“In the name of thousands of our brothers we demand to be allowed to pray inside the Hagia Sophia mosque,” Salih Turhan, an organizer of the demonstration, said of the towering former Byzantine church, which also served as a mosque for more than 450 years before it turned into a museum more than 80 years ago.
An imam led a prayer in front of the vast building as people celebrated the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the term used to refer to what is currently known as Istanbul during the Roman/Byzantine Empire.
“Let the chains break, open Hagia Sophia,” chanted the crowds gathering at the plaza, urging the government to heed public calls for restoration of the place as a mosque.
People said the place should serve again as a mosque because the decision to turn it into museum in 1935 was a “fait accompli without public’s will.”
Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom in Greek, was built the sixth century. It served as a Christian basilica for more than 900 years before it was converted to a mosque in 1453 as a symbol of Ottoman victory over the Bezants.
It was a mosque for 482 years until the modern secular Turkey was founded on the ruins of the Ottomans.
The monument, which is currently on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, is regarded as a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.
It features an immense and very famous dome supported by huge pillars while its walls are sheathed with marble and decorated with mosaics.
Sultan Mehmet II ordered the addition of four minarets to the structure and its interior was decorated with Islamic art.
Since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, advocates of secularism have feared that Hagia Sophia may be transformed back into a mosque.
They have mostly called for the edifice to be turned into a church.
“Demanding Hagia Sophia to be used as a church is as nonsense as claiming Istanbul is not a Turkish city but a Byzantine city,” Turhan said.