As the news spreads, the crowd murmurs. Then, over the forecourt of Hagia Sophia in the old town of Istanbul, the first triumph cries, which quickly become a chorus: Allahu ekber, God is great! It is Friday afternoon, a decision of the Turkish highest administrative court has just become known: Hagia Sophia, once a Christian, later a Muslim church and finally a museum, can again become a mosque - just as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wanted.
In the early hours of the morning, when it became clear that the State Council would make its long-awaited decision, a long line of TV broadcast vehicles had formed on the west side of the square. Murat Bulut is one of the television reporters who spent the morning questioning passers-by about Erdoğan's plans for the mosque. "I have not found a single person who is against it," says the journalist who works for the Kurdish channel Rudaw. The arguments of his interview partners were always the same: the mosque had been taken away from the faithful and had to become a Muslim place of worship again, as it had been since Sultan Mehmed Fatih's conquest of Istanbul in 1453. The court order is a formal matter, Bulut adds with a shrug. "Erdoğan does what he wants anyway."
Muharrem Bükçüoğlu, who guides English and German-speaking tourists through Hagia Sophia as a tourist guide - and has been unemployed in recent months because of Istanbul's most popular historical landmark because of the pandemic, remains similar. It has reopened a few weeks ago, but Bükçüoğlu says that not many foreign guests dare to visit the Bosphorus. Also on Friday, only about two dozen lost tourists walked through the enormous interior of the Byzantine religious building, which was inaugurated in 537 AD and remained the most important church of Eastern Christianity for centuries.
"Nobody will block Hagia Sophia from tourists"
Bükçüoğluh spent a few semesters as a foreign language student in Stuttgart, which still sounds like his flabbergasted German. Despite the mosque's decision, the guide is not worried about his job. "Nobody will block the Hagia Sophia from tourists," he says - in other parts of the world it is also common practice that religious buildings are used in parallel as places of worship and as sights.
In the case of Hagia Sophia, however, the question arises of how to proceed with the conversion to the mosque with its Christian wall paintings and mosaics. Critics point to the daunting example of a Byzantine church in the Black Sea port of Trabzon, also known as Hagia Sophia, which lost its museum status a few years ago and was converted to a mosque on government initiatives. There, a false ceiling was quickly drawn into the medieval church interior to hide the Christian depictions of saints on the original ceiling from the eyes of Muslim prayers.
When the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed Fatih conquered the Byzantine Empire and its churches in the sixth century, their Christian wall paintings usually disappeared under a layer of plaster. This also happened in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where it was only after the fall of the Ottoman Empire that an American byzantinist named Thomas Whittemoredie uncovered world-famous wall mosaics today - and in 1934 convinced the Turkish state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to dedicate the sacred building to a museum.
The restoration of Christian origins in Hagia Sophia has not yet been completed. Muharrem Bükçüoğlu, the floating guide, points to the mosaic of a church father that was recently uncovered in the ceiling area of the northeast wall. Bükçüoğlu speaks to a co-worker from the museum directorate who confirms that further restoration work is planned. The man, who is only cautious about the political situation, cannot say whether this will still be adhered to after the mosque decision. How does he feel about the mosque resolution? "Neutral," he says after a moment's thought - with a facial expression that looks more like suppressed anger than neutrality.
He shows that no one has yet explained to the museum administration how Hagia Sophia should now be converted into a prayer room. In the Turkish media there had recently been speculation about curtains or light screens behind which the Christian wall motifs should disappear during the services - but whether the strict prohibition of Islamic images can be reconciled with the no less strict regulations on the protection of historical monuments of the Unesco World Heritage Site is a matter of the stars.
Erdoğan laments "attack on Turkish sovereignty"
It is also questionable how the decision of the mosque will affect Turkey's external relations. Various voices abroad had spoken in the days before the court ruling in favor of maintaining the museum's status - from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Greek and French government officials to the Russian Parliament and the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of the world's Christian Orthodox Churches, who has been based in Istanbul since late antiquity and still does so today, is "sad and shaken" by the Turkish government proposal. In his statement, Patriarch Bartholomew described Hagia Sophia as a meeting place between East and West and warned against "breaking these two worlds apart": "Instead of uniting us, a legacy of 1,500 years old divides us."
Erdoğann called the international headwind in a television speech the evening after the court order an "attack on the sovereignty of Turkey". The President, in a manner that was usually combative, declared that "converting the museum back into a mosque would restore" historical justice ". He announced that Hagia Sophia would continue to be open to visitors of all denominations, for whom admission should also be free of charge in the future. According to Erdoğan, the first public prayer is said to be on 24. July take place - and therefore not as originally announced on July 15, the anniversary of the failed coup attempt in 2016.
Hardly anyone in the Turkish public commented on Erdoğan's move on Friday. Even the opposition parties hesitated, fearing that Erdoğan would portray Muslim voters as the enemy of Islam. Only when the court ruling was announced in the Turkish parliament did the left CHP disagree with the jubilation of the government coalition - the party is in the tradition of state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose order to convert HagiaSophia into a museum has now been annulled by the court.
Before the court ruling, a call to prayer echoed on Friday afternoon from the four mininets that Ottoman architects added to Hagia Sophia after the conquest of Istanbul in the 15th century. The muezzin called for Friday prayers in a small side wing of the spacious building, which has been serving as a mosque for believers since 1991. The historic old town district, in which the HagiaSophia is located, is not a residential area, the small mosque is mainly frequented by employees of the surrounding tourist cafes and souvenir shops.