The story of Hagia Sophia may be far from over, one can only hope the “historical, cultural and sentimental” value of this heritage is protected
Istanbul's Hagia Sophia once divided Christians and Muslims – that history may be repeating itself as the 1,500-year-old World Heritage Site was converted back into a mosque on July 10.
There have been a lot of controversy over the decision, with people on both sides deliberating on whether it was an act of religious significance or political narrow-mindedness. To understand this controversy, one has to go far back to Hagia Sophia's origins – the sixth century.
Perched at the crossroads of continents and cultures, Hagia Sophia has seen massive changes – from the name of the city where it stands, to its own structure and purpose.
Byzantine Emperor Constantius the Second commissioned the construction of the first Hagia Sophia, then known as Megale Ekklesia, in 360. Though burned to the ground in riots, it established the location for the region's main religious structure for centuries to come.
Theodosius the Second built a second version as a grand marble structure in 415. This was razed to the ground for the second time during the Nikka Revolt in 532 when angry crowds at a chariot race almost overthrew the emperor Justinian the First.
Having barely managed to retain power, he started to rebuild the church on a grander scale, and five years later, it was completed. It was then the world's largest church and the heart of Christendom.
It stayed that way for around a thousand years until Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It was then fortified and converted into a mosque by the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.
The Sultan kept the name Hagia Sophia while he covered Christian features with Islamic iconography, including four minarets and a mihrab – a wall niche where the Muslim imam would lead prayers in the direction of Mecca.
Fast-forwarding around 500 years, Turkey had transformed into a modern secular republic following the Ottoman Empire's collapse. The modernising first president of Turkey, Mostafa Kemal Ataturk – issued a decree making Hagia Sophia a museum in 1934, respecting both Christian and Muslim heritage.
Thomas Whittemore, the founder of the Byzantine Institute of America, travelled to Istanbul in 1931. He obtained the Turkish president's permission to oversee the removal of plaster covering byzantine mosaics in Hagia Sophia and convert it from a mosque into a museum.
"Hagia Sophia: A History of Constantinople", a book published in 1972, quotes Whittemore saying "Santa Sophia was a mosque the day I talked to him [Ataturk]. The next morning when I went to the mosque, there was a sign on the door written in Ataturk's own hand. It said 'The museum is closed for repairs.'"
Hagia Sophia has been one of the most popular museums in Turkey, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors last year. Many see the site as a place that brings faiths together.
Critics see this move to reconvert Hagia Sophia as nothing more than a political move.
Talking to the Global News, historian Ehem Eldern said, "The formula that was found in 1934 to appropriate it universally was to turn it into a museum. And that was a political move. Now what we're seeing is yet another political move."
There have been calls from both Muslim and Christian communities for decades to return the building to its former religious purposes.
After fifteen years of lobbying the courts, history itself was brought into the courtroom. It was argued that the museum conversion was unlawful as Ataturk's government did not have the right to overrule Sultan Mehmed's wishes from 1453.
The campaign was largely supported by president Tayyip Erdogan whose ruling political party sprang from political Islam.
As most of Haga Sophia's Christian features were covered during its time as a mosque, the fear looms that the same will happen again. "It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try and obliterate the images," says Sharon Gerstel, professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at UCLA, in National Geographic.
Internationally the move has triggered outrage. Alexander Grushko, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister said Moscow regretted the decision. "The cathedral is on Turkey's territory, but it is without question everybody's heritage," he told the Interfax news agency.
Greece, France and the US all expressed their disappointment over the decision.
US State Secretary Mike Pompeo said "We urge the Government of Turkey to continue with Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey's diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all."
Pope Francis reacted saying "My thoughts go to Istanbul. I'm thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will only disappoint millions of Christians around the world."
Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected the global criticism and outcry over the change of Hagia Sophia's status, and has put religion back to the heart of national life. He believes these international criticisms are an attack on Turkey's sovereignty.
Although it's been decided that visitors will still be able to visit the site despite Hagia Sophia being a mosque again, there remains some questions.
"Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship won't keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site," Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's spokesman, told the Turkish news agency Anadolu.
However, it is still unclear whether it will be used only for occasional events or regular observances. And whether this World Heritage site will be altered or modified remains a mystery to cultural heritage professionals.
Sharon Gerstel observed in National Geographic, "It still remains a symbol for all Orthodox Christians—it's the center to which their compass points, so any threat to the building will raise a lot of passions."
The mosque conversion certainly appeals to voters of Erdogan. A section of the Turkish public feel the move better reflects the country's identity – which is overwhelmingly Muslim.
Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist who recently authored a report on Turkish nationalism told National Geographic, "This is undoing another piece of the secular legacy that he's [Erdogan's] wanted to get at. It appeals to his more pious and nationalist base."
The story of Hagia Sophia may be far from over, one can only hope the "historical, cultural and sentimental" value of this heritage is protected.