President Erdogan Celebrates the Conversion of Hagia Sophia

August 08, 2021

A year ago, Turkey transformed the ancient Christian basilicas of Hagia Sophia and Holy Savior in Chora into mosques. In 1934, the Hagia Sophia was transformed into a museum, and Holy Savior in 1948. For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Hagia Sophia is a “symbol of the rebirth of Islamic civilization.”

A new confrontation has taken place between the Turkish authorities and experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over the Hagia Sophia and Chora.

Last December, the United Nations body called for an “audit of the changes” made after the conversion of the churches to mosques.

In a statement, the committee members expressed “deep regret over the lack of dialogue and information on the change in status of the two buildings.”

The government of Ankara reacted immediately, rejecting any interference in internal affairs: it criticized Unesco, accusing the international institution of adopting a “political” and “partial” position on the conversion of the Christian basilicas of Hagia Sophia and Chora into mosques.

At the annual meeting held in Fuzhou, China, July 16-31, Unesco experts called for an “updated state of conservation report” on the Hagia Sophia, setting a February 1, 2022 deadline for the submission of a full study of the two monuments.

The UNESCO committee said it was “gravely concerned” by the situation that has arisen and made no secret of its “deep regret at the lack of dialogue and information” regarding these changes.

In its response, Turkey affirms that the works in progress will have no negative impact according to Unesco standards: on the contrary, they aim to protect the authenticity and integrity of the structures.

“Hagia Sophia and Chora,” the statement continued, “are the property of the Republic of Turkey, they are meticulously preserved in terms of historical, cultural and spiritual value” and their use is a “sovereign right of Turkey.”

This transformation was a political success for Erdogan, who thus secured broad support from Muslim circles with an Islamist tendency, while he was losing ground in Kemalist circles - which relates to Atatürk - and supporters of a secular state.