Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday paid a symbolic visit to the former Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, his first since its controversial conversion into a mosque last week.
During his visit, Erdogan inspected reconversion work inside the building, according to the office of the Turkish President, which published photos showing scaffolding.
His surprise visit came just a few days before the first Muslim prayer at Hagia Sophia, scheduled for Friday. It was not immediately clear whether Erdogan would take part. According to Turkey’s religious affairs authority, the Diyanet, 500 persons will participate on Friday in the first collective prayer in Hagia Sophia since its reconversion.
Last week, Turkey’s highest administrative court revoked a 1934 governmental decision that had granted the cathedral the status of a museum. Erdogan immediately followed up the revocation with the announcement that Hagia Sophia would be turned into a mosque.
According to the Diyanet, Christian icons adorning the interior of the ancient Byzantine basilica will be hidden at prayer time.
A major work of architecture built in the VIth Century, Hagia Sophia is classified as a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) and is one of Turkey’s main tourist attractions.
Converted into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, it was transformed into a museum in 1934 by the head of the young Turkish Republic, Mustapha Kemal, who wished to “offer it to humanity.”
The decision to recovert it into a mosque sparked criticism abroad, especially in Greece, which closely monitors the fate of the Byzantine heritage in Turkey. Pope Francis said last week that he was “very saddened” by the move.
Among others they “condemned the Turkish decision to convert Hagia Sophia back to a mosque as this decision will inevitably fuel mistrust, promote renewed divisions between religious communities and undermine efforts at dialogue and cooperation.”
But the council’s appeal to the Turkish authorities to “urgently reconsider and reverse their decision” has apparently not been taken on board as President Erdogan’s visit to Hagia Sophia today (19 July) indicates.