The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday claimed the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 as the basis for his country's alleged right to return the former basilica of Hagia Sophia, which to this day is a museum, to a mosque, as it was until 1934. "The right of the Turkish nation to Hagia Sophia is not less than that of those who built it 1,500 years ago; it is even greater," said the president during a speech broadcast live on NTV, in which he formally proclaimed the new status of the Istanbul monument as a mosque.
Hours earlier, the country's highest administrative court, known as Danistay, had declared invalid the 1934 ministerial decision that secularized the building and assigned it the status of a museum, considering it not in accordance with the law. Moments later, a presidential decree signed by Erdogan was published in the Official State Gazette, transferring ownership of the building from the Ministry of Culture, which held it until now, to the Diyanet, the public body that manages mosques.
At 8.53pm local time (17.53 GMT), a nod to the year of the conquest, Erdogan formally announced on television the new status of the building, a World Heritage Site since 1985. The head of state recounted in detail the triumphal entry of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II into Constantinople and his prayer in the mosque, drawing a parallel with his decision to reopen the building for Muslim worship. He called the 1934 ministerial decision "unjust" and "a betrayal of history" and celebrated that, by annulling it, "Turkey has wiped out an embarrassment". In addition, he quoted a poem that describes the reopening of Hagia Sophia for prayer as "the second conquest of Istanbul", a concept frequent in ultra-nationalist-Islamic circles in Turkey, which have been demanding to be able to pray in the building for years.
The first prayer will take place at noon next Friday, July 24, and until then, the space for prayer will be "prepared," Erdogan announced. It would be difficult to imagine that the faithful would come to pray under a dome decorated with images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin, when Islam does not admit human - let alone divine - images in a temple, but there are precedents of Turkish Byzantine churches converted into mosques with a baldachin placed as a visual barrier.
But Erdogan has assured us that the monument will be open to anyone, Muslim or not, that no visitor will be excluded and that Christians will also feel at ease.
By bringing its regime into line with that of other historical mosques in the city, visited by tourists without paying an entrance fee, the obligation to buy a ticket, currently at a price of 100 lire (about 15 euros), to access the former basilica will be eliminated. Erdogan asked that until the opening of worship in two weeks' time, no prayers or demonstrations be held in or before the building.
However, his appeal came late: by the evening prayer this Friday, hundreds of men had gathered on the esplanade in front of the monument in a prayer full of political demands. The demand is not new, but until now it has been limited to marginal circles of Islamist nationalism. Danistay himself had repeatedly rejected legal claims identical to the one he resolved today with a favourable and unanimous judgement. Just a year ago, even Erdogan described the demand to open Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayer as a "political game", ruling out this measure.
In a statement published on its website, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which in 1985 included the Basilica of Saint Sophia on its World Heritage List, reacted Friday to Ankara's decision by warning that "any modification" of the space "requires prior notification of the State to Unesco and, if necessary, examination by the Committee".
Erdogan promised that Turkey would continue to care for the monument "like the apple of its eye" and recalled that it had been carefully preserved over centuries of Ottoman Islamic culture. But he rejected any international criticism of the conversion into a temple of Islam because, he stressed, it was "a sovereign right of Turkey" and to condemn it would be a sign of Islamophobia and xenophobia. "Demanding that Hagia Sophia be a museum is like asking the Vatican to declare itself a museum and ban worship there," the president said.