For eight decades, the iconic Hagia Sophia [Ἁγία Σοφία, “Holy Wisdom”] – museum in Istanbul [Constantinople] has stood as a symbol of Turkey’s commitment to a secular society.
Now that tradition is under siege by growing calls to convert the historic structure back into a practicing mosque.
The 1,500-year-old structure originally was built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral.
It was turned into a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman Turks defeated the Greek emperor in Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul.
In the 1930s, the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, turned it into a museum in his drive to create a secular republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Now that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is promoting a more prominent role for Islam in Turkey, whose citizens are overwhelmingly Muslim, the idea of turning the popular tourist attraction into a house of worship again has become more appealing.
“We want Hagia Sophia to open as a mosque,” said Yusuf Yalcin, 37, of Istanbul, an information technology manager who co-founded a group devoted to that cause. “Hagia Sophia is the relic of our ancestors and symbol of our freedom.”
The idea appears to have traction in Turkey’s political circles.
Last year, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs appointed an imam to the Hagia Sophia. That appointment came a few months after a muezzin, who calls the faithful to pray, chanted the Islamic morning prayer inside the Hagia Sophia for the first time since 1935. Sung during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the muezzin’s call was broadcast on Turkish state television.
Those moves are causing a backlash among Greeks here. “Obsessions, verging on bigotry, with Muslim rituals in a monument of world cultural heritage are incomprehensible,” the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
“Such actions are not compatible with modern, democratic and secular societies.”
Visiting the Hagia Sophia last year was the trip of a lifetime for Dimitra Anagnostopoulou, 59, a Greek bookseller.
“I felt awe,” Anagnostopoulou said. “But I was a bit let down by the Arabic signs left there from the time Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque.”
Some Turks also worry about the campaign to convert the museum. “Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque has always been a cause for many conservative Islamists,” said Istanbul Bilgi University anthropologist Erkan Saka.