Istanbul: hope voiced Aya Sofya museum can again be mosque
Holy place visited by pope represents powerful symbol for Muslims and Christians
Pope Francis has begun a visit to Turkey with the delicate mission of strengthening ties with Muslim leaders. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters
The Aya Sofya, which was visited on Saturday by Pope Francis, represents one of the great historical conundrums of modern Turkey. Having served as an Orthodox patriarchal basilica for more than 1,000 years until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, the Aya Sofya was then converted into a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1931 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, turned it into a museum.
These days the Aya Sofya is a Unesco world heritage site which attracts 3.3 million visitors annually and is one of the world’s most remarkable holy sites. It bears witness to a Christian and Muslim past, with circular wooden frames noting Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and his two grandchildren standing alongside glorious ninth century Byzantine mosaics depicting the Virgin and Child. The building still remains a powerful symbol for Christians and Muslims.
Deputy prime minister Bulnet Arnic recently suggested that it should be converted back to a Mosque. In response, Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew argued that if its status is to change, then it should revert to being a patriarchal basilica.
Imam Kizilaslan, someone who has lived and studied in the USA, is sympathetic to the notion of converting the Aya Sofya back to a mosque.
Asked about the building, he said: “Until the Ottoman conquest, it was a church . . . and as Christians you have to have feelings about the Aya Sofya. Perhaps, you would like it to become a church again. I can understand this. It’s not something silly to me. As a Muslim , as a Muslim in an Islamic land I would like to pray in there, in the Aya Sofya.”
Asked if it is possible that it will become as mosque again, the Imam replied: “Why Not?” He added that “most of the people” want this. “Yes, yes most of the people. I’m not saying everyone because there are a lot of non Muslims who live with us. Remember, we have lived together for centuries . . . ”
Deputy prime minister Arinc has been instrumental in the conversion from museums into mosques in recent years of two other former Byzantine churches in Turkey, also named Aya Sofya – one in Iznik and one in Trabzon. Clearly, the issue remains contentious.
Turkish historian Mehmet Celik has called the Aya Sofya “a cornerstone” for Turkey’s national identity. Only when it again becomes a mosque, will Turkey feel truly sovereign, he said.