Muslim prayers have been held in the iconic Hagia Sophia for the first time in 86 years after the reconversion of the Istanbul landmark into a mosque earlier this month.
The Friday prayers took place two weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan controversially declared the nearly 1,500-year-old monument open to Muslim worship after a top court ruled the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman in the mid-1930s was illegal.
Erdogan, accompanied by cabinet minister and other top officials, joined hundreds of worshippers inside Hagia Sophia as large crowds gathered outside.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built as a cathedral during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 537 but converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
It was designated a museum in a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan said last year it had been a “very big mistake” to convert it into a museum.
Critics however accuse Erdogan, who has been in power for 17 years, of playing to his nationalistic base, with support eroding amid a global economic downtown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Towering over Istanbul’s skyline, its breathtaking domes seemingly afloat, it is also one of Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions, with 3.7 million visitors in 2019.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said Friday was “a very big day” in the city of some 18 million.
“The heart of the city, the historical peninsula, is under total lockdown since last night,” she said.
In the sprawling square outside Hagia Sophia, authorities set up separate areas for men and women to worship on Friday, while more than 700 health personnel, 101 ambulances and a helicopter ambulance were available.
Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya asked that people to bring four items – “masks, prayer mats, patience and understanding”.