Hagia Sophia stripped of museum status, paving its return to a mosque

The 1,500-year-old World Heritage monument has been the contested religious center of both Christian and Muslim empires—now the world is waiting to see what happens next.

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The 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, now Turkey's most popular tourist attraction, has been stripped of its museum status by Turkey's highest court.

The future of one of the world’s most iconic monuments remains uncertain following today’s decision by Turkey’s top administrative court to invalidate the status of the Hagia Sophia as a museum.

The Hagia Sophia that stands today was originally built as the cathedral for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century, and became a mosque in 1453 with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It remained a Muslim house of worship until the early 20th century, when the Turkish government secularized the Hagia Sofia and turned it into a museum in 1934. More than 50 years later, UNESCO included Hagia Sophia as part of its Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site.

In 2005, a group petitioned Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s high administrative court, claiming the historic structure originally belonged to a foundation established by Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman leader who conquered Constantinople in 1453.

Today, the Council of State agreed with the petitioners, concluding that the original deed under Mehmed II designated the building as a mosque, and any other use would be illegal. Following the decision, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan promptly transferred oversight of the building from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque...to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Unclear Status

Today’s decision, however, does not mean that the Hagia Sophia will immediately close to...

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