Hagia Sophia
Hagia SophiaIBT creative

Istanbul's most popular tourist site, Hagia Sophia, which attracts 3.7 million visitors each year has now been turned into a mosque after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the announcement following the court's green signal to annul its museum status. Hagia Sophia has a rich historical significance, dating back all the way to 537. The monument stood tall as it witnessed emperors fall and rise for centuries until 1934 when it was turned into a museum in an attempt to make Turkey more secular. Whatever happened to that vision!

Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was originally built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral before it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Ever since 1934 order was signed to make Hagia Sophia a museum, Islamists have called for it to be reverted back to a mosque. But there was resistance from secular opposition members, global religious and political leaders.

The monument will still be open to all locals, foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims. With the museum status revoked, there won't be any fee to visit Hagia Sophia. Also, the cultural site's social media channels have been removed.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia SophiaWikimedia Commons

In defiance of the world

Defying all opposing views and condemning statements, Turkish president Erdogan saw it fit to win the Islamists' approval in the country rather than restore its historical significance as a museum. UNESCO said it "deeply regrets" the decision and demanded a dialogue urgently with Turkish authorities. But President Erdogan's stand is firm as he defended the decision saying the country exercised its sovereign right converting the museum into a mosque.

According to Bloomberg, Erdogan handed over the site to religious affairs directorate within two hours and calls to prayers were announced shortly after. The museum-turned-mosque will open for prayers for Muslims on July 24, which is a Friday - an auspicious day in the Islamic calendar.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia SophiaWikimedia

The decision also drew criticism from Greece and the US. It can also affect the relations Turkey shares with these countries. 

Short-sighted political play

Clearly, the decision to turn the landmark Hagia Sophia into a mosque has garnered praise from Islamists and the president might even enjoy his time in the limelight away from all the criticism. Erdogan's political rule for nearly two decades has been threatened by newly formed rival parties, which have been impressing the nationalist voters, and the coronavirus pandemic. This move is an attempt to win back some votes, but analysts remain skeptical.

Turkish President Tayyip ErdoganReuters

"Even if the Hagia Sophia conversion increases his approval rating by a few percentage points, the boost is unlikely to last," Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Bloomberg.

"Nothing short of strong economic growth will bring back the wider popularity he once enjoyed. Turkey's international brand as an open, Muslim-majority society at peace with its Christian heritage" will be undermined. Erdogan is playing the religion card to strengthen his claim on the throne. To recall, the 66-year-old leader was in jail in 1999 for inciting religious hatred.