Hagia Sophia will continue as the common heritage of humanity, says Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrated the reopening of the Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship, saying the monument, now turned back into a full-time mosque, will remain open for all as the common cultural heritage of humanity.

In his Friday address to the nation, Erdoğan began his speech by announcing that the $15 entrance fee will be waived, since the Byzantine-era monument is no longer a museum but a mosque and an active place of worship. The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open “for all, local and foreign, Muslim and non-Muslim”, he said.

In an exclusive statement to Ahval, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus expressed “disappointment” by the decision, and said the United States was looking forward to Turkey’s plans to keep the heritage site accessible to all.

“We are disappointed by the decision by the Government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia. This building is an important part of the "Historic Sites of Istanbul" UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its rich multicultural history.

We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all."

The Hagia Sophia, first constructed as a Byzantine Orthodox cathedral in the 6th century and turned into a museum in the early years of the Republic of Turkey, will be opened for Muslim worship officially with Friday prayers on July 24, Erdoğan said, and urged people to refrain from visiting the site until then not to interfere with preparations or from gathering near the mosque for “demonstrations”.

Christians will still be welcome, Erdoğan said, and “see that the rumours have not been true”, referencing concern expressed by the Orthodox Churches in Greece and Russia, politicians from Europe and the United States, and U.N. cultural organisation UNESCO.

“We will put forth the best example of how we will carry our ancestors’ legacy into the future,” said the Turkish head of state.

In a tweet before the president’s speech, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez had called on Erdoğan to keep the monument’s legacy for “people of all faiths.”

In a statement that coincided with Erdoğan’s speech, UNESCO said it “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved”, expressing concern over continued access to the site.

Erdoğan called for all to “respect the decision by Turkey’s judiciary and executive bodies”, adding that the Hagia Sophia being opened for worship again was “a mere exercise of our right to sovereignty”, and any comment beyond an expression of opinion “a violation of our independence”.

“If there is to be a faith-based discussion today, the topic should not be Hagia Sophia but the Islamophobia and xenophobia that climb to further heights every day around the world,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan thanked all political parties and their leaders who stood behind Turkey’s decision about its own laws and historic rights, which includes the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had announced support for the re-opening but said it was not a point of contention nor a priority.

Erdoğan recounted the story of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, who got his name for the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, and how he “emphasised the conquest” by shooting one arrow into the Hagia Sophia’s great dome, and reciting the first call to prayer himself.

Atop the cathedral, Sultan Mehmet saw the decrepit state of Istanbul, then-Constantinople, and decided to improve the city to suit his glory, Erdoğan continued with his story. The sultan also took under his wings Orthodox Christians “marginalised by other sects of Christianity”, and allowed the Orthodox Church to develop.

“With the Conquest, Istanbul was picked back up from where she fell, devastated due to centuries of earthquakes, fires, pillaging, and neglect,” Erdoğan said, in a clear parallel to how he often speaks of the conditions of his election as Istanbul’s mayor in 1994. “Hagia Sophia is the symbol of this process.”

The Turkish nation has always taken excellent care of Hagia Sophia, and “not even attempted to change its original name which means the Wisdom of God”.

“As you can see, this temple that was dilapidated under the weight of a failing state was not only turned into a mosque by our ancestors, but was also revived and improved," Erdoğan said.

“The Turkish people do not have a lesser right over Hagia Sophia than those who first constructed this monument."

Erdoğan praised Turkey’s tolerance to non-Muslim populations, and said the destruction of Muslim heritage in former Ottoman territories like the Balkans was “not to be taken as an example.” The president spoke of the more than 400 non-Muslim places of worship still active throughout Turkey, however, the numbers have dwindled as the Turkey’s Christian and Jewish populations did over the 19th and 20th centuries due to wars, massacres, exiles and discriminatory taxation practices.

There had been discussions to turn the Hagia Sophia into a church, during the occupation of Istanbul after World War I by Britain, France, Italy and Greece, Erdoğan said.

“You cannot enter here,” Erdoğan cited an Ottoman army officer as telling a member of the French occupation force. “This is our temple.”

During the single-party period in the time of the Turkish republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the government issued an order that there had to be at least 500 metres of distance between mosques, Erdoğan said, which effectively banned worship activities in Hagia Sophia because of the nearby Blue Mosque.

“During the years when it was closed for worship, this legacy of our ancestors was subjected to a great historicide,” Erdoğan said. The Hagia Sophia Madrasa, a school built next to the cathedral by Sultan Mehmet, was “needlessly demolished”, the mosque’s antique carpets were cut up and sold off, and its exquisite chandeliers melted down, he continued.

“Those who wanted to leave no trace of the Hagia Sophia ever being a mosque would almost dare tear down its minarets,” Erdoğan said, adding that the minarets of another converted church, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, also known as Little Hagia Sophia in the nearby Fatih district, had in fact been torn down “in one night with no basis in law”.

Erdoğan said the Turkish government at the time had decided not to tear down Hagia Sophia’s minarets after a report was written up stating that the four minarets acted as pillars that supported the building’s great dome.

The disrepair and occasional destruction of similar monuments, presumably mosques converted from churches throughout Anatolia, was a calamity, “treason against history”, and also unlawful, Erdoğan said.

“Hagia Sophia does not belong to the state or any one institution,” Erdoğan said. “It belongs to a foundation.”

“The Conqueror, when he conquered Istanbul, took on the title ‘Emperor of Rome,’ thus acquiring all properties registered on the Byzantine dynasty. The Hagia Sophia was registered to the Conqueror, and the foundation he established,” Erdoğan said.

Mehmet the Conqueror in his last will said whoever attempted to alter Hagia Sophia would have committed the gravest sin, Erdoğan continued, earning the condemnation of “Allah, the prophet, all angels and all Muslims”.

“Today’s decision has delivered us from this curse from the Conqueror."

Erdoğan accused the previous governments of having contemplated “turning the Blue Mosque into an art gallery, the Yıldız Palace into a casino, and Hagia Sophia into a jazz club, and even achieving some of these ideas”.

“May Allah never lead this nation astray again,” Erdoğan said.

“The resurrection of Hagia Sophia means we as the Turkish nation, as Muslims, and as the whole of humanity, have new words to say to the world,” said Erdoğan, adding that it heralded a new era in which it is also an indication of emancipation of the al-aqsa mosque.