Five things to know about Hagia Sophia

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A man prays at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, once the holy centrepiece of Byzantine Christianity. AFP

A top Turkish court on Thursday delayed a decision on the status of the Hagia Sophia, the world-famous Istanbul landmark which is now a museum after serving as a church and a mosque.

Following a hearing lasting a mere 17 minutes, the court announced that it would make a ruling within 15 days on whether the Hagia Sophia will be converted into a mosque.

Here are five things to know about the Hagia Sophia:

What is the Hagia Sophia?

The edifice was first built as a church between 532 and 537AD under emperor Justinian I and is considered the most important Byzantine structure.

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, it was converted into a mosque before being opened as a museum in 1935 after the secular modern Turkish republic was established in 1923.

It was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1985.

What is its official status now?

The Hagia Sophia remains a museum and hosts millions of tourists every year.

It was Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction last year with 3.8 million visitors.

There has been more religious activity inside the museum in recent years – Erdogan recited the first verse of the Quran in 2018.

Why has this become an issue now?

There has been a long legal process leading up to Thursday’s hearing.

The Constitutional Court in September 2018 turned down a plea by an independent heritage association to open the building up for Muslim worshipping.

The main opposition secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has accused the government of using the issue to distract voters from economic woes and other issues following the coronavirus pandemic.

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Tourists depart Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site. AFP

“Erdogan appears to be responding to a drop in voter support, which is likely a fallout of Turkey’s Covid-19-induced economic downturn,” said Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh.

Erdogan’s supporters praised him for getting involved with lavish celebrations this year for the anniversary of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, encouraging him to be more proactive, said Erdemir.

As early as 1994 when he was running for mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan promised to open the building to Muslim worshippers.

What is the international community’s position?

The US and neighbouring Greece, which keeps a close eye on the state of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, have expressed concern over a possible status change.

“We call on the Govt of #Turkey to maintain it as a @UNESCO World Heritage site & to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum,” Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, tweeted on June 25.

After passages from the Quran were read inside the Hagia Sophia, the Greek foreign ministry said it was “an unacceptable attempt to alter the site’s designation as a monument” and “also an affront to the religious sentiment of Christians” worldwide.

A ruling to change the status would hurt Turkish-Greek relations, which are already strained over migration and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.

What would it change for visitors?

Tourists could still visit the Hagia Sophia even if it is transformed into a mosque as they are able to see the Blue Mosque nearby.

But the example of the Hagia Sophia of Trabzon in northern Turkey, opened to Muslim worship in 2013, may give pause for thought.

“The number of visitors dropped significantly following its transformation into a mosque, especially because visitors could no longer appreciate the church’s famous frescoes,” Erdemir said, adding that this had a negative impact on locals who depend on tourism revenues.