Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine cathedral, will open for Muslim prayers on Friday, July 24, two weeks after President Tayyip Erdogan's controversial declaration of the historic monument as a mosque. Significant security operations and disruptions are likely in the vicinity of the site in the Cagaloglu neighborhood of the city on Friday, with several major roads being closed and 11 security checkpoints established in the area. Thousands of people, including President Erdogan and a number of senior ministers and opposition politicians, are expected to visit the site from 10:00 (local time) ahead of Friday prayers, with the site remaining open until Saturday morning, 25 July.
Major roads leading to Hagia Sophia are expected to be closed from 20:00 on Thursday, July 23, ahead of the opening, with tram stops suspended between Beyazit and Eminonu until Monday, July 27. Shuttle buses will be provided for transport to the site on Friday, but significant overland travel disruptions are likely in the area.
The large number of visitors expected at the site on Friday and through the weekend has also raised public concerns amid the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The government has stated that extensive precautions have been taken, including the designation of five external prayer areas and extensive temperature screening of attendees, with 17 health checkpoints being set up and thousands of face masks and bottles of water expected to be distributed.
Although highly popular domestically, the decision to re-designate Hagia Sophia as a mosque after 86 years as a multi-faith museum has drawn widespread criticism internationally and from local Christian groups. Protests are therefore likely in Istanbul and elsewhere in the near term over the status of the monument.
President Erdogan announced on July 10 that Hagia Sophia had been officially re-designated as a mosque following a court ruling. The decision, which followed years of campaigning by conservative Muslim groups, met with widespread criticism from church leaders. However, Erdogan has insisted that the 1500-year-old Byzantine cathedral, which was turned into a mosque under the Ottoman empire before being designated a museum in 1934, should be open for Muslim worship.
Those in Istanbul are advised to avoid Hagia Sophia and the Cagaloglu area on Friday due to the anticipated travel disruptions and risk of protests. Travelers should monitor developments and adhere to all instructions issued by local authorities.
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