It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, the nation’s biggest tourist draw, and the contested religious center of both Christian and Muslim empires.
In mid-2020, Turkey moved to convert the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, a museum since 1934, into a mosque. The awe-inspiring edifice, built as an Orthodox cathedral and later used for centuries as a mosque, has been a target in recent decades for religious groups seeking to restore it as a Muslim worship site.
The change came as a surprise to many; UNESCO said it wasn’t consulted. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Greece, home to millions of Orthodox worshippers, were shocked. “The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan ... takes his country back six centuries,” Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said. In his Sunday prayer, Pope Francis said he was “very saddened.” Others expressed concern about the stunning Byzantine mosaics and paintings.
Experts said the site may manage to work through changes and remain a tourist center. “Our primary concern is that the authorities ensure proper conservation and public access to the site,” says Jonathan Bell, vice-president of programs for the World Monuments Fund. “I personally feel like it can totally exist as a place of worship and still fulfill its role as a world heritage site, as long as there are other safeguards in place.”
Treasured by two faiths
The Hagia Sophia that stands today was built in the sixth century as the cathedral for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire), and it became a mosque in 1453 with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It remained a Muslim house of worship until 1934, when the Turkish government turned it into a museum. More than 50 years later, UNESCO included Hagia Sophia as part of its Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site.
The architectural marvel—celebrated for its Byzantine architecture, elaborate mosaics, and religious importance to Christians and Muslims—attracts millions of visitors each year; more than 3.7 million in 2019. Now, “it remains unclear to cultural heritage professionals ... how, if at all, the World Heritage site may be altered or modified,” reports National Geographic’s Kristin Romey.
On July 10, Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s high administrative court, ruled in favor of a religious group’s case claiming that the 1934 decision to secularize Hagia Sophia was illegal because the historic edifice was still the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople. Several days later, NPR reported that Hagia Sophia held its first prayers inside, and Turkey’s president announced that the mosque would continue to be open to all visitors, regardless of faith or nationality.
But the future of Hagia Sophia remains murky. Many of Turkey’s neighboring countries—including Greece and Russia—have denounced its decision, stating that the building, as a museum, symbolized the coexistence of Christianity and Islam, a cultural junction between East and West.
UNESCO released a statement saying the organization “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved.” Under the World Heritage charter, any modification of the building’s status requires prior notification by Turkey to UNESCO and then, if necessary, an examination by the World Heritage Committee, Romey reports.
However, the return of Hagia Sophia to a place of active worship would not necessarily preclude World Heritage status. Roughly 20 percent of the thousand-plus properties inscribed on the World Heritage List have a spiritual or religious connection, including Vatican City and the Jameh Mosque of Ishfahan, Iran.
Rise of Hagia Sophia
It was Byzantine Emperor Justinian I who ordered the construction of Hagia Sophia (meaning “holy wisdom” in Greek). At the time, it was the largest interior space in the world. When the building became a mosque, several changes were made.
In order to align with Islamic beliefs, many of Hagia Sophia’s sublime works of art were plastered over during Mehmed II’s rule of the Ottoman Empire from 1451 to 1481. Bold flowing lines of Arabic calligraphy on hanging roundels and a beautiful marble mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, replaced the grand mosaics of six-winged angels and other Christian figures.
After the museum designation, workers performed extensive renovations, such as carefully chipping away plaster to reveal hidden mosaics. They can be partially seen—sparkling with glints of gold tile—along the high upper gallery. Now, with the building’s most recent change in status, Turkish officials say that all imagery depicting Christian figures in the main hall will be concealed with curtains during prayer time.
Know before you go
Dominating Istanbul’s skyline, Hagia Sophia sits in the center of the Sultanahmet District, across from the Blue Mosque and a short walk from the Topkapi Palace. At the time of its original construction, as tour guides will tell you, people believed that the church was so magnificent that it must have had divine guidance to aid in its crafting.
While many venture to the historic structure to gaze upon its interior marvels, the mosque’s exterior is worth exploration too. The four minarets of Hagia Sophia, the fountain of Sibyan (elementary) school, the clock room, and the treasury building are iconic elements of the structure’s daring design. The mausoleums of Ottoman Sultans, located outside the building, are equally fascinating to visit.
Visitors are still welcome to Hagia Sophia, which remains the country’s most popular tourist attraction. According to the latest statement made by the Turkish government, no entrance fee will be charged and all mosaics will be uncovered, except during worship, when the building will close an hour before the prayer time and reopen half an hour after.