Turkish justice must decide from Thursday on the future of the former Hagia Sophia, today one of the most visited museums in Istanbul, that President Erdogan wants to look back to mosque status in danger of creating tension with several countries.
Mosque or museum? Turkey’s highest court will decide on Thursday, July 2, on the status of the former Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia, a major architectural work built during the 600s by the Byzantines who crowned their emperors there, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions.
Converted to a mosque after the capture 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, who was keen to “offer it to humanity”.
On Thursday, the Cabinet is studying the request of several associations requesting a return to mosque status. A decision could be made the same day, and at the latest within 15 days, according to the state press agency Anadolu.
Erdogan wants to rally the Conservatives
As a sign that the case is worrying abroad, the United States on Wednesday urged Turkey not to touch the status of Hagia Sophia.
But Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire that today is trying to rally conservative voters in the midst of an economic crisis because of the pandemic in the new coronavirus, has repeatedly said for a transformation into a mosque. Last year he called the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum “a very big mistake”.
Since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arrival in power in 2003, activities related to Islam have multiplied in Hagia Sophia, with special sessions of reading the Qur’an or collective prayers in the square in front of the monument.
For Anthony Skinner, from consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would allow Recep Tayyip Erdogan to satisfy his electoral base, annoy Athens, with which relations are strained, and reconnect with the Ottoman past. “Erdogan couldn’t find such a powerful symbol as Hagia Sophia to achieve all these goals at once,” he said.
Last year, the Cabinet had already approved the reconstruction of the mosque in the magnificent Byzantine church of Chora in Istanbul, a decision that some have perceived as a test balloon for Hagia Sophia.
The Cabinet’s decision “Thursday” will probably be political (…), the result of deliberations in the government, “said Asli Aydintasbas, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who said the government must weigh the pros and cons, especially through the prism of relations with Greece, Europe and the US administration of Donald Trump as “religion is an important issue”.