Byzantine history notes that the first act an Ottoman sultan would take when entering a Byzantine city would be to convert the main Christian cathedral into a house of Muslim worship. “So it's not surprising that this is the building he's focused on.”

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