ISTANBUL, Turkey — In its more than 1,400-year existence, the majestic domed structure of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has served as the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral, a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and a museum in modern Turkey, attracting millions of tourists each year.
Museum or Mosque, the debate continues.
The 6th century building is now at the center of a heated debate between nationalist, conservative and religious groups who are pressing for it to be reconverted back into a mosque and those who believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, underscoring Istanbul’s status as a bridge between continents and cultures.
On Thursday, Turkey’s Council of State began considering a request by a group that wants Hagia Sophia to revert to being a mosque and that argues the historic structure was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul. A state attorney urged the council, which is Turkey’s highest administrative court, to reject that request, state-run media reported.
A decision is expected within two weeks.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads an Islamic-oriented party, has previously spoken about possibly changing Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque but has said his government would await the Council of State’s decision.
Analysts believe that Erdogan — a populist, polarizing leader who in nearly two decades in office has frequently blamed Turkey’s secular elites for the country’s problems — is using the debate to consolidate his conservative base and to distract attention from Turkey’s substantial economic woes.
The world will know if it is Museum or Mosque.