Friday prayers are due to take place in Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia building for the first time since the famous museum was converted into a mosque.
“Muslims are enthusiastic, everyone wants to be at the opening,” Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said Thursday.
The 1,500-year-old Unesco World Heritage site became a museum in 1934.
But earlier this month, a Turkish court overturned Hagia Sophia’s museum status, saying its use as anything other than a mosque was “not legally possible”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then announced that the world-famous site would be used as a mosque for Friday prayers from July 24.
This decision has been criticized by religious and political leaders around the world.
What will the prayers look like on the site?
In a televised speech Thursday, Governor Yerlikaya urged those attending Friday prayers to bring ” [face] masks, a prayer mat, patience and understanding “as measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 would be in place.
He added that health workers would be made available at the site.
Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs Ali Erbas said around 1,000 people could attend prayer at the site at any time.
He said “changes” had been made to the interior and a “garden setup” had been prepared, adding that the site would remain open overnight.
Mr Erdogan is expected to be among the faithful on Friday.
Why was Erdogan’s decision controversial?
Islamist groups and pious Muslims in Turkey had long called for the Hagia Sophia to be turned back into a mosque, but members of the secular opposition opposed the move.
When President Erdogan announced the decision to do so on July 10, it was the subject of much criticism.
Pope Francis responded by saying that “his thoughts are with Istanbul”, adding: “I am thinking of Santa Sophia and I am very sorry”.
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, warned that the conversion of the building “would disappoint millions of Christians” and fracture two worlds.
The World Council of Churches, which has 350 member churches, called for the decision to be reversed, saying it would sow division.
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But Erdogan defended the move, stressing that the country had exercised its sovereign right.
“After 86 years, Hagia Sophia will again serve as a mosque, as Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul indicated in his act,” he said.
He added that the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims and foreign visitors.
What’s the story?
The iconic dome-shaped building sits in Istanbul’s Fatih district on the west bank of the Bosphorus, overlooking the Golden Horn harbor.
The complex history of Hagia Sophia began almost 1,500 years ago, when Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the huge church in 537.
In 1453, in a devastating blow to the Byzantines, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) and the Hagia Sophia – an Orthodox Christian cathedral – was converted into a mosque for Friday prayers.
Four minarets were added to the exterior, while ornate Christian icons and gold mosaics were covered with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy.
After centuries in the heart of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, it was turned into a museum in 1934 with the aim of making Turkey more secular.
It has since grown into one of Turkey’s most popular tourist spots, receiving more than 3.7 million visitors last year.