Conservation Turkey

Turkey plans to rebuild religious school next to Hagia Sophia

Proposal comes amid talk of turning the museum and World Heritage Site into a working mosque once again

Hagia Sophia has seen many changes throughout its nearly 1,500-year history

The Turkish government plans to reconstruct a demolished madrasa (religious school) next to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985. But the local branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) strongly protests these plans, calling the proposed construction a “new fake historic monument” that would undermine the area’s significance.

Hagia Sophia was built as an Orthodox church during the sixth century and converted into a mosque in the 15th century; shortly afterwards, the first madrasa was constructed to its north. Over the years, the school was repaired and maintained, until it was entirely demolished and rebuilt in the late 19th century as a two-storey structure on Hagia Sophia’s western side. It was again torn down in the 1940s after it fell into disuse. In a statement, Icomos Turkey says, “replicas of buildings, reconstructed with no good reason, and the superficiality of which even the layman can detect, should have no place within a World Heritage Site.”

The proposal to revive the religious school comes at a time when Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç, has expressed his hope that Hagia Sophia will soon again be a working mosque; however, this could threaten the site’s World Heritage status, since it would be a change of use. In recent years, museums in Iznik and Trabzon, both originally churches also called Hagia Sophia, have already been reopened as mosques.

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