Several thousand Muslims gathered on Friday July 24 around the former Hagia Sophia to take part, in the presence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the first prayer since the conversion into a mosque of this emblematic building of Istanbul .
Despite the epidemic of the new coronavirus, compact crowds formed in the morning around Hagia Sophia to take part in the prayer scheduled for around 10 a.m. GMT, AFP journalists noted. Several faithful spent the night there.
A major architectural work built in the 6th century and the most visited monument in Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was successively a Byzantine basilica, an Ottoman mosque and a museum. On July 10, Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to return the building to Muslim worship after a court decision revoking its status as a museum.
This measure has aroused the anger of certain countries, notably Greece, which closely follows the fate of Byzantine heritage in Turkey. Pope Francis also said he was “very distressed” by this reconversion.
Quranic recitations were held in the morning at Hagia Sophia, before Friday prayers to which several senior foreign officials were invited. President Erdogan arrived at around noon.
The number of worshipers limited due to Covid-19
Pandemic requires, the authorities have indicated that a maximum of a thousand faithful will be able to pray inside the mosque. But many people will be able to gather around the building.
Faced with the influx of worshipers, some of whom did not wear masks, Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said late in the morning that the spaces planned outside were full. Sign of the ambient chaos, several dozen people forced a police cordon to sprint towards Hagia Sophia, according to a video broadcast by Turkish media.
As a symbol, Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose for the first prayer the day of the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne which fixes the borders of modern Turkey and which the president, nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire, often calls for revision.
Hagia Sophia remains in Turkey closely associated with the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II, known as the Conqueror. An Ottoman brass band was also present on the forecourt of the building on Friday.
On Wednesday, President Erdogan shared on Twitter a video featuring Muslims from across the Islamic world singing to the glory of Hagia Sophia. “You have always been ours, and we are yours,” commented the Turkish president.
Concerns about Byzantine mosaics
The Friday prayer also comes against a backdrop of strong tensions between Ankara and Athens, particularly related to Turkish hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece strongly denounced the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, seeing it as a “provocation against the civilized world”.
In protest in Greece, Orthodox churches will ring their bells at noon on Friday. “It is a day of mourning for (…) all of Christendom,” said the head of the Greek Church, Archbishop Iéronymos.
But Ankara rejected the criticisms in the name of “sovereignty”, stressing that tourists will be able to continue to visit this building classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
In any case, the authorities’ haste to organize a first prayer there raises concerns. “The measures taken in haste (…) can have disastrous consequences and cause irreversible damage” to the 15-century-old building, underlines Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.
The fate of the Byzantine mosaics which are found inside Hagia Sophia and which were covered with plaster during the Ottoman period is of particular concern to historians. The Religious Affairs Authority (Diyanet) claimed that they would be covered by curtains only during prayer, with Islam banning figurative representations. “Not a single nail will be planted,” Diyanet chief Ali Erbas assured Wednesday.