Thousands of Muslims took part in Istanbul on Friday in the first prayer organized at the former Hagia Sophia since its conversion into a mosque.
It was the first prayer organized at the former Hagia Sophia since its controversial conversion into a mosque; a ceremony in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited a passage from the Koran.
During this prayer broadcast live, Mr. Erdogan, who wore the Muslim Djellabah for the occasion, read the first sura of the Koran. Then the four minarets of Hagia Sophia issued the call to prayer on Friday. Then the four minarets of Hagia Sophia issued the call to prayer signaling the beginning of the rite.
“We are witnessing a historic moment (…) A long separation comes to an end,” said Religious Authority leader Ali Erbas who, during his preaching, held a scimitar symbolizing the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453.
This is the first collective prayer organized in 86 years at Hagia Sophia, a major architectural work built in the 6th century which has successively been a Byzantine basilica, an Ottoman mosque and a museum.
On July 10, Erdogan decided to return the building to Muslim worship after a court ruling revoking its museum status obtained in 1934.
This measure has aroused the anger of certain countries, notably Greece, which closely follows the fate of Byzantine heritage in Turkey. Pope Francis also said he was “very distressed” by this reconversion.
Despite the epidemic of new coronavirus, compact crowds formed in the morning around Hagia Sophia, AFP journalists noted. Several faithful even spent the night there.
“This is historic. May Allah bless Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is doing such beautiful things. I am very moved,” Aynur Saatçi, a 49-year-old housewife who cut short her vacation to come, told AFP. pray in Hagia Sophia.
– “Breaking the chains” –
For many observers, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque aims to galvanize the conservative and nationalist electoral base of Mr. Erdogan, in a context of economic difficulties aggravated by the pandemic.
By making this decision, the Head of State, often accused of Islamist drift, is also attacking the legacy of the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal, who had transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum to make it the emblem of the Republic. ‘a secular Turkey.
As a symbol, Mr. Erdogan chose for the first prayer the day of the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne which fixes the borders of modern Turkey and which the president, nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire, often calls for revision.
Hagia Sophia remains in Turkey closely associated with the capture of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II, said the Conqueror. An Ottoman brass band was also present on the forecourt of the building on Friday.
“This is the moment when Turkey breaks its chains. From now on it will be able to do what it wishes, without being subject to the West,” said Selahattin Aydas, a trader who came to pray in Hagia Sophia.
“No one other than our president could have turned it back into a mosque,” he adds.
The Friday prayer also comes against a backdrop of strong tensions between Ankara and Athens, particularly related to Turkish hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Greece strongly denounced the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, seeing it as a “provocation against the civilized world”.
– “Political show” –
In protest in Greece, Orthodox churches were to ring their bells on Friday. “It is a day of mourning for (…) all of Christendom,” said the head of the Greek Church, Archbishop Iéronymos.
Israfil, a kilim seller near Hagia Sophia, is also unhappy with the conversion of Hagia Sophia, fearing a “negative impact on tourism” which has already suffered greatly from the epidemic.
“This whole show is for political reasons,” he grumbles.
But Ankara rejected all criticism in the name of “sovereignty”, stressing that tourists will be able to continue to visit this building classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
In any case, the authorities’ haste to organize a first prayer there raises concerns.
“The measures taken in haste (…) can have disastrous consequences and cause irreversible damage” to the 15-century-old building, underlines Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.
The fate of the Byzantine mosaics found inside Hagia Sophia is of particular concern to historians.
The Religious Affairs Authority (Diyanet) claimed that they would be covered by curtains only during prayers, as Islam prohibited figurative representations, and would remain visible the rest of the time.