Turkey deviates by turning historic sites into mosques
On July 24, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which opposed Turkey’s conversion of the historic Hagia Sophia museums and Chora in active religious sites.
The two landmarks are among nine in the historic areas of the Istanbul World Heritage Site. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist, started organizing Islamic prayers in Hagia Sophia last year. The century-old building served as both a mosque and a Christian church, as did the Chora Museum.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry dismissed UNESCO’s concerns about the change in status of the two buildings:
“The ongoing restoration programs and others implemented in the two monuments have no negative impact by UNESCO standards.”
But it is misleading. The renovations and scheduling of religious services may well affect their status on the World Heritage List.
Turkey did not share its renovation plans with the UN World Heritage Committee before announcing its intention to convert the two museums. These plans include the rehabilitation of a madrasa, an Islamic religious school in the north of Hagia Sophia, and the covering of the floor with a prayer rug.
According to Bianet, an independent human rights communication network based in Turkey, UNESCO may remove an endangered site from its list if the universal significance of the site is compromised.
At the moment, however, the main concern is that Turkish authorities “ensure proper conservation and public access to the site,” Jonathan Bell, vice president of programs for the World Monuments Fund, told National Geographic.
The controversy began on July 10, 2020, the day Erdogan issued a decree to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The move came after a high court overturned a 1934 law declaring the iconic building a museum because of its common religious heritage.
After issuing his decree, Erdogan joined hundreds of worshipers in the first formal Muslim prayers held inside the building in decades.
Erdogan also converted the Chora Historical Museum, a 6th-century Byzantine cathedral, into a mosque in August 2020. The Chora became a mosque in 1511 under the Ottoman Empire. In 1945, the secular Turkish Republic opened it to the public as a museum.
UNESCO said in its report that Turkey has delayed its plan to turn Chora into a mosque because the site will be the subject of a large-scale two-year conservation project and will not be open to visitors. This came after UNESCO warned Turkey that unilateral changes will affect the Chora’s World Heritage status.
The mosaic panels with Christian symbols on the ground floor of Hagia Sophia will be covered during Muslim prayers by motorized panels, meaning that visitors who wish to see the mosaic panels will have to come at other times. A similar system will be used to cover the frescoes in the Chora.
Turkey says both monuments will be open to all visitors, but tourists will have to adhere to restricted visiting hours and a dress code. Regulations for visiting mosques in Istanbul require women to cover their heads and their bodies to be covered with large scarves. Men should cover their knees and refrain from wearing tank tops.
The rules for visiting both sites will follow similar regulations applied when visiting Islamic monuments in Turkey, such as the Suleymaniye Mosque, one of Istanbul’s biggest tourist attractions. Tips on the mosque’s website specify visiting times and suggest not to disturb worshipers by taking photos.
Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction: more than 3.7 million tourists visited the museum in 2019. Turkey claims that the conversion of the museum into a mosque has not affected the number of people who visit it. ‘visited, as 3 million people did so. in 2020.
In a Foreign Ministry statement on the controversy released by Bianet, Turkey argued that altering the two venerated monuments was its sovereign right.
“The Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Mosque, the elements of the World Heritage site” Historic Areas of Istanbul “, are returned to the mosque by decision of the Turkish State Council following a legal procedure” , indicates the press release.
“Hagia Sophia and the Chora are properties of the Republic of Turkey which are meticulously preserved in terms of historical, cultural and spiritual value. “