Greek archaeologists call on UNESCO to save Hagia Sophia

Athens, August 24, 2022     

There have been numerous reports of damage and vandalism to the famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul since its reconversion into a mosque in 2020.

Yesterday, the Association of Greek Archaeologists published an open letter to the UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, sounding the alarm about both Hagia Sophia and the Chora Monastery, which was also recently turned into a mosque.

The Association believes that the photographic evidence of damage to the building that has emerged since 2020 suggests “bleak prospects for its future.”     

Therefore, it calls upon UNESCO to intervene to save the World Heritage Site. The Association also intends to gather resolutions and petitions for the preservation of the monuments.

The letter reads in part:

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.”

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