Turkey’s highest court poised to rule whether Hagia Sophia can be converted into mosque

A ruling on whether the Hagia Sophia can be turned back into a mosque is expected on Friday. Credit: AP

A mixed history and its great splendour have made the Hagia Sophia museum an emblem of Turkey’s status as a bridge between continents and cultures.

But now Turkey’s highest court is poised to rule on whether or not the 1,500 year old structure can be turned back into a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia was an Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Cathedral from the time of its construction in 537AD until the Ottomans seized control of Constantinople in the 15th century.

They would change the name of the city to Istanbul and convert the pride of the fallen Byzantine Empire into a mosque.

The Ottoman Empire met its end during the First World War and out of the ashes modern day Turkey was formed.

The interior of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia. Credit: AP

In 1935, Turkey’s secular leader Ataturk decided to make the Hagia Sophia a museum and ever since it has been a top tourist attraction.

But during an election rally last year Turkey’s current leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the time had come to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

His Islamist supporters have been calling for this for years, but Turkey’s secularists have resisted the move.

There are a number of reasons why Mr Erdogan backs the idea. Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and he draws much of his support from the more religious rural areas of the country.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inside the Hagia Sophia. Credit: AP

For him the symbolism of the change would be a powerful diversion at a time when his leadership is under question and Turkey’s economy is struggling.

Also, relations with the Greeks are at a low point, and for Mr Erdogan, angering the Greek Orthodox Church has its advantages.

The leaders of the church have come out strongly against the move, pointing out that the Hagia Sophia was Christian for 900 years and Muslim for only 500 years.

Turkey’s foreign minister says the issue is a Turkish one.

The verdict on the Hagia Sophia is expected on Friday.

July 15 is the fourth anniversary of the failed coup meant to topple Mr Erdogan.

He may well regard being seen praying in the Hagia Sophia Mosque as the best way to mark that anniversary.