A prayer programme held at the Hagia Sophia Mosque ahead of the Friday Prayer which will be performed for the first time after 86 years on July 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency

ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined thousands Friday in the first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia since the Istanbul landmark was controversially converted back into a mosque.

Massive crowds gathered inside and outside the Unesco World Heritage site, some draped in Turkish flags and others waving Islamic banners.

Erdogan put their number at 350,000 but that figure could not be independently verified.

Some scuffles broke out between worshippers and police as crowds scrambled to get into the overcrowded plaza in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, where people had camped out the night before. 

Inside, the faithful, wearing protective face masks, took photos as they waited for prayers to begin.

As the call to prayer reverberated from the Hagia Sophia’s four minarets, huge crowds spread prayer mats on the lawns outside.

Inside, the president, wearing an Islamic skullcap, recited a verse from the Koran. 

Erdogan attends Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, for the first time after it was once again declared a mosque after 86 years, in Istanbul. Photo: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO handout pic via Reuters

In a sermon, the head of the state religious affairs agency, Ali Erbas, said the reopening “is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function”.

Also in attendance was Erdogan’s ally and leader of the ultranationalist MHP, Devlet Bahceli, but no opposition party leaders were present.

Galvanising voters?

The Hagia Sophia was built as a cathedral during the Christian Byzantine Empire and converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

In 1934, modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ordered it be turned into a museum. 

But Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, cancelled that decision earlier this month, arguing that the building had been registered as a mosque in its property deeds.

Experts see Erdogan’s move to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque as an attempt to galvanise his conservative and nationalist base amid economic uncertainty exacerbated by the virus outbreak.

The timing of the first prayer is significant as it coincided with the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set modern Turkey’s borders after years of conflict with Greece and Western powers. – AFP