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Ramadan: Hagia Sophia a glimpse into Turkey’s modern transformation | Religious News

Istanbul, Turkey – With the end of twilight covering this city, the sound of Isha’s prayer breathes heavily around the Hagia Sophia complex.

As Muslims and non-Muslims – some tourists, some not – make their way to the ancient wonder, many wait to pray and also experience the special tarawih prayers that resume in the museum-turned-mosque after 88 years this Ramadan.

Ibrahim Cetin, 50, visits the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia for the first time and remains overwhelmed with emotions.

“Although I have lived in this city for 30 years, I am entering this building for the first time because I want to pray tarawih here,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I am extremely happy that it is a mosque again. It’s hard to put into words to describe what this moment means to me,” he added, breaking down in tears.

Hagia Sophia has always been a central emblem of historical battles and changes: the monument has been coveted and mourned by modern-day emperors, sultans and politicians.

It was a cathedral, a mosque, a museum and now a mosque again after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the decision in 2020. The first prayer then took place under the soaring dome of the building on July 24 this year.

Erdogan’s decision received a lot of backlash and was deemed “politically motivated” by critics. Hagia Sophia visitor Nuh Atikoglu, 52, echoed similar views.

“I don’t care if it’s a mosque or a museum. I am indifferent because there is also the Blue Mosque nearby. Erdogan took this decision to distract Turkish citizens from the ongoing political crisis at that time,” Atikoglu said.

Conversion, however, was also seen as a long-standing demand of Turkish conservatives. Cetin had “never expected Hagia Sophia to become a mosque again, but it is a monument belonging to our Ottoman ancestors”, he said.

Hagia Sophia has always been a central emblem of historical battles and changes [Hajira Maryam/Al Jazeera]

Changing direction with history

For the first 900 years of its existence, Hagia Sophia was central to Byzantine culture and politics. Considered an architectural marvel, it was built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church in 537 CE during the reign of Emperor Justinian I.

Therefore, although it is immobile in form and structure, its meaning remains fluid, reflecting the political transformations of ancient and modern Turkey.

A significant historical change for the building took place in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul. Jubilant upon seeing the great monument, he prevented its destruction and turned it into a mosque.

“Mehmed II is an extremely intellectual leader, his mother is a Christian, so he wants to lead the Christians in the city, and rather than destroy Hagia Sophia, he enlarged it,” said Kaya Genc, ​​author of Le Lion and the Nightingale.

Hagia Sophia became the symbol of the imperial and sacred prestige of the Ottoman Empire – it was important along with the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Interior conversions also took place during Ottoman rule. Islamic roundels – with the names of God, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the Prophet’s two grandsons – hung from the columns of the nave.

A mihrab – an altar that indicates the direction of Mecca – has been installed in the wall.

The Hagia Sophia mihrab sits just below the mosaic of the Theotokos, “because the direction of Mecca is similarly eastward, there was no need to change the direction or orientation within of the Church,” said an art historian who asked to remain anonymous due to sensitivities over Hagia Sophia.

To add more Islamic character to the building, four minarets and the minbar were also added throughout its history under the Ottomans.

“The building itself affected buildings that were to come later, with the construction of imperial mosques in Constantinople and Istanbul. Their shape, their size, the complexes that formed around them all affected the construction of imperial religious buildings throughout the Muslim world.

Hagia Sophia became the symbol of the imperial and sacred prestige of the Ottoman Empire – it was important with the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem [Hajira Maryam/Al Jazeera]

The modern era

As the Ottoman Empire declined in the early 20th century, Turkey became a secular republic in 1923. The political shift from an empire to a republic also led to Hagia Sophia gaining another meaning as it was transformed in a museum in 1934.

Genc said it was a strategic political continuity for the importance of the building.

“What Atatürk did in 1935 is a form of continuity in the new modern Turkish society. Just as Islam is the continuation of Christianity, secularism is the continuation of Islam in its modern version. The formation of the republic is due to the modernized Islamists of that time.

“But the more religious sections of society were disappointed, how disappointed the Christians were when Mehmed II converted the monument into a mosque in the 15th century,” he added.

For today’s Turkish conservators, the conversion into a mosque marked the fulfillment of a long-held ambition to restore a monument symbolic of Ottoman glory.

“Atatürk also made a quick decision – it was sudden and brief. Erdogan also made a sudden and brief announcement on Twitter to turn it back into a mosque,” ​​Kaya said.

Last week, Erdogan also inaugurated the Hagia Sophia Fatih Madrassa in Istanbul. The madrassah was built by Mehmed II, serving as the city’s first madrasah next to Hagia Sophia, and was demolished during the Republican era.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Erdoğan said his government was happy “to return to the city another important structure whose traces have been deliberately erased”.

After the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the mosaics inside are again covered with white sheets, the Islamic roundels remain suspended, golden chandeliers illuminate the colossal space and a turquoise carpet covers the floor while people pray tarawih.

Hamza Cheroui, 32, a visiting tourist from Belgium, said he was delighted with his conversion. As a Muslim living in the West, Hamza said, Erdogan’s decision was mainly criticized by people with “anti-Islamic sentiments” in Europe.

As a frequent visitor to Hagia Sophia over the years, the space “seems more spacious and clear than it did as a museum,” he told Al Jazeera.

For many Turks, the conversion into a mosque marked the fulfillment of a long-held ambition to restore a monument symbolic of Ottoman glory. [Hajira Maryam/Al Jazeera]