In a battle that pits Turkey's nationalist and Islamist leaders of the 21st century against the nationalist and secular Turkish traditions of the 20th, Turkey's Council of State will soon rule on a plan to turn Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, now a museum, into a mosque.
The huge structure, a Unesco World Heritage site, was built over 1500 years ago as the mother church of Eastern Orthodox Christianity when Istanbul was Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium. When the empire fell to Turkish invaders in the late 15th century, it became the city's principal mosque, and remained a mosque until modernizing Turkish president Ataturk turned it into a museum in 1934.
It has now become a political issue between religious parties and sentiment that want Turkey to be less 'western' and more traditional or religious and those who want to retain Turkey's role as a secular state. Pres. Erdogan, in an election move last year, threw his support behind the re-conversion.
The proposal has drawn sharp opposition from outside Turkey, including demands that Unesco step in and refuse permission, hardly a realistic idea. But the threat of losing World Heritage designation, and tourism support that goes with it, might influence how Turkey makes the move if it does.
While Turkey's other important mosques, including the nearby Blue Mosque, are open to visitors who are not Muslims, there are areas that visitors are restricted from, especially during worship times.
Importantly, Islam generally does not allow representations of humans in art, especially in religious contexts. Hagia Sophia contains a large store of Christian artwork, much of it significant, that was removed or covered over during the years the building was a mosque; under Ataturk it was restored. If the building becomes a mosque again, the artwork could again become a question.
Photo: Dome of Hagia Sophia from within (PHeymont/TravelGumbo)