Should Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia be a church, a mosque or a museum?

There are some locations which are so special that, although they are in a particular country, the world is concerned about them. Examples which I might suggest would include Stonehenge in Britain, St Mark’s Square in Italy, Auschwitz in Poland, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Giza pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, Uluru in Australia.

So I think that many people outside Turkey will have a view about the future of the Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) in Istanbul. The building is around one and a half millennia old. It was originally a cathedral, completed in 537 by the Emperor Justinian in what was then known as Constantinople . Then, after the Ottoman conquest of the city, it was covered into an imperial mosque in 1453.

Five and half centuries later, in 1934 the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had the building turned into a museum as part of his extensive process of secularisation of the new state. I visited the place during a holiday in Istanbul in 2003 and you can read my account of that time here.

Now the populist president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided that the building should be converted from a museum back into a mosque. This is seen as a political decision that has excited international criticism.


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