Emrah Gurel / AP
Updated at 11:05 p.m. ET
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the Hagia Sophia Museum, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, to be turned into a mosque.
He made the announcement hours after a supreme court cleared the way for the change.
Hagia Sofia, a major tourist attraction, has a long and complicated history. The architectural wonder was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century as a churchth Century and then converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
In 1934, the cabinet of the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had it converted into a museum. It is widely regarded as a symbol of peaceful religious coexistence.
Friday’s judgment invalidated the 1934 decree. It gives the Turkish President the authority to restore the museum to its status as a functioning mosque. The decision said that the place is listed in its title deed as a mosque and that this cannot be changed, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.
Erdogan had previously signaled that he wanted to make this change. In his Friday decision, he said the place would be transferred to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open for worship.
In recent years, the Turkish government has “allowed Koranic readings there on special occasions,” Anadolu said.
A spokesman for the president previously assured the building would remain open to visitors and that no changes to the interior would be made. The domed site retains its Christian iconography, and minarets were added during its time as a mosque.
The possible change in the status of the museum has been largely condemned internationally.
“As a museum, Hagia Sophia can act as a place and symbol for the encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam,” wrote the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians.
He warned that the museum is a place where “East is hugged with West” – and if converted, it would “break up these two worlds”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that the conversion of Hagia Sophia “would limit her unmatched ability – so rare in the modern world – to serve mankind as a much needed bridge between people of different faith traditions and cultures”.
Elizabeth Prodromou, professor of geopolitics and religion Fletcher School at Tufts University said Hagia Sophia’s decision was “a tragedy, frankly, though it’s not surprising”.
Hagia Sophia, she said, “was a lightning rod for a synthesis of religious nationalism and was used as a symbol by the Erdogan government.”
“It is just another example of the long pattern in which Turkey is turning away from its obligations as a member of the Western NATO alliance and is committed to the norms associated with democracy,” added Prodromou.
On Friday, the square in front of Hagia Sophia, which was usually full of visitors standing in long lines to get in, was almost empty after officials warned of large public gatherings that could spread the corona virus. Visitors strolled in and out of the building without waiting.
A 32-year-old man named Sahib held his prayer mat in his hand and said he had traveled to Hagia Sophia hoping to do Muslim prayers there on Friday afternoon. Before the decision was announced, he said, “I hope the State Council overrides this wrong decision so that we can pray in Hagia Sophia.” He said he would be back next Friday to pray.
Elena, a Russian on her first visit to Istanbul, said she doesn’t prefer to turn the museum back into a functioning mosque. “Well, being a Muslim yourself,” she said, “I think it still has to be a museum.”
She said visiting Hagia Sophia was an unexpectedly exciting part of her visit.
“When I tried to enter, I didn’t expect to be so excited,” she said. “It was really breathtaking.”