ISTANBUL – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan joined thousands of worshippers at Hagia Sophia today. The Friday prayer was held for first time after Erdogan declared the monument, revered by Christians and Muslims for almost 1,500 years, a mosque once again.
Crowds formed at checkpoints where massed police maintained security. Once through the checks, worshippers sat apart on prayer mats outside the building in Sultan Ahmet Square.
Erdogan and his top ministers, wore white facemasks as a precaution against COVID-19. Blue carpets were embellished at the mosque.
An imam began the formal prayer service at 1.45 pm (1045 GMT), after Erdogan read out a Quranic recitation and the call to prayer rang out from the mosque’s minarets.
“We are ending our 86 years of longing today,” said one man, Sait Colak, referring to the nearly nine decades since Hagia Sophia was declared a museum and ceased to be a place of worship. “Thanks to our president and the court decision, today we are going to have our Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia.”
Turkish court announced this month it had annulled Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum to which Erdogan immediately decreed that the building, a Christian Byzantine cathedral for 900 years before being seized by Ottoman conquerors and serving as a mosque until 1934, had been converted once again to a mosque.
Thousands including Erdogan’s son-in-law and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, could be seen recording images of the historic occasion on their mobiles phones.
A large screen and speakers were set up to broadcast proceedings to the thousands gathered outside.
Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said authorities had stopped people entering the area due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. He called for patience and said the mosque would be open for prayer until Saturday morning.
Christian artworks concealed
“God is greatest,” chanted people in the square. While some worshippers slept after arriving overnight others ate on the grass, shaded by trees from the hot sun. Some were seen holding Turkish and Ottoman flags.
“This is a source of great pride for us, great excitement,” said worshipper Latif Ozer, 42.
During his 17-year rule, Erdogan has advocated Islam and backed efforts to restore Hagia Sophia’s mosque status. He raised the issue during local elections last year.
The conversion triggered fierce criticism from church leaders, who said the change to exclusively Muslim worship risked deepening religious divisions. Turkey says the site will remain open for visitors and its Christian artworks protected.
Erdogan has reshaped Turkey’s modern republic, established nearly a century ago by the secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
As worshippers prayed, white curtains inside Hagia Sophia covered an image of Mary and Jesus. “The Christian frescoes and glittering mosaics adorning the cavernous dome and central hall will be concealed during Muslim prayer times, but remain on display for the rest of the time,” an official said.