Istanbul, Jun 24 (efe-epa).- The Islamic call to prayer on Friday heralded the reopening of the former Byzantine basilica Hagia Sophia as a mosque in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
The architect of the controversial change in the building’s status, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, joined a hand-picked congregation of around 500 people inside the historic building as many thousands more gathered under the blistering sun on the esplanade outside.
It was the first Islamic ceremony to be held at the Hagia Sophia in 86 years, during which time it served as a museum in the city’s old Sultanahmet area following a 1934 decree from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
The building had been used as a mosque following the Ottoman’s conquest of Constantinople, then the heart of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453.
It had been established as an Orthodox cathedral 900 years prior and houses Christian frescoes, which were hidden by curtains in time for Friday prayers.
Earlier this month, with the backing of the courts, Erdogan signed an order turning the Unesco World Heritage site back into a mosque, a contentious move that has stirred criticism in the international community.
Greece was the first to react on Friday.
Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described it as an offense against civilization, saying Turkey was not engaging in a show of power, but one of “weakness.”
“I urge universal condemnation,” he added.
That was not an opinion shared by those who came to pray in the green area that divides the Hagia Sophia from the imposing Ottoman-era Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque.
They had come from across Turkey, shuttled in on buses provided by Islamic organizations, Ahmet, a young man who made the 18 hour journey from Urfa, told Efe.
Many in the crowd laid out their own prayer mats and wore traditional white turbans. They watched on as the call to prayer was emitted from the minarets of the Hagia Sophia.
A large outdoor screen broadcast the moment Erdogan read from the first surah of the Quran, eliciting applause from the faithful outside.
Then the head of state let Ali Erbas, the head of the public organization in charge of mosques in Turkey, continue the sermon, which he did while holding a sword in line with Ottoman tradition.
After prayers ended, many of the faithful outside, some of whom waved the Turkish flag, waited for an opportunity to enter the building for the first time since it became a mosque. EFE