World Bulletin / News Desk
It has served as the exalted seat of two faiths since its vast dome and lustrous gold mosaics first levitated above Istanbul in the 6th Century: Christendom's greatest cathedral for 900 years and one of Islam's greatest mosques for another 560.
Today, the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish, is officially a museum: Turkey's most-visited monument, whose formally neutral status symbolises the secular nature of the modern Turkish state.
An imam of the Ka'bah, Islam's holiest site in Mecca, Abdullah Basfar, led thousands in a dawn prayer congregation outside of the Hagia Sofia on Saturday morning, before the congregation raised their hands in supplication asking for it to be reverted into a mosque.
"This is a serious push to break Ayasofya's chains," said Salih Turhan, head of the Anatolia Youth Association, which has collected 15 million signatures to petition for it to be turned back into a mosque.
"Ayasofya is a symbol for the Islamic world and the symbol of Istanbul's conquest. Without it, the conquest is incomplete, we have failed to honour Sultan Mehmet's trust," he said, citing a 15th Century deed signed by the conquering Caliph and decrying as sin other uses of Hagia Sophia.
Built in 537 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian whose rule stretched from Spain to the Middle East, Hagia Sophia - meaning "Divine Wisdom" in Greek - was unrivalled in the Christian world until Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453 and turned it into a mosque. Modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed it a museum in 1934.
Now, renewed interest in praying at Hagia Sophia taps into a burgeoning sense of Islamic identity that Erdogan has encouraged during a decade as Turkey's dominant politician.
For most of the 20th Century, Western-oriented Turks scorned the imperial past. But Erdogan has promoted celebration of the Turkish conquest that turned Constantinople into Istanbul.
"Conquest is the removal of shackles on doors and in hearts," he said on Thursday to mark the 561st anniversary of the Byzantine defeat. "Civilisation comes with conquest."
A 2012 film depicting the Muslim takeover of the Byzantine capital, "Conquest 1453", attracted an audience of millions. So has the museum's "Panorama 1453" exhibition, which recreates the event in vivid detail.
Ibrahim Kalin, a senior Erdogan adviser, said there were no plans to alter the monument's current status.
"Speculation on changing it into a church or a mosque remains speculation. Hagia Sophia has been open to all visitors from Turkey and around the world and will remain so," he said.
Last year, Erdogan said he would not consider changing Hagia Sophia's status as long as another great Istanbul house of worship, the 17th Century Sultan Ahmed Mosque, remains mostly empty of worshippers. Istanbul boasts more than 3,000 mosques.
But many pious Turks believe turning Hagia Sophia into a museum denigrated the memory of Sultan Mehmet, who strode into the cathedral to pray at its altar.
Last Mod: 31 Mayıs 2014, 11:44