The Hagia Sophia opened for Muslim prayers on Friday for the first time in 86 years after the Istanbul museum was reconverted into a mosque by a controversial presidential decree.
The azan resounded calling Muslim worshippers to prayer, as hundreds of faithful crowded outside the former 6th-century Byzantine church.
Social distancing measures in place because of the coronavirus pandemic were largely ignored. People sat on towels and mats in the sprawling square between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, another historic site, while scores gathered at security barricades hoping to get past.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will attend the afternoon prayers set for 1:16 pm (1016 GMT), visited the monument on Thursday with his wife Emine for a final inspection.
A green sign with gold lettering in Turkish, Arabic and English was unveiled, which states: The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque.
A bright turquoise carpet now covers the floor, with white curtains installed to veil intricate mosaics of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and other Christian symbols at prayer time.
A large brown panel with verses from the Koran covered some of the scaffolding in place for ongoing restoration work at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hagia Sophia was built by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 537 as the largest church in Christendom.
It was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, in 1453 by Mehmet II, known as the Conqueror.
Its status was changed to a museum through a 1934 decree signed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
Two signatures determined the monument’s fate: On July 10, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, nullified the decree signed by Ataturk which ensured Hagia Sophia’s museum status for 86 years.
Hours later, Erdogan signed the order converting it into a Muslim house of worship. The “dream from his youth,” had come true, he said.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Hagia Sophia is a cultural landmark for both Christians and Muslims.
The United States, the European Union, Russia, UNESCO and various church leaders expressed concern at the change in status. Erdogan insisted it was Turkey’s “historical and sovereign right.”
Orthodox church leaders in the US and Greece were to hold “a day of mourning.”
Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the US, tweeted that he met President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday to discuss “our grave dismay” at the reconversion.
Pence said the US would stand with the Greek Orthodox Church in calling for Hagia Sophia “to remain accessible as a source of inspiration and reflection for every person of every faith.”
Erdogan pledged to keep it open to tourists and welcome those of all faiths. Entry will now be free.
Most roads to the venue were blocked, public transport curtailed and 21,000 police personnel deployed. Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya asked for people to bring four items: “Masks, prayer mats, patience and understanding.”
In May, the Koran’s al-Fath sura resounded from the then-museum to commemorate the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Erdogan joined the event via videoconference.
The president, who champions Ottoman symbolism and lauds Mehmet the Conqueror, has called the conversion a “second conquest.”