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OP-ED: Why Hagia Sophia is becoming a mosque again

  • Published at 09:28 pm July 23rd, 2020
Hagia Sophia

Turkey is fully aware of its obligations towards this landmark

Hagia Sophia -- “Ayasofya” in Turkish -- is regarded as one of the most extraordinary architectural monuments in the world. Its outstanding cultural, historical, and spiritual value has been well recognized by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey since the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, aka Fatih, in 1453.

Hagia Sophia is a part of Fatih Sultan Mehmet Endowment as a “mosque” which was established by the Sultan himself in 1462. According to the Turkish Law on Endowments, a property (hayrat) should primarily be used in pursuant of the function that was written in its founding document (Waqfiye).

Hagia Sophia had been used by the Ottoman Sultans as an important mosque for centuries as it is in close proximity of Topkapi Palace, which served as the main residence of the Sultan and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire. 

In 1934, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Turkey decided to make Hagia Sophia a museum due to many invaluable artifacts preserved in it. 

Since then, Hagia Sophia Museum has been administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This extraordinary site was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985 as a component of “Historic Areas of Istanbul.”

Turkey has been actively contributing to UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972 Convention) since 1983. Therefore, Turkey has a long tradition of inscriptions of its cultural and natural properties to the World Heritage List. This tradition brings with itself deep knowledge of the World Heritage Convention and its Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. 

To date, 18 heritage sites have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List from Turkey. We are fully aware of our responsibilities regarding the heritage sites that were inscribed and duly preserved over the last 37 years. 

Neither the 1972 convention nor the operational guidelines pose an impediment to any property rights of the cultural heritage sites, including the change of status. Hagia Sophia has been and will be protected duly and meticulously regardless of its status. 

Indeed, thanks to the Ottoman and Turkish authorities, who preserved and diligently fortified the structure as and when necessary, with a view to conserving this landmark monument for future generations, Hagia Sophia, as a significant cultural treasure of both Christian and Islamic cultural heritage, remains intact and stands as strong as ever before despite many natural disasters. 

The Turkish Council of State has recently decided to annul the 1934 decision taken by the Council of Ministers, converting Hagia Sophia into a museum upon the application of an association. This was a legal ruling based on the sovereign rights of our country and our nation. We, therefore, expect all who are committed to the rule of law, a fundamental principle of democratic governance, to respect this decision. 

Aiming to preserve the historical, cultural, social, and spiritual values of Hagia Sophia, a protocol has been signed on July 16, 2020 between the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Presidency of Religious Affairs. 

According to the Protocol, Ministry of Culture and Tourism will be responsible for the relations with Unesco and the World Heritage Centre, whereas the Presidency of Religious Affairs will be responsible only for the arrangement of religious services.  

Turkey is fully aware of its obligations and responsibilities in the context of the 1972 Convention and the operational guidelines including cooperation with Unesco World Heritage Centre to preserve the outstanding universal value, integrity, and authenticity of this landmark memorial. 

Hagia Sophia, like other monumental mosques in Turkey, will be open to all visitors. Starting from today, Hagia Sophia, as a symbol of tolerance and peace, will continue to welcome visitors from all faiths and religions around the globe. 

Mustafa Osman Turan is Ambassador, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey.

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