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What will happen to Turkey's Hagia Sophia after controversial mosque conversion? Open in fullscreen

The New Arab Staff

What will happen to Turkey's Hagia Sophia after controversial mosque conversion?

Christian mosaics exist side-by-side with Islamic artwork in the Hagia Sophia [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 July, 2020

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First a Byzantine church, then an Ottoman mosque and finally a museum, Turkey's Hagia Sophia will now be reconverted into a Muslim place of worship.
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last week that one of the country's most-visited tourist sites, the Hagia Sophia, would be converted into a mosque.

The move had long been discussed in conservative Turkish circles before coming to fruition this year, but has sparked uproar and concern from Christian leaders, neighbouring Greece, UNESCO and the US.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built as a church during the Byzantine Empire but converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453.

Hundreds of years later, it became a museum as part of a securalisation drive by Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a Muslim place of worship has prompted concerns over the conservation of its unique Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. 

It has also left tourists wondering what the conversion means for their future visits to the Hagia Sophia.

What will happen to Hagia Sophia's Christian icons?

The Hagia Sophia contains a number of priceless mosaics and frescoes, some of which date back more than a thousand years.

Christian iconography in the Hagia Sophia presents a difficulty in the building's use as a mosque as orthodox Islamic thought prohibits representational imagery and particularly prayer in the presence of such depictions.

After the conquest of Istanbul, then Constantinople, Ottoman authorities covered most of the mosaics and frescoes with plaster, much of which was removed during restoration works in the 1930s.
A mosaic depicting Jesus in the Hagia Sophia [Getty]
Many of the Byzantine art works are incomplete due to damage sustained during earthquakes and the 1203 Sack of Constaninople by the Latin Crusaders. A major mosaic is also believed to exist underneath the Islamic artwork that currently covers the building's main dome.

Turkish authorities have pledged to maintain these priceless artworks after the museum's conversion into a Muslim place of worship.

Rather than covering the icons with plaster, authorities could use lasers to cover their faces during prayer times, Hurriyet reported last week. 

President Erdogan has said the Hagia Sophia will be ready for Muslim worship by 24 July.

Will non-Muslims be able to visit the Hagia Sophia?

While the Hagia Sophia will no longer officially be classed as a museum, Turkish authorities have confirmed the building will be open for tourists of all faiths and none.

The Hagia Sophia is expected to function similarly to the neighbouring Blue Mosque, a functioning place of worship which is also one of Turkey's top tourist sites.

Tourists can visit the mosque at any time, free of charge, with the exception of specific times of day carved out for communal prayers.

Visitors are required to dress modestly - with headscarves and skirts provided - and remove their shoes before entering the mosque. Tourists are not permitted to enter a part of the mosque reserved for prayer only in order not to disturb worshippers.

Mosques in Turkey generally welcome tourists free of charge. Entrance to the Hagia Sophia museum cost 100 Turkish lira ($14.5) in 2020.

Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey's ministry of religious affairs, has also expressed a desire to see an Islamic school, or madrassa, opened in the Hagia Sophia.

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