ISTANBUL - This Friday, Islamic prayers are due to be held in Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia for the first time since Turkey’s government decided to re-convert the ancient cathedral into a mosque. Russia has stepped in, with Moscow voicing concern to Ankara over the fate of the historic building, including its world-famous Christian mosaics.
A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has spearheaded the push to change the status of the monument from museum to mosque, earlier said Christian mosaics would be concealed with curtains or lighting during Friday prayers.
Within days of an Istanbul court revoking the Hagia Sophia's museum status - paving the way to its conversion to a mosque - Russian president Vladimir Putin was on the phone to President Erdogan seeking assurances over the state of the mosaics.
Russian Orthodox leaders have also expressed concerns about building’s conversion, which they describe as a threat to Christianity.
The 6th-century Byzantine cathedral is not only famous as an architectural marvel, but also for the large mosaics depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Byzantium rulers decorating the building's massive walls ceilings.
'A major monument' for Christians
Russia's Orthodox Church is a powerful force within Russian society. "These images are very important for Christianity because it was a major monument for Christian people," said professor Zeynep Ahunbay, who spent 25 years working on the Hagia Sophia's restoration and preservation.
"All possible steps must be taken to prevent damage that could be caused by the hasty change in the status of the world-renowned museum," read a statement this month by the Russian parliament the State Duma.
When the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest of then-Constantinople by Fatih Sultan Mehmed – known historically as Mehmed the Conqueror - the mosaics were later plastered over to comply with Muslim doctrine banning figurative representations in places of worship.
The mosaics were only revealed when the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1934 by the founder of the Turkish secular republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Russia and Turkey are currently at odds on issues like Syria and Libya, but Moscow rarely publicly criticizes Ankara over domestic matters.
Ankara has been quick to quell growing concern by offering assurances on the future of Hagia Sophia’s artwork. "It's out of the question that these mosaics are (to be) covered, plastered over or are kept from the public," said presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın.
Curtains, not lasers
But the Turkish leadership appeared in disarray over how the museum will be converted into a mosque. Initially, the Turkish presidency proposed sophisticated lighting to obscure the images. In pro-government newspapers, the use of "dark lasers" was touted as a solution without explaining what a dark laser is.
The use of lighting raised concerns over the potential risk posed to the integrity of the nearly thousand-year-old images. However, following Erdogan's visit to the Hagia Sophia Sunday to inspect preparations for the building's conversion, curtains are now presented as the more viable solution.
The Diyanet, the state body administering the Muslim faith in Turkey, announced Christian icons would be curtained off and unlit "through appropriate means during prayer times." The authority also vowed to protect the building's integrity promising "not even a nail would be used" when installing the system.
In Turkey, curtains are already used in other recent mosque conversions of former historic churches. "We have seen some examples of using curtains," said Ahunbay. "In Iznik [Turkish City] there is also a Hagia Sophia and another one in Trabzon [Turkish City], there they try to cover in some way human images, so it's not visible during prayer times. But these are much smaller buildings. You can imagine in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, how difficult to cover the mosaics, 40 meters high up, and several meters big. I think it's not practical."
Ankara is working hard to defuse the controversy, "Our goal is to avoid harming the frescoes, icons and the historic architecture of the edifice," stated Kalin in a television interview.
The government is seeking to present Hagia Sophia mosque conversion as a victory for spirituality, arguing the importance of returning the historic building to its intended religious purpose.
"Hagia Sophia's resurrection is a sign that we something new to say to the world as the Turkish nation, as Muslims, and all of humanity." Yasin Aktay, a close Erdogan adviser, penned in a column Thursday in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.
Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, and Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani both close Erdogan allies, are invited to attend the Hagia Sophia's reopening as a mosque. Thousands of people are expected to travel from across Turkey to attend Friday prayers at the Hagia Sophia.
With opinion polls indicating Erdogan’s party, the AKP, is hemorrhaging support, analysts say the Hagia Sophia's conversion is widely seen as an attempt by Erdogan to galvanize both his religious and nationalist base.