On July 10, 2020, in a calculated turn of events to try to divide Turkish political opposition and consolidate the voices of conservatives and nationalists, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Emblematic building of Istanbul, located on one of the seven hills of the city, at the mouth of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, the Byzantine basilica, inaugurated in 537 by the Emperor Justinian, built on the ruins of a church erected by Constantine II on an ancient Greek temple, it is still a highly symbolic place.

The virulent speech delivered by Ali Erbas, president of the powerful religious affairs directorate, on the occasion of his conversion, had been perceived by some as a revenge and an insult to the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal, advocate of a fight against secularism and a picture very strict religious, who had transformed the place into a museum in 1934.

Imam removed from office

Power was subsequently forced to dismiss the head imam of the new mosque, the publicized Mehmet Boynukalin, as the radicalism of his positions – from moral issues to domestic politics and geopolitics – also troubled in the ranks of the AKP, the presidential party .

In recent years, the Hagia Sophia has been the scene of sound and light shows celebrating the conquest of the city (in 1453), the perfect opportunity to revive the neo-Ottoman fiber dear to the Turkish president. The conversion of the museum has not benefited the building and for several months in Turkey there have been voices of protest against the damage it is suffering.

Significant damage

In April, photographs appeared in the press and on the networks documenting the considerable damage suffered by one of the main doors of the building. “According to what the people working on site have told me, some visitors give this door a mystical aura and voluntarily tear off pieces to take them with them. reports Serif Yasar, president of the Art and History Association and author of the photographs. From now on I am forbidden to take pictures on the spot, while tourists and faithful have the right to do so. They also tried to intimidate me by letting me spend an afternoon in police custody. “

Other photographs documented deliberate damage to some walls, the lining of which was scraped off by visitors to fill plastic bags. Some damage is accidental, such as the old marble broken in late June by the use of heavy cleaning machines.

For the Turkish architect Zeynep Ahunbay, a specialist in historical restoration who is part of the scientific committee set up to supervise the building, the root of the problem lies in the frequentation of the premises, which exploded after the conversion into a mosque. The crowds sometimes reach 100,000 people a day, such as during the celebration of Eid-El-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

“Accept fewer people”

“We should manage the entrances better and welcome fewer people inside at the same time, increasing the number of guards”, she believes. Her recommendations were sent to the ministries concerned. Unesco, which has also supervised this site classified as a World Heritage Site since 1985, must decide on the conservation conditions of the building, on the basis of a report submitted one year late by Turkey, in February.

The UN cultural institution was supposed to present its findings at the World Heritage Committee’s annual meeting originally scheduled for Russia in late June, but the invasion of Ukraine postponed the deadline.

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