Erdoğan supporters celebrate their presidential election victory in Hagia Sofia

erdogan hagia sophia

Supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrated in Hagia Sophia following the Turkish president's reelection victory.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has strategically utilised the symbolic significance of Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest Byzantine cathedral, which he reconverted into a mosque in 2020, to mobilise his devout and nationalist supporters ahead of Sunday’s runoff vote.

“The entire West got mad – but I did it,” he said during a rally in Istanbul on Saturday. “Obviously, Erdoğan has politically exploited the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque in 2020,” says Natalia Poulou, a professor of Byzantine archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

She also expressed regret over the relatively muted response from UNESCO. “It did react, but not as strongly as it should have, considering the significance of Hagia Sophia as a monument of world heritage.”

After the original church that stood on the site since the fourth century burned down twice, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I commanded the construction of an immense and opulent replacement: Hagia Sophia. The construction began in the year 532 and was completed just five years later in 537, making it an impressive feat of engineering for its time.

Although it suffered earthquake damage, two partial collapses, and underwent additions, the edifice that stands today in Istanbul is largely the one that was built in the sixth century.

The edifice served as a cathedral for about a millennium, but when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, it was converted into a mosque and minarets were added to the structure. The beautiful Christian mosaics inside were plastered over or removed.

In 1934-35, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government secularised the building and turned it into a museum. The Christian artworks had been rediscovered and partially restored prior to this change.

In July 2020, the building was again converted into a mosque by Erdoğan. 99 percent of the population of Turkey is Muslim and Turkish conservatives have long demanded that the cathedral be turned back into a mosque.

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