After more than eight decades as a museum, Turkey’s iconic Hagia Sophia reopened for Islamic worship for the first time with Friday prayers with the participation of thousands of people.
Thousands of people, including top officials, politicians and many who traveled from across Turkey, took part in the traditional Friday prayers both inside and outside the historic site in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolis.
“Now this place [the Hagia Sophia] has returned to its original form, it became a mosque again,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, wishing the historical monument will continue serving as a mosque forever to all believers.
“However, it is a place where people from all religions can come and visit as a cultural heritage of all humanity,” he added.
Hagia Sophia served as a church for 916 years until the conquest of Istanbul, and a mosque from 1453 to 1934, nearly half a millennium.
On July 10, a Turkish court annulled a 1934 Cabinet decree that had turned Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for its use again as a mosque after an 86-year hiatus.
By mid-Friday morning, congregants were arriving in the area for the opening, holding prayer rugs in their hands, as verses from the Quran were read out over loudspeakers.
Crowds formed at checkpoints surrounding the historic heart of Istanbul, where thousands of police maintained security.
Upon entering the secured area, the worshippers, wearing face masks, sat spaced out on prayer mats in the city’s Sultanahmet Square.
However, the authorities stopped accepting new visitors around Hagia Sophia due to the increasing crowd.
“All of our prayer areas around the Hagia Sophia Mosque are full. Our guest entries to these areas have been stopped due to the pandemic,” the Istanbul’s Governor’s office said in a statement.
A limited number of worshippers were allowed into the building to ensure adequate social distancing measures were in place.