Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has joined hundreds of Muslims in Friday prayer at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, just weeks after it was controversially reverted to a mosque.
The prayers are the first to be held at the historic venue since it became a museum in 1934, in a building that was once one of the most revered Christian cathedrals in the world.
Thousands travelled to the world heritage site in the city for segregated prayers on Friday, with many people camping outside overnight.
Mr Erdogan arrived surrounded by ministers and dignitaries, all wearing white face masks, before kneeling on blue carpets at the start of a ceremony which marked the return of Muslim worship to the building.
He then read a passage from the Koran after the call to prayer rang out from the building’s minarets.
During the ceremony, the Imam reaffirmed that the building should remain a mosque “until the last day” – echoing the words of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who initially turned the venue into a mosque in the 15th century.
He added: “In this blessed hour, in this sacred place, we are witnessing a historic moment.
“Today is the day of honour and humbleness.
“Endless thanks and praise be to Allah the Almighty who enabled us to have an honourable day like today, to gather in mosques as the most sacred places on earth, and to appear before himself in this great Hagia Sophia.”
The ceremony was broadcast to the square outside, where huge crowds allowed for little space for social distancing.
Earlier in the day, officials had stopped allowing people into the area over concerns about the spread of coronavirus during the event.
The move to convert the ancient building into a mosque came with significant backlash from Christian leaders, who had urged the president to leave it as a museum, which highlighted Istanbul’s religiously-diverse heritage and its status as symbol of unity between Christians and Muslims.
The decree to convert the building back into a mosque, which was signed by Mr Erdogan last week, was not about creating more space for prayer, as Istanbul has more than 3,000 mosques.
Rather, the controversial decision reflects the wider societal struggle within Turkey between secularism and the president’s religious conservatism.
Last week, Mr Erdogan said: “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains.
“It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.”
The site is expected to stay open to tourists and officials have promised that the Christian symbols in the building can remain in place – but some question whether that will be possible given the new ruling.