Hagia Sophia holds first Muslim Friday prayers in 86 years

ISTANBUL : First Muslim prayers are held in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Built in the early 6th century, Hagia Sophia witnessed the rise and fall of several empires, reopened as a museum and became a symbol of the blending of East and West cultures and one of Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan joined thousands of worshippers at Hagia Sophia on Friday for the first prayers there since he declared the monument, revered by Christians and Muslims for almost 1,500 years, a mosque once again.

Erdogan and his top ministers, wearing white facemasks as a precaution against COVID-19, knelt on blue carpets at the start of a ceremony which marks the return of Muslim worship to the ancient monument.

Earlier, crowds formed at checkpoints around the historic heart of Istanbul where massed police maintained security. Once through the checks, worshippers sat apart on prayer mats in secured areas outside the building in Sultanahmet Square.

“We are ending our 86 years of longing today,” said one man Sait Colak, referring to the nearly nine decades since Hagia Sophia was declared a museum and ceased to be a place of worship. “Thanks to our president and the court decision, today we are going to have our Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia.”

“God is greatest,” chanted people in the square. Some slept after arriving overnight and others ate on the grass, shaded by trees from the hot sun. Some in the crowds held Turkish and Ottoman flags.

The head of Turkey’s religious authority, Ali Erbas, on Thursday announced the appointment of the three imams who will lead prayers at the reconverted mosque: Mehmet Boynukalin, a professor of Islamic law at Istanbul’s Marmara University, and Ferruh Mustuer and Bunjamin Topcuoglu, the imams of two other Istanbul mosques.

Erbas also named five muezzins — the officials who make the Muslim call for prayer — for Hagia Sophia, including two from Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque.

CHRISTIAN ICONS CONCEALED

During his 17-year rule, Erdogan has championed Islam and religious observance and backed efforts to restore Hagia Sophia’s mosque status. He said Muslims should be able to pray there again and raised the issue – popular with many pious AKP-voting Turks – during local elections last year.

The conversion triggered fierce criticism from church leaders, who said the change to exclusively Muslim worship risked deepening religious divisions. Turkey says the site will remain open for visitors and its Christian artworks protected.

Erdogan has reshaped Turkey’s modern republic, established nearly a century ago by the staunchly secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, lifting a ban on Muslim headscarves in public, promoting religious education and taming Turkey’s powerful military, once a bastion of Ataturk’s secular values.

Inside Hagia Sophia, the Christian frescoes and the glittering mosaics adorning the cavernous dome and central hall will be concealed by white curtains during Muslim prayer times, but remain on display for the rest of the time.

On Friday morning, the interior echoed to the sound of Koranic recitations from white-robed clerics, sat on blue carpets freshly laid this week ahead of the prayers.

Hagia Sophia is among Turkey’s top tourism destinations for both domestic and foreign visitors.

In 1985, during its time as a museum, Hagia Sophia was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. 

It served as a church for 916 years until the conquest of Istanbul, and a mosque from 1453 to 1934 – nearly half a millennium – and most recently as a museum for 86 years.

On July 10, a Turkish court annulled a 1934 Cabinet decree that had turned Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for its use again as a mosque after an 86-year hiatus. 

On July 16, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate signed a cooperation protocol with the Culture and Tourism Ministry to run Hagia Sophia after its conversion to a mosque.

Under the protocol, the Culture and Tourism Ministry will supervise restoration and conservation work, while the Religious Affairs Directorate will oversee religious services. 

The architectural treasure will also be open to domestic and foreign tourists free of charge.

Source : ANADOLU AGENCY / KHALEEJ TIMES / REUTERS

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