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Hagia Sophia: Former Istanbul museum welcomes Muslim worshippers

Hagia Sophia

Crowds have gathered in Istanbul, as the historic Hagia Sophia site opens for Friday prayers for the first time since Turkish authorities ruled it could be converted into a mosque.

“Muslims are excited, everyone wants to be at the opening,” Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said on Thursday.

The 1,500-year-old Unesco World Heritage site became a museum in 1934.

But a Turkish court annulled its status, saying any use other than as a mosque was “not possible legally”.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then announced that the world-famous site would be ready for Friday prayers from 24 July.

The move was criticised by religious and political leaders worldwide.

Hagia Sophia was built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral and first converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest nine centuries later.

While there was considerable excitement as crowds headed to the Unesco site, not everyone was happy. The secular opposition party that runs Istanbul has described the move to turn it back into a mosque after 86 years as political rather than religious.

What will prayers at the site look like?

In a televised address on Thursday, Governor Yerlikaya urged those attending prayers on Friday to bring “[face] masks, a prayer rug, patience and understanding” as measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 would be in place.

He added that healthcare workers would be made available at the site.

Turkey’s religious affairs minister, Ali Erbas, said that about 1,000 people would be able to attend prayers at the site at any one time.

He said that “modifications” had been made inside and that a “garden setup” had been prepared, adding that the site would remain open overnight.

A turquoise carpet was laid on the floor to prepare for prayers and Christian relics were covered up with white drapes or obscured by lighting.

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