Felicity Salina, International Law Officer
Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia has been officially turned back into a mosque following a controversial ruling by the Turkish High Court last Friday, the 10th of July.
The decision arises from a petition tabled by a private association to assess the validity of a 1934 Council of Ministers’ decree, which conferred the status of museum to the building. The conversion is also known to have been sponsored by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan through a presidential decree.
Hagia Sophia is recognized as the first cathedral built by the Christian Byzantine Empire. It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, in the 15th century. The building is renowned for being an architectural marvel and home to a diverse collection of relics from the Byzantine Constantinople era, many of which were destroyed throughout the building’s tumultuous history.
The conversion has triggered mixed opinions from the general public. The Turks, having largely voted in favour of the conversion earlier this year, regard it as a monumental victory for Muslims. A vast majority of commentators, however, denounce it as divisive and believe that it marks the end of secularism in Turkey. The move could potentially put Hagia Sophia’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site in jeopardy.
Turkey now faces pressure from countries such as Greece, Russia, and the US, all of which cautioned against the conversion prior to the official ruling. Observers have also labelled the conversion a “political ploy” by President Erdogan in light of his declining popularity in recent years.
UNESCO has issued a statement slamming the move and expressing regrets over Turkey’s decision, which was said to have been made “without any form or dialogue or prior notice”. “UNESCO calls upon the Turkish authorities to initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage,” the report concluded.
Read the statement by UNESCO here:
To explore the history and collection of Hagia Sophia, check out this Smithsonian article: