After 85 years as a museum, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia will be converted into a mosque. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued the decree to transfer the management of the building from the Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs last week, sparking criticism in Turkey and worldwide.
Built in 537 CE by the Byzantine emperor Justinian as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, the 1,500-year-old World Heritage Site holds religious and historic significance to both Christians and Muslims in Turkey. It was converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453 and into a secular museum in 1935 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Today, the Hagia Sophia is one of Turkey’s largest tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors each year.
The Turkish government announced that although Muslim religious services will resume at the site, visitors of all nationalities and faiths are welcome to visit. But what worries art historians and conservationists the most is that Turkish authorities may cover up or remove the centuries-old Byzantine mosaics and Christian iconography that cover the monumental structure.
Since Islam forbids images of people to be displayed in mosques, officials plan to use lights and curtains to cover up the mosaics, Turkey’s head of religious affairs Ali Erbaş said on Turkish TV. After prayer, the paintings will be uncovered for visitors to view.
UNESCO said in a statement on its website that it “regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved”. “The Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries”, said Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue”.
Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, added, “It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management”.