- Muslims were waiting for this moment: the opening of the doors of the cathedral, mosque, museum, and now again, a mosque.
- Erdogan inspected the mosque this Thursday and joined worshipers for Friday prayers.
- The Turkish government has, however, confirmed that tourists will be able to continue to visit the building, outside of the five daily prayers.
Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hosted the first Muslim prayer in 86 years on Friday. The prayer session was also graced by the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since the dawn of this Friday, a crowd of faithful gathered at the door of the imposing Haghia Sofia.
Muslims were waiting for this moment: the opening of the doors of the cathedral, mosque, museum, and now again, a mosque. Hagia Sofia was built in the 6th century, in what was then Constantinople, and was for centuries the largest Christian temple on the planet.
It symbolized the center of the Byzantine Empire, until its fall as part of the Ottoman conquest. Led by Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror, he soon converted it into an imperial mosque.
The imposing building, considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, was later transformed into a museum by the secular regime of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish Republic.
Now, after a court decision that annulled its classification as a museum, President Erdogan recently converted it back into a mosque. Erdogan fulfilled a long-standing promise, and restored in some way the Ottoman glory over Hagia Sofia.
Erdogan inspected the mosque this Thursday. The next day, he was among the thousands of worshipers who celebrated— inside and outside the building— what many consider a victory for Islam.
The Turkish president himself chose the huge turquoise carpets, which were placed on the floor of the building, to receive the believers. Many said Friday prayers while some of the iconic Christian motifs— among them frescoes of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, as well as the angel Gabriel— were covered by removable curtains.
Faced with some stupefaction and criticism from the West over the decision, and a great deal of concern on the part of historians, who fear that some of the building’s treasures could be damaged, Erdogan clearly pointed out that he sees Turkey as the heir to the Ottoman Empire. By extension, Erdogan sees himself as one of the leaders of the Muslim ummah (congregation).
The opening date itself is not innocent either: exactly 97 years ago today, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, which dictated the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire to the World War I allies, and provided the legal basis and modern borders for the founding of the secular Republic of Turkey.
The Turkish government has, however, confirmed that tourists will be able to continue to visit the building, outside of the five daily prayers. Perhaps more importantly, they will leave Gli, the famous cat of Haghia Sofia, made famous by a party given by Barrack Obama on a visit in 2009.
Gli has an Instagram account, followed by tens of thousands of people, and continues to live in the building.