Thousands of Turks, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flocked to the Ayasofya Mosque, the Turkish name for the former Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, on Friday for the first Friday prayers since the head of state restored his mosque status two weeks ago.
Several thousand Muslims gathered on Friday, July 24, around the former Hagia Sophia to attend, in the presence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the first prayer since the conversion to a mosque in this emblematic building in Istanbul.
Despite the epidemic of the new coronavirus, compact crowds formed in the morning around Hagia Sophia to participate in the prayer, which was scheduled for around 10:00, AFP journalists stated. Several believers spent the night there.
Large architectural buildings built in VIe century and most visited monument in Istanbul, Hagia Sophia has gradually been a Byzantine basilica, an Ottoman mosque and a museum. On July 10, Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to return the building to Muslim worship after a court order revoked its status as a museum.
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This measure has angered some countries, especially Greece, which is closely following the fate of the Byzantine heritage in Turkey. Pope Francis also said he was “very worried” about this conversion.
Quran recitations were held in the morning at Hagia Sophia, before Friday prayers to which several senior foreign officials were invited. President Erdogan arrived around 12 noon.
The number of worshipers is limited due to Covid-19
Pandemic demands, authorities have stated that no more than a thousand believers will be able to pray inside the mosque. But many will be able to gather around the building.
Facing the influx of worshipers, some of whom did not wear masks, Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said late in the morning that the spaces planned outside were full. Signs of the surrounding chaos forced several dozen people a police guard to sprint towards Hagia Sophia, according to a video broadcast by Turkish media.
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As a symbol, Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose for the first prayer day 97e the anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty, which sets the boundaries of modern Turkey and which the President, nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire, often calls for a review.
Hagia Sophia remains in Turkey closely linked to the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II, known as the conqueror. An Ottoman brass band was also present in the foreground of the building on Friday.
On Wednesday, President Erdogan shared on Twitter a video with Muslims from all over the Islamic world singing to the delight of Hagia Sophia. “You have always been ours, and we are yours,” the Turkish president commented.
Concern for Byzantine mosaics
Friday prayers also come amid strong tensions between Ankara and Athens, particularly related to Turkish hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece strongly opposed the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, seeing it as a “provocation against the civilized world”.
In protest in Greece, Orthodox churches will ring their bells at noon on Friday. “It is a day of mourning for (…) all of Christianity,” said the head of the Greek Church, Archbishop Iéronymos.
However, Ankara rejected the criticism in the name of “sovereignty” and stressed that tourists will be able to continue to visit this building classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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In any case, the speed of the authorities to organize a first prayer raises concerns. “The emergency measures (…) could have catastrophic consequences and cause irreversible damage” to the 15th-century building, emphasizes Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.
History is of particular interest to the Byzantine mosaics found in Hagia Sophia, which were covered with plaster during the Ottoman period. The religious issues (Diyanet) claimed that they would only be covered by curtains during prayer, with Islam banning figurative representations. “Not a single nail will be planted,” Diyanet chief Ali Erbas assured Wednesday.