The Turkish Council of State today postponed its decision on whether to overturn the 86-year-old legal provisions ensuring neutral museum status to the Hagia Sophia, the ancient Christian basilica turned mosque turned museum, and to allow the site to be transformed into a mosque again.
The session in Turkey’s highest administrative court deciding on the fate of the Hagia Sophia lasted less than half-an-hour, according to reports on the ground.
Judges heard arguments from lawyers for a group arguing that a 1934 Turkish Council of Ministers decision turning the mosque into a museum should be overturned, and also from other counsel recommending that that request should be rejected on the basis that the management of Turkey’s Islamic heritage is the responsibility of the government alone.
The Byzantine basilica of Hagia Sophia, which was begun in 360 CE and completed in 537, was transformed into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and then became a museum in 1935, at the behest of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first Turkish President and founder of modern Turkey.
In recent years, at the end of each May, gatherings of thousands of people have filled the vast square outside the site to celebrate the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city and request the museum’s reopening as a mosque.
The ruling of the Council of State, expected within fifteen days, will be an important litmus test as to the power of nationalist and Islamist groups in Turkey, to whom President Erdogan has been playing particularly strongly in recent months.
According to media reconstructions of the run-up to today’s decision, the Turkish President himself apparently gave personal instructions to change the status of the monumental complex of Hagia Sophia so that it can also be used again as an Islamic place of worship.
The whole issue also takes on obvious geopolitical connotations: on Wednesday July 2, according to news from numerous international agencies, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo allegedly asked Erdogan not to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque, so as not to compromise the historical value of the monument.
On June 30, during the homily of the divine liturgy dedicated to the Holy Apostles, Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, also stressed in alarmed tones that the possible conversion of the monumental complex of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would “push millions of Christians around the world against Islam”.