Museum or mosque? Turkey decides the future of hagia Sophia

Musée ou mosquée? La Turquie décide de l'avenir de Sainte-Sophie

ISTANBUL | The highest administrative court of Turkey has studied Thursday a request for conversion into a mosque of the former basilica of the hagia Sophia, a measure that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls his wishes at the risk of generating tensions with several countries.

The Council of State considered this request made by several associations during a brief hearing on Thursday morning and shall announce its decision within 15 days, reported State television TRT.

Great architectural work built in the sixth century by the Byzantines, who crowned their emperors, the hagia Sophia is a unesco world heritage site of UNESCO and one of the main tourist attractions of Istanbul.

Converted into a mosque after the taking of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, it was converted into a museum in 1935 by the leader of the young Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, anxious to “offer to humanity.”

However, its status is regularly the subject of controversy: since 2005, associations have repeatedly come to court to demand a return to the status of a mosque, without success until now.

A sign that the case concerns abroad, the United States called Wednesday for Turkey to not to touch the status of hagia Sophia.

But Mr. Erdogan, a nostalgic of the ottoman Empire which today seeks to rally the electorate is conservative on a background of economic crisis due to the pandemic of novel coronavirus, has repeatedly said for a conversion into a mosque.

Last year, he had qualified the transformation of hagia Sophia into a museum of “very big mistake”.

“Powerful symbol”

Since the arrival of Erdogan to power in 2003, the activities related to islam have proliferated to the interior of the hagia Sophia, with, in particular, sessions of reading of the Qur’an or collective prayers in the courtyard of the monument.

Mahmut Karagöz, a shoemaker, aged 55 years, dream one day be able to pray in the dome of the hagia Sophia.

“It is a legacy of our ottoman ancestors. I hope that our prayers will be heard, it is necessary that this longing will end,” he said to the AFP.

To Anthony Skinner, of the consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft, to reconvert the hagia Sophia into a mosque would allow Mr. Erdogan to satisfy his electoral base, irritate Athens, with whom relationships are strained, and reconnect with the past ottoman.

“Erdogan could not find a symbol as powerful as the hagia Sophia to achieve all those goals at once,” says-t it.

Last year, the State Council had already authorized the conversion into a mosque of the magnificent byzantine church of the Chora in Istanbul, a decision seen by some as a trial balloon before the hagia Sophia.

The decision of the Council of State “is likely to be political (…), the outcome of the deliberations within the government,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Risk of tension

For Ms. Aydintasbas, the government needs to weigh the pros and cons, in particular through the prism of relations with Greece, Europe, and the u.s. administration to Donald Trump, for whom “religion is an important topic”.

Even if a reconversion of the hagia Sophia in mocked should not prevent the tourists of all faiths to get there — they are numerous to visit every day the blue Mosque nearby — to change the status of a place as iconic in the history of christianity could lead to tension.

“We urge the Turkish authorities to continue to keep hagia Sophia as a museum, as an illustration of their commitment to respect the traditions of worship and the rich history that have shaped the Turkish Republic, and to ensure that it remains open to all”, said Wednesday the us secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The fate of hagia Sophia is also a concern to all especially the neighboring Greece, which closely monitors the fate of the byzantine heritage in Turkey.

In Turkey also, besides, many are those who oppose such a decision.

“Millions of tourists visit it every year”, emphasises Sena Yildiz, a student of economics. “It’s an important place for muslims but also for christians and for all those who love the Story”.

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