In an open letter to the director general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, the Association of Greek Archaeologists (SEA) sounded the alarm over recent reports of vandalism and damage to the former Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which was converted to a mosque in 2020.
They also raised concerns about the medieval Church of Chora Monastery in Istanbul.
The SEA asked Azoulay to intervene dynamically to reverse the current situation as it poses risks to the World Heritage Sites of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Monastery.
It added that it will also address the international scientific community to obtain resolutions and signed petitions for the preservation of the monuments.
The SEA stressed, among others, that since 2020 when the 6th century Hagia Sophia was converted from a museum into a mosque, the photographic evidence that has emerged suggests “bleak prospects for its future.”
In its open letter the Association of Greek Archaeologists points out, among others, that:
“During the use of Hagia Sophia as museum, the Byzantine mosaics were uncovered and preserved and parts of the building were restored, according to a program that provided for the gradual disclosure and promotion of the historical identity of the monument. Thus, the visitor, Turkish and foreign alike, had the pleasure of enjoying the value of this leading monument that has adorned Constantinople since the 6th century AD.
The decision of the Turkish Council of State in 2020 to cancel the 1934 decision that provided for the museum use of Hagia Sophia and to recognize exclusively its status as a wakfi of Sultan Muhammad II (1432-1481) paved the way for the restoration of the monument in its operating status during the Ottoman era. At the time, in 2020, there was global concern about the problems that would be created by using such a monument as a place of worship, as the unscientific management would gradually cause Hagia Sophia to deteriorate. We had expressed warnings about these problems together with other scientific bodies.
And unfortunately these problems have now appeared along the way. Since 2020, and especially recently, photographic evidence has come to light] with ominous prospects for the future of Hagia Sophia. The newer wooden shutters of the Emperial Gate were damaged, wall plasters were scraped and removed, fountains and doors were used to store shoes, marble floor slabs were destroyed. The unique Byzantine mosaics remain covered and invisible. Archaeological science has been left out of the monument.
All this is connected with the thoughtless influx of visitors (pilgrims) to the mosque and the treatment of Hagia Sophia as a mosque without historical depth, as a place where respect for history and art is absent. The lack of control of visitors and the absence of security personnel testify to the indifference to the protection of the monument and leave the protection of the unique monument to the will of each visitor or pilgrim.
During the last few years (2006 onwards) when the Directorate of Religious Affairs took over the management of monuments formerly held by the Archaeological Service of Turkey, many monuments have suffered irreparable damage.”
The SEA also raised concern over the work currently being carried out on another of Istanbul’s leading Byzantine monuments, the former church of the Chora Monastery, so that it too can be reopened as a mosque.