The debate over the future of Hagia Sophia tells you everything you need to know about modern Turkey

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“Bowing down to the ground, he poured a handful of dust over his turban as an act of humility to God. Then he stepped inside the wrecked church… As he walked across the great space and stared up at the dome, he caught sight of a soldier smashing away at the marble pavement. He asked the man why he was demolishing the floor. For the ‘Faith’, the man replied. Infuriated by this visible defiance of his orders to preserve the buildings, Mehmet struck the man with his sword. He was dragged off half-dead by Mehmet’s attendants.”

This is how Roger Crowley describes in his book, Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror’s first encounter of Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish.

It’s more than 500 years after the Sultan victoriously entered Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, yet it’s the same idea of “Faith” that is being presented as a pretext to wreck the legacy of the 6th century Byzantine structure as a museum.

On Thursday morning, Turkey’s highest administrative court convened to hear a lawsuit demanding the Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque and said it would issue its ruling within 15 days. The petition was filed by a conservative far-right association and supported in court by the office of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It is not a new attempt – but comes with a stronger political twist.

Over the years, the debate around the World Heritage Site’s status served as fodder for the election campaigns of religious ultra-nationalists and for the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party government, which has ruled Turkey for 18 years but now needs to shore up flagging popularity. Promises to rebrand the museum as an Islamic place of worship are popular with conservative voters, while also serving to deflect from issues like an economy hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.

The monument that served as the centre of Christianity for 900 years and as a mosque for 500, holds a strong symbolic importance beyond its terracotta-hued walls.

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