In its more than 1,400-year existence, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has meant many things to many groups of people.
The building served for centuries as the main religious center for Christians in the Byzantine Empire. Under Ottoman rule, it was used as an Islamic religious center. Today it serves as a museum. Millions of people visit the famous domed structure each year. UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization –- recognizes it as a World Heritage Site.
Now, the 6th-century building is at the center of a heated debate between nationalist, conservative and religious groups. Some people want Hagia Sophia returned to Muslims so they can use it as a mosque. Others want it to remain a museum.
Observers say this debate represents Istanbul’s importance as a bridge between continents and cultures.
On July 2, Turkey’s Council of State began studying a request by a group seeking to change Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The group making that request wants to cancel a 1934 decision by the Council of Ministers. That decision turned the historic structure into a museum. At the time, the head of the group was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads a political party that is closely allied to Islamic groups. He has spoken before about possibly changing Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque.
Some observers say they believe he is using the Hagia Sophia debate to strengthen his support with voters and to draw attention away from Turkey’s economic problems.
An expert on Turkey notes that this “is not just a debate about a building.”
Soner Cagaptay works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group based in the United States. He also wrote a book called “Erdogan’s Empire.”
Cagaptay says Ataturk established Hagia Sophia as a museum to create a secular Turkey. “And nearly 100 years later,” he continued, “Erdogan is trying to do the opposite.”
Cagaptay said that Erdogan “feels the pressure of popular support” lessening. Cagaptay said he believes the Turkish leader may want to use the debate issue to win back political support. But Cagaptay said that will only bring voters back temporarily.
If Erdogan “does not deliver economic growth,” Cagaptay added, he may not be able to win elections as he did in the past.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
In early July, he noted that Hagia Sophia served as a place of worship for Christians for 900 years and for Muslims for 500 years.
He added that as a museum, Hagia Sophia can serve as a place of “peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures” and a unity “between Christianity and Islam.”
Islamist groups, however, strongly object to the building’s use as a museum. Large crowds gathered outside Hagia Sophia on May 31, the anniversary of the city’s capture by Ottoman forces. They prayed and demanded that it be restored as a place of Muslim worship.
U.S. government comments
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Turkey to keep the famous structure as a museum.
In a statement, he said Hagia Sophia has a rare ability in the modern world: “to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.” A change in its status, he added, will lessen that ability.
I’m Anna Matteo.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elena Becatoros in Athens and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed. Anna Matteo adapted the story for VOA Learning English. The editor was George Grow.
Words in This Story
museum – n. a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public
dome – n. a large rounded roof or ceiling that is shaped like half of a ball : domed – adj. describes something that has a dome
World Heritage Site – n. a natural or man-made site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance and therefore as deserving special protection. Sites are nominated to and designated by the World Heritage Convention (an organization of UNESCO).
status – n. the condition of a person or a thing in the eyes of the law
draw – v. to cause (attention) to be given to someone or something
secular – adj. not religious : of or relating to the physical world and not the spiritual world : of, relating to, or controlled by the government rather than by the church
worship – v. to show respect and love for God or for a god especially by praying, having religious services, etc.