A fortnight ago a Turkish court ruled that the 1934 decree converting the historic site into a museum was not legal, paving the way for its restoration as a mosque.
After more than eight decades as a museum, Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia held Islamic prayer services for the first time in 86 years.
The restoration ceremony and prayer was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as politicians from the Justice and Development party and other Turkish political groups.
Leaders and dignitaries from countries, such as Azerbaijan and Qatar, were also present for the opening ceremony.
The prayer started with Islamic rites, such as the takbir and salavat, which are invocations of God’s greatness and salutations upon the Prophet Muhammad.
By mid-Friday morning, congregants were arriving in the area for the opening, holding prayer rugs in their hands, as verses from the Quran were read out over loud speakers.
A limited number of worshippers were allowed into the building to ensure adequate social distancing measures were in place.
Many joined the prayer from public spaces nearby and from the rooftops of nearby buildings.
Security officials had earlier closed off streets leading into the mosque area in order to better manage the expected worshippers.
On Thursday, President Erdogan formally opened the Hagia Sophia. He unveiled a nameplate on Thursday that reads “Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque”.
This is the first Friday prayer sermon in 86 years at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque https://t.co/7aDiziSPFV— TRT World (@trtworld) July 24, 2020
TRT World spoke to one man from the south-eastern Turkish city of Siirt, who said he had been waiting for this moment since moving to Istanbul decades ago.
"I am very happy to be here waiting for prayers after 42 years," said 56-year-old furniture seller, Bedrettin Kayar, explaining that he was grateful that the public could now enter the mosque without having to pay entry fees.
Architecture student Vural Hocaoglu described Hagia Sophia as a historic symbol of religious tolerance and respect.
"After Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul and entered the city, he told the Christian population that they had nothing to fear because Ottoman rule meant respect for all faiths and nations" the 20-year old said, adding he felt at peace knowing Muslims could once again hold prayers there while Christians and others could continue to visit. He was accompanied by his 14-year old brother Hizir, who said his feelings were indescribable.
Hagia Sophia’s restoration as a mosque comes a fortnight after a Turkish court ruled that a 1934 government decree converting the structure into a museum was not legal, paving the way for it to become a house of worship once again.
Judges decided that as the Hagia Sophia was owned by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation, the government did not have the right to change its designation regarding its use, which for centuries prior had been as a mosque.
The decision was widely welcomed in Turkey, including opposition parties, and by Turkish citizens, and Muslims further afield.
Shortly after the decision was announced, crowds of Turkish citizens gathered outside the building, waving Turkish flags and reciting the Islamic call to prayer.
Entry fees waived
Turkish officials have repeatedly made clear that like all mosques in the country, the building will be open to visitors, who will no longer have to pay entry fees to visit the site.
Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, said: “All of our major mosques such as the Blue Mosque, Fatih and Suleymaniye Mosques, are open to both visitors and worshippers.”
Despite alarmist rhetoric coming from some quarters of the media and foreign leaders, Christian iconography inside the mosque will be preserved as they had been by Muslims for centuries prior to its conversion to a museum, the Turkish official added.
Administrative duties for the mosque will be split between Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Diyanet will oversee religious activities, while the latter will continue to administer conservation and restoration projects, and the management of relics contained within the mosque.
The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453 after the conquest of Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, by the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Mehmet II.
For many Turks, the conquest was the crowning achievement of the Ottoman Empire, the precursor state to the modern Turkish Republic. For his contemporaries and for future generations, Mehmet came to be known by the honorific ‘Fatih’, which means ‘the Conqueror’.
Ayasofya was first constructed in the year 532 CE and took its current form five years later. Ironically, the huge dome for which it is famous, posed the greatest difficulty for Byzantine and later Ottoman architects tasked with its preservation.
The size means that over time, and with the occurrence of natural and man-made disasters, the structure has to be reinforced.
Ottoman authorities therefore granted the mosque a generous endowment, to ensure it could withstand the test of time.
Successive Ottoman sultans went to great lengths to ensure that not only the building survived as a mosque, but also that its Christian murals and iconography were preserved.
A testament to their success is the fact that frescos of the Virgin Mary remain to this day while flanked by Arabic calligraphy honouring God, the Prophet Muhammad, and his caliphs.