Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prayed with hundreds of worshippers Friday inside the Hagia Sophia, the first prayers since the sixth-century Byzantine landmark was redesignated a mosque two weeks ago.
The president was joined by other officials, including his son-in-law and finance minister. Only 500 people were allowed inside the mosque because of coronavirus restrictions, while thousands more prayed outside in Sultanahmet Square.
Initially an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the mosque’s mosaics depicting Christian figures were covered during the Friday prayers.
Erdogan read verses from the Quran, while wearing a white prayer cap. Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s religious authority, addressed worshippers afterward.
“The longing of our nation, which has turned into a heartbreak, is coming to an end today,” Erbas said from the pulpit.
“Hagia Sophia will continue to serve all believers as a mosque and will remain a place of cultural heritage for all humanity,” the Turkish president said.
Erdogan’s enthusiasm was matched by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, who spoke with Erdogan over the phone.
Mirziyoyev expressed his “pleasure” over the mosque’s reopening and “wished for the historic development to have auspicious results for the Turkish nation and the Islamic world.”
Not all have voiced similar sentiments over the Hagia Sophia’s renewed status as a mosque.
The 1,500-year-old UNESCO-listed site was initially an Orthodox Christian cathedral that became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. In 1934, modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, converted it to a museum — a status Erdogan overturned July 10.
Christian church leaders and officials from the United States, Russia and Greece have voiced their consternation, and UNESCO has questioned Erdogan’s decision.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO.
“This decision … raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value,” the organization said in a statement July 10.