IT WAS BORN as a church, one of the icons of the Byzantine world, before being converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks and into a museum by their secular-minded successors. But now it would be transformed again. Workers squeezed a bland wooden minbar into a corner of the nave and a mihrab into a nearby portico, drew panels and screens to obscure the dazzling 13th-century Christian frescoes looking down from the vaults and the dome, and unfurled a red carpet over the marble floor. A muezzin summoned the faithful to prayers. The Hagia Sophia was now a mosque.
That was in 2013, and not in Istanbul, home of the Hagia Sophia known to millions of tourists worldwide, but in Trabzon, another Turkish city once populated by Greeks (and known in English as Trebizond), home to the ancient shrine’s much smaller and younger namesake. There are at least five former Byzantine churches dedicated to the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom” in Greek) across Turkey. Over the past decade, four, including the one in Trabzon, have reopened as mosques. The same fate now awaits the most important of them, the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, the grand old lady of Eastern Christendom, and Istanbul’s domed crown.
On July 10th, following an appeal by an Islamic NGO, Turkey’s top administrative court repealed a decision from 1934 to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then signed a decree ordering its conversion into a mosque. That he would do so was never in doubt. Last year Mr Erdogan said it was a “very big mistake” to use the building as a museum. Last month he suggested Muslim prayers would be held inside the Hagia Sophia on July 15th, the fourth anniversary of a failed coup against him.
Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I on the site of a church commissioned by Constantine, founder of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia has hovered over the historical capital of the eastern Roman Empire since 537. Early visitors were awestruck, especially by the basilica’s central dome, covered with millions of shimmering gold tiles. “We did not know where we were, in heaven or on Earth,” envoys from Kievan Rus reported in the tenth century.
Crusaders plundered the cathedral in 1204, making off with its gold, silver and relics, many of which ended up in Venice. Similar scenes ensued in 1453, when the Ottoman army captured the city—the “red apple” at the end of the world, they called it. Mehmet, their 21-year-old sultan, marched into the cathedral, pouring dust over his head as a sign of respect, and immediately ordered its transformation into a mosque. Nearly five centuries later it was modern Turkey’s secular founder, Kemal Ataturk, who had the shrine converted into a museum. Christian mosaics covered up with plaster saw the light of day for the first time since the Ottoman conquest.
Mr Erdogan, who resides in a 1,100-room palace, surrounds himself with courtiers and appoints family members to senior positions,…