Erdogan: ‘Reverting Hagia Sophia to Its Original Mosque Form Was My Youth Dream’

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 24: People visit Hagia Sophia Mosque after the first official Friday prayers on July 24, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the first Friday prayer inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque after it was officially reconverted into a mosque from a museum. The …
Burak Kara/Getty Images

Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confessed on Friday, attending the first Islamic prayers at the Hagia Sophia in 86 years, that converting the ancient Christian cathedral to a mosque was his childhood dream.

The Hagia Sophia was built in late antiquity as a Byzantine cathedral and enjoyed nearly a millennium as one of the holiest sites in Christianity. When the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, the victors converted the building into a mosque, which it remained until the founding of the Republic of Turkey in the early 20th century. The Hagia Sophia functioned as a secular museum until this month when Erdogan’s government announced it would return to being an Islamic center.

“Reverting Hagia Sophia to its original form as a mosque was a dream of my youth,” Erdogan said, failing to note that the building’s original form was as a cathedral, on Friday following a visit to the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II “the Conquerer,” who wrested Constantinople from Christian hands.

The newly appointed Islamic leadership of the “Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque” gave Erdogan the honor to recite Quranic prayers at the former cathedral during the first weekend services there since the founder of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, secularized the nation.

“Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque is a cultural heritage of humanity as a whole. It was a mosque and was reverted back into a mosque,” Erdogan later asserted after reciting the prayers, claiming that “some 350,000 people” had come out to attend the first Islamic prayers at the site in nearly a century.

In addition to the recitation by the president, Imam Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s religious directorate (the Diyanet), offered remarks celebrating the return of Islam to the Christian architectural marvel. Erbas ironically referred to the Hagia Sophia’s return to Islam — which required the removal of priceless Christian artifacts and covering up of frescos of Christian scenes — as “the symbol of respect to belief and of the morality of coexistence.”

“The conversion of Hagia Sophia is proof that the Islamic civilization — the foundation of which is tawhid [monotheism], the building block of which is knowledge, and the cement of which is virtue, continues to rise in spite of all drawbacks,” Erbas declared. “The reopening of the Hagia Sophia to worship means that all sorrowful masjids [mosques], first and foremost the Masjid al-Aqsa [in Jerusalem], and oppressed believers on earth are able to get lifeline support.”

“Hagia Sophia is the place from which the boundless mercy of Islam is once again declared to the whole world,” he asserted.

Despite mentioning “oppressed believers,” Erbas did not mention the enslaved Turkic Muslims of China — primarily the Uyghur people, but also some Kazakhs and Kyrgyz Turks — languishing in communist concentration camps in the country currently. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency published an article today applauding China for its relationship with Turkey. A decade ago, Erdogan referred to Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur population as “genocide,” but has since declined to condemn ongoing human rights atrocities.

Erdogan’s Islamist supporters celebrated the conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque as a conquest similarly representing the defeat of Western values as the fall of Constantinople. Ibrahim Karagül, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak, described Friday as “a challenge against the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.”

“Hagia Sophia! The Last Crusade has been stopped,” began the title of his column on Friday, of significantly shorter length than his typical titles.

“The Ottoman Empire became a global power with Istanbul’s conquest. Turkey will do the same with Hagia Sophia,” Karagül wrote. “Hagia Sophia is not only a source of joy, it is not only a sentiment. Hagia Sophia represents power. It represents a globalizing power today as it did 567 years ago.”

The Islamization of the Hagia Sophia elicited outrage around the Christian world, particularly in Greece; the ancestors of the modern Greek nation built the Hagia Sophia.

“The alteration of the character of important cultural monuments is an indisputable blow to the cultural heritage of mankind,” the Greek Foreign Ministry asserted in a statement on Friday. “This alteration is a violation of Turkey’s obligations under the 1972 UNESCO Convention and casts a heavy shadow over its [Turkey’s public] image.”

The Foreign Ministry expressed concern that the Christian artifacts and artwork within the building now faced “significant risks” given its use as a mosque.

“At a time when convergences and unifying steps are needed, moves that incite religious and cultural divisions and widen rifts rather than bridge them do not contribute to the understanding and rapprochement of peoples,” the ministry concluded.

Following the official announcement that the Hagia Sophia would soon serve as a mosque last month, the U.S. Department of State urged Turkey “to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”

The Turkish government responded that it was “shocked” America would object to the move.

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