It was a clear day in Istanbul, the sun blazing down at temperatures close to thirty degrees, as crowds of people marched from Galata Bridge to the Sultan Ahmet area. These sites usually aren’t totally unfamiliar to anyone who has been in Istanbul during busy summer weekends, but this time it wasn’t tourists. Men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds from across Turkey and beyond, gathered moving like a quick stream, rhythmically chanting Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allahu-Ekbar (O God, In the Name of God, God is greater) carrying and waving Turkish and Ottoman flags and symbols of the Islamic faith. Vendors wandering the streets sold Palestine flags, Turkey flags (some with Erdogan’s face), Ottoman flags and prayer mats yelling Turk bayrak (Turkish flags) at the top of their voices. Hagia Sophia Museum was being changed back into Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque and would be hosting its inaugural prayer. The occasion was momentous.
As I slipped through the crowd trying to find out which police checkpoints would lead me closest to the mosque, even I was moved by the enthusiasm and sheer excitement of the people. I followed the tramway route on Alemdar Street and came to a police checkpoint which usually led to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. They were determined to keep security tight and only allowed a few people with special passes through. Rushing back as the Friday Prayer approached, I managed to slip past another police checkpoint after a thorough search where the human traffic literally hit a standstill. The people had laid down their prayer mats hours before, some lucky enough to find shade from the scorching midday Istanbul heat, patiently awaiting the historic prayer which would correct what many there considered a historical mistake if not an injustice.
Noticing I might not get further, I took my shoes off and resolutely continued my journey. I wouldn’t get into Hagia Sophia today, but I was going to get as close as possible. The entirety of Alayköşkü Street was now filled with worshipers eagerly anticipating the beginning of the Friday Prayer as they also chanted prayers, and blessings upon the Prophet with that distinct Arabic tinged Turkish that anyone whose watched Turkish TV or lived here will immediately notice. The atmosphere was alive, vibrant, energized and spiritually rich. But I now had to walk between rows of seated people, my feet on their prayer mats occasionally stomping their extended hands.
On the way, I encountered a few people from Istanbul and elsewhere who described what the day meant for them. The jubilation was clear on their faces despite the serious discomfort they had to endure on the cobble stoned roads on that street. “Where are you from brother?”, a young man asked when I stopped on top of his prayer mat as I tried to figure out how I could get nearer to Hagia Sophia. I was initially taken aback by the politeness he showed, given I’d basically trampled where he’d have to put his face, barely registering how awkward the situation was. Before I could answer they noticed my press pass, and began pointing me in the direction of another gentleman who was giving a spontaneous sermon of his own. I don’t understand what he’s saying I told them in Turkish, but I speak English and would be glad to hear what you think of all this.
The oldest in the group then stepped forward, and with weak English, and the support of Google translate he told me it is “an indescribable feeling because 86 years of longing is over.” He then erased that, and wrote something into Google translate which read “this shows the Ottoman spirit is still here.” An associate of his equally excited to speak with a foreign journalist then opened his phone using Google translate and wrote, “the turning of Hagia Sophia into a museum was done to weaken Islam here, but we turned it back into a mosque. We broke the castle door and entered it.”
Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal, Turkey’s founding leader but before that it had served as a mosque for hundreds of years after Fatih Mehmet Sultan’s successful conquest of Istanbul. He placed it under an endowment which said it should forever remain a mosque, cursing anyone who would dare use the building for any other purpose. When Mustafa Kemal made the conversion to a museum it became a metaphor for the suffering of Turkey’s Muslims who faced great restrictions on faith through much of the Republic’s history. The conversion back into the mosque was at once a historical mistake corrected for many, but also an event which redeemed and reaffirmed that aspect of their identity which for so long was asphyxiated under the pressure of an authoritarian state led by an elite committed to a project which had no place for its Muslim communities.
I walked around speaking to more people who were proudly asserting their identities as Muslim Turks and the same themes continued to recur. One young man said he traveled all the way from Bodrum just for the day to take part in what he said his family had been awaiting for over a generation. He also said he’d continue the celebration that night at a disco and laughed. Others visited from villages across the country. But it wasn’t just Turks. A quick survey of the congregation and you’d see Muslims from Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. The sheer symbolic significance of the day crossed borders, having a ripple effect that transcended ethnic and racial boundaries in the Muslim world.
The Arab Maghreb Union called the conversion a “historic event.” The Grand Mufti of Oman, Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili, congratulated “the entire Muslim nation, and particularly the Turkish nation headed by its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for converting Hagia Sophia back to a house of worship where Allah authorized his name to be raised and mentioned.” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also sent a message of support. Somalia’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs applauded “the Islamic nation in general, and the brotherly Turkish people in particular” on the re-opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Ali Akbar Velayati, a Senior Advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader said “we congratulate the Turkish people for this important Islamic success.” Shaqir Fetahu, Deputy Chair of the Islamic Religious Union of the Republic of Macedonia said Turkey is “a rising star and indispensable source of hope for Muslims and the oppressed.”
Some Arab states dubbed “counterrevolutionary”, who also have frosty ties with Ankara however objected to the move. Noura bint Mohamed Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth said Hagia Sophia “should neither be misused nor altered through change in a way that touches the human essence. Especially for sites that are inscribed under World Heritage by Unesco.” Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawky Allam said that changing the status of places of worship is “forbidden” in Islam, likely unaware that Hagia Sophia was changed from a museum to a mosque in this instant. Egyptian religious authorities also described the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul as an “occupation” before retracting the comment and issuing a corrective. President of Bahrain’s Authority for Culture and Antiquities, Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa (a former Bahraini government minister) also expressed reservations.
As the call to prayer began I found a space between a few people who offered to make some room noticing I had no choice and took a seat. The streets were full, the sun had just passed its zenith but had reached the full extent of its power, and from quite a distance we listened to the festivities as they begun on a speaker placed nearby for our convenience. President Erdogan read some Quran before the Friday Prayer formally began with another call to prayer. Professor Dr. Ali Erbas, President of Religious Affairs, then delivered his historic sermon with sword in hand in accordance with Ottoman tradition. “The longing of the descendants of Mehmet the Conqueror and the silence of the grand temple” he said, “have come to an end.” “The reopening of Hagia Sophia to worship means all crestfallen and oppressed masjids on earth, first and foremost Masjid al-Aqsa should have their hopes up again.”
The final call to prayer began, and after very long period seated on solid concrete with barely any blood in our legs we had the relief of being able to stand up and begin our prayers. An hour must have past for me, and hours for the people around me as the gentleman to my right had fallen asleep. His friend nudged him as we stood. We ascended in unison, and a silence had come to what was a busy and very noisy street moments earlier. A historic prayer began and the legacy of Fatih Sultan Mehmet was restored.
Shortly after I overheard a discussion among a group of people who laughed about the prospect of Masjid al-Aqsa being freed from the Israeli yoke. Another among them laughed that Hagia Sophia’s re-conversion to a mosque was also once considered impossible, an idea that would cost Turkey a great deal more than it would gain. The 24th of June was the day an impossible hope was satisfied.