An open letter about the status of Hagia Sophia

Friends of Hagia Sophia
12 min readJun 30, 2020

Read this letter in French, Greek, and Turkish.

For a Russian translation, click here.

Dear colleagues,

On July 2, the Turkish Council of State will announce a decision regarding the status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Multiple learned societies have expressed concern regarding this news. As scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture, we write now, not to protest an action that has not yet been taken, but to clarify the concern that we share, on the basis of the information currently available to us.

In our opinion, the central question is not, “Should Hagia Sophia be a museum or a mosque?” The central question is rather, “How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?” In other words, we draw a distinction between function and stewardship. We are concerned that the ongoing dispute over function hinders the development of a management strategy commensurate to the scale of the challenges: preservation of the historical fabric and continued visibility of the works of art of all periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; responsible management of mass tourism; and protection against the threat of earthquake.

From 1453 until 1934, Hagia Sophia served as a congregational mosque, and was administered by a pious endowment (vakıf). After the declaration of the Turkish Republic (1923), jurisdiction over all such entities was assumed by a new government ministry, the Directorate General of Foundations. Hagia Sophia continued in use as a mosque throughout the 1920s, but in 1931 restorers began to reveal the mosaics of the interior. The spectacular success of their work convinced the Turkish Council of Ministers (1934) to transfer jurisdiction over the building from the Directorate General of Foundations to the Ministry of Education.

This change in jurisdiction coincided with a change in function, through which the building was closed to worship. Both jurisdiction and function, however, have continued to evolve. Hagia Sophia is today administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as the administrative successor to the Ministry of Education. At the same time, the function of the building has expanded to include increasingly visible expressions of Muslim piety. Since 1991, there has been a room dedicated to Muslim prayer within the complex. Since 2016, Hagia Sophia has been served by a full-time imam, the call to prayer has sounded from the minarets, and Qur’anic readings and prayers have taken place within during the annual observation of Laylat al-Qadr.

Thus, in a certain sense, Hagia Sophia is currently functioning as both a museum and a mosque. As far as we are aware, the expansion of this latter function has not resulted in damage to the building or obstruction of its works of art. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism remains a responsible steward.

At the same time, prominent voices in Turkey have long argued that the transfer of jurisdiction to the Ministry was unlawful. They claim that the Turkish state did not have the right to “secularize” Hagia Sophia in 1934, since pious endowments are perpetual and inviolable. According to this argument, the rightful custodian of the building is the Directorate General of Foundations.

In recent years, the Directorate General has assumed control of other Byzantine monuments and reopened them to Muslim worship. One prominent example is another Hagia Sophia, this one in Trabzon on the Black Sea, whose proper administration has been contested since 2013. An effort to re-open the building to Muslim prayer included construction of an elaborate set of screens to obscure the Byzantine frescoes. Less publicized, but of more lasting harm, was the campaign of restoration carried out by the Directorate General on Hagia Sophia in Vize (Thrace) in 2006, which resulted in substantial damage to the historical fabric of the building.

Our concern is that the current conflict, until now only a “war of words,” could result in similarly careless treatment of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul: that historical and archaeological evidence could be damaged, and works of art concealed.

Hagia Sophia is too beautiful a monument and too precious a historical document to serve as a pawn in regional politics. Successive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish governments have protected it against the ravages of time and thus maintained its significance not only for themselves, but also for those to come in the future — including all of us. It is a matter of vital concern to us as scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture that the current Turkish government continue this tradition of responsible stewardship.


Iman R. Abdulfattah, CUNY/NYU

Evangelia Achladi, University of Bosphorus

Eirini Afentoulidou, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Elizabeth Agaiby, University of Divinity, Melbourne

Panagiotis A. Agapitos, Max-Planck Institute, Frankfurt

Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ

Ladan Akbarnia, The San Diego Museum of Art

Aslıhan Akışık, Wolfson College, University of Oxford

Engin Akyürek, Koç Üniversitesi

Nabil Al-Tikriti, University of Mary Washington

Joseph Alchermes, Connecticut College

Juan Antonio Álvarez-Pedrosa, Universidad Complutense Madrid

Josep Amengual i Batle, Biblioteca Balear, Mallorca

Yasmine Amory, Ghent University

Benjamin Anderson, Cornell University

Dimiter Angelov, Harvard University

Spyridon Antonopoulos, City University London

Fırat Arapoğlu, Altinbas University/AICA, Turkey

Achim Arbeiter, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen

Nisa Ari, University of Houston

Tülay Artan, Sabancı University

Annika Asp, University of Birmingham

Kameliya Atanasova, Washington and Lee University

Marie-France Auzépy, Université Paris 8

Levon Avdoyan, The Library of Congress

Michele Bacci, Universität Freiburg

Heather A. Badamo, University of California, Santa Barbara

Jennifer Ball, City University of New York

Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College, Buffalo

Charles Barber, Princeton University

Karen Barkey, University of California, Berkeley

Darius Baronas, Lithuanian Institute of History, Vilnius

Omniya Abdel Barr, Victoria and Albert Museum

Sarah Bassett, Indiana University

Mustafa Batman, Bogazici University

Jake Benson, University of Manchester

Franco Benucci, Università di Padova

Halil Berktay, Ibn Haldun University (Istanbul, Turkey)

Floris Bernard, Ghent University

Ioanna Bitha, Research Centre for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art, Academy of Athens

Marie-Hélène Blanchet, CNRS (Paris)

Louise Blanke, University of Edinburgh

Patricia Blessing, Princeton University

Elizabeth S. Bolman, Case Western Reserve University

Marina Bordne, Heidelberg University

Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen

Anne Boud’hors, Centre national de la recherche scientifique

Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis, Princeton University

Ra’anan Boustan, Princeton University

Grigor Boykov, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Wolfram Brandes, Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen

Sarah T. Brooks, James Madison University

Nedim Buyukyuksel, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

Suna Çağaptay, University of Cambridge and Bahçeşehir University

Claude Calame, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Averil Cameron, University of Oxford

Merih Danali Cantarella, Wake Forest University

Mike Carr, University of Edinburgh

Giancarlo Casale, European University Institute

Sinem Casale, University of Minnesota

Marica Cassis, University of Calgary

Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Annemarie Weyl Carr, Southern Methodist University

Jean-Michel Carrié, EHESS Paris

Anne-Laurence Caudano, University of Winnipeg

Reinhart Ceulemans, KU Leuven

Antonia Gatward Cevizli, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London

Angelos Chaniotis, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Sotirios Charalampous, Ministry of Culture and Sports, Greece

Michail Chatzidakis, Humboldt University, Berlin

Nina Chichinadze, Ilia State University, Tbilisi

Mehreen Chida-Razvi, SOAS, University of London

Christina Christoforatou, Baruch College, City University of New York

Juan Signes Codoñer, University of Valladolid

Barbara Crostini, Uppsala University

James Crow, University of Edinburgh

Ferenc Csirkés, Sabancı University

Jon C. Cubas Díaz, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen

Anthony Cutler, Pennsylvania State University

Vladimir Cvetkovic, University of Belgrade

Radha Dalal, Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar

Beatrice Daskas, Ca’ Foscari University, Venice

Yorgos Dedes, SOAS, University of London

Manuela De Giorgi, Università del Salento

Aitor Fernández Delgado, Universidad de Alcalá

Ceren Demirton, Philipps University, Marburg

Kristoffel Demoen, Ghent University, Belgium

Nathan S. Dennis, University of San Francisco

Michael Dermitzakis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Fahri Dikkaya, independent scholar, Ankara

Stefanos Dimitriadis, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster

Heidemarie Doganalp-Votzi, University of Vienna

Eugenia Drakopoulou, National Hellenic Research Foundation

Anastasia Drandaki, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Ivan Drpić, University of Pennsylvania

John M. Duffy, Harvard University

Antony Eastmond, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

A. Asa Eger, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Susanna Elm, University of California, Berkeley

Ayse Ercan, Columbia University

Cecilia D’Ercole, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

E. Osman Erden, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University

Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen, University of Southern Denmark

Olga Etinhof, Russian State University for the Humanities

Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos, Amherst College

Vera von Falkenhausen, Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”

Mary Farag, Princeton Theological Seminary

Antonio Enrico Felle, Università degli Studi di Bari “Aldo Moro”

Carla Varela Fernandes, Universidade Nova de Lisboa

Elizabeth Fisher, George Washington University

Ivan Foletti, Masaryk University

Christian Förstel, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Vicky Foskolou, University of Crete

Georgia Frank, Colgate University

Peter Frankopan, University of Oxford

Stig Frøyshov, University of Oslo

Miguel Gallés, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Fani Gargova, University of Vienna

Niels Gaul, University of Edinburgh

Anđela Gavrilović, University of Belgrade

Maria Gerolymatou, National Hellenic Research Foundation

Sharon Gerstel, University of California, Los Angeles

Elina Gertsman, Case Western Reserve University

Ludovico V. Geymonat, Louisiana State University

Nicolae Gheorghita, National University of Music, Bucharest

Federica Gigante, University of Oxford

Adam Goldwyn, North Dakota State University

Rachel Goshgarian, Lafayette College

Rossitsa Gradeva, American University in Bulgaria

Susan L. Graham, Saint Peter’s University

Olga Gratziou, University of Crete

Geoffrey Greatrex, University of Ottawa

Jean-Pierre Grélois, chercheur indépendant

Marc De Groote, Ghent University

Heather Grossman, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Christiane Gruber, University of Michigan

Encarnación Motos Guirao, Universidad de Granada

Aslıhan Gürbüzel, McGill University

Maria Hadjipavlou, University of Cyprus

John F. Haldon, Princeton University

Nikifor Haralampiev, National Academy of Art, Sofia

Stefan Harkov, University of Shumen

Rabia Harmansah, University of Cologne

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Brown University

Edin Hajdarpašić, Loyola University Chicago

Ayşe Henry, Bilkent University

Judith Herrin, King’s College London

Colin Heywood, University of Hull

Ernest Marcos Hierro, Universitat de Barcelona

Cecily Hilsdale, McGill University

Martin Hinterberger, University of Cyprus

Frederic Hitzel, CNRS-EHESS, Paris

Paavo Hohti, University of Helsinki

Renata Holod, University of Pennsylvania

Brad Hostetler, Kenyon College

Etienne Hubert, Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

Anna Maria Ieraci Bio, Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II

Zeynep Inankur, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University

Sergey Ivanov, Russian National Research University — Higher School of Economics

Mireille Jacotin, Mucem, France

Hugh Jeffery, University of Edinburgh

Elizabeth M. Jeffreys, University of Oxford

Kaelin Jewell, The Barnes Foundation

Mark J. Johnson, Brigham Young University

Catherine Jolivet-Lévy, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

Jacqueline Jung, Yale University

Nikolas P. Kakkoufa, Columbia University

Veronica Kalas, independent scholar, USA

Ioli Kalavrezou, Harvard University

Gül Kale, Carleton University, Canada

Kevin Kalish, Bridgewater State University

Sophia Kalopissi-Verti, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Dimitri J. Kastritsis, University of St Andrews

Deniz Karakas, Tulane University

Ceyda Karamursel, SOAS, University of London

Romanos Karanos, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Anna Kartsonis, University of Washington

Armen Kazaryan, Research Institute of the Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning, Moscow

Hans-Lukas Kieser, University of Zurich

Bente Kiilerich, University of Bergen

Young Richard Kim, University of Illinois, Chicago

Dale Kinney, Bryn Mawr College

Holger A. Klein, Columbia University

Tia Kolbaba, Rutgers University

Athina Kolia-Dermitzaki, National and Kapodastrian University of Athens

Elias Kolovos, University of Crete

Fotini Kondyli, University of Virginia

Kader Konuk, Universität Duisburg-Essen

Elif Koparal, Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar Üniversitesi

Yavuz Köse, University of Vienna

Kriszta Kotsis, University of Puget Sound

Dickran Kouymjian, California State University, Fresno

Dimitrios Krallis, Simon Fraser University

Klaus Kreiser, Otto-Friedrich-Universität, Bamberg

Carol H. Krinsky, New York University

Derek Krueger, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

B. Harun Küçük, University of Pennsylvania

Zeynep Oguz Kursar, University of Zagreb

Demetrios Kyritses, University of Crete

Andrea Olsen Lam, Pepperdine University

Anaïs Lamesa, DIM Matériaux anciens et patrimoniaux/CNRS

Maximilian Lau, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo

Marc Lauxtermann, University of Oxford

Mariana Lazar, National Museum Controceni, Romania

Stavros Lazaris, CNRS

Sean Leatherbury, University College Dublin

Jacqueline Leclercq-Marx, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Florin Leonte, Palacký University of Olomouc

Juan Lewis, University of Edinburgh

Alexei Lidov, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Russian Academy of Arts

Alexander Lifshits, National Research University “Higher School of Economics,” Moscow

Alexander Lingas, City University of London

Santo Lucà, Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”

Angeliki Lymberopoulou, The Open University, UK

Michael Maas, Rice University

Byron MacDougall, Brown University

Christopher MacEvitt, Dartmouth College

Carlos Machado, University of St Andrews

Jacek Maj, Collegium Artium

George P. Majeska, University of Maryland

George Manginis, Benaki Museum

Maria Rosaria Marchionibus, Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale

Przemysław Marciniak, University of Silesia in Katowice

Moysés Marcos, California State University, Northridge

Sergei Mariev, LMU Munich and JGU Mainz

Vasileios Marinis, Yale University

Dragoljub Marjanović, University of Belgrade

Athanasios Markopoulos, University of Athens

Miodrag Marković, University of Belgrade

Elizabeth Marlowe, Colgate University

Inmaculada Pérez Martín, Consejo superior de investigaciones científicas

Maria Mavroudi, University of California, Berkeley

Renaat Meesters, Ghent University / KU Leuven

Julie Meisami, University of Oxford

Andrew Mellas, St Andrew’s Theological College, Sydney

Ethan Menchinger, University of Manchester

Mati Meyer, Open University of Israel

Leslee Michelsen, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

Bojan Miljković, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences

Elka Mircheva, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

John Mitchell, University of East Anglia

Mihail Mitrea, Newcastle University

Marie-Elisabeth Mitsou, EHESS

Elissaveta Moussakova, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Emmanuel Moutafov, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Krassimira Moutafova, St. Cyril and St. Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Mikael Muehlbauer, Columbia University

Stelyios Muksuris, Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Pittsburgh

Stephennie Mulder, The University of Texas at Austin

Margaret Mullett, Queen’s University Belfast

Elisabeta Negrău, „G. Oprescu” Art History Institute, Bucharest

Robert S. Nelson, Yale University

Elisabetta Neri, UMR Orient&Méditerranée-Paris

Christoph K. Neumann, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Emily Neumeier, Temple University

Leonora Neville, University of Wisconsin Madison

Galit Noga-Banai, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

William North, Carleton College

Paweł Nowakowski, University of Warsaw

Paolo Odorico, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales — Paris

Gokce Dervisoglu Okandan, Istanbul Bilgi University

Javier Ortolá Salas, Universidad de Cádiz

Victor Ostapchuk, University of Toronto

Robert G. Ousterhout, University of Pennsylvania

Agnès Ouzounian, INALCO (Paris)

Günay Göksu Özdoğan, Marmara University

Nilay Ozlu, University of Oxford / Altinbas University

Valentino Pace, Università di Udine

Georgios Pallis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Pagona Papadopoulou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Stratis Papaioannou, University of Crete

Amy Papalexandrou, University of Texas, Austin

Nassos Papalexandrou, University of Texas, Austin

Maria Parani, University of Cyprus

Andrea Paribeni, University of Urbino Carlo Bo

Laura E. Parodi, Università degli Studi di Genova

Elena Paskaleva, Leiden University

Panagiotis Pavlos, University of Oslo

Silvia Pedone, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei

Glenn Peers, Syracuse University

Bissera V. Pentcheva, Stanford University

Arseniy Petrov, Russian State University for the Humanities

Konrad Petrovszky, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Amanda Phillips, University of Virginia

Robert Pichler, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Jordan Pickett, University of Georgia

Aleksandr Preobrazhensky, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Chryssa Ranoutsaki, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Konstantinos Raptis, Ephorate of Antiquities, Thessaloniki

Andi Rembeci, University of Tirana

Andreas Rhoby, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Lutz Rickelt, Ikonen-Museum Recklinghausen

Meredith Riedel, Duke University

Alexandre Roberts, University of Southern California

Serena Romano, University of Lausanne

Maria Alessia Rossi, Index of Medieval Art, Princeton University

Susana Ruiz, Tecnológico de Monterrey (México)

James Ryan, New York University

Adam Sabra, University of California, Santa Barbara

Linda Safran, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto

Georgios Salakidis, Democritus University of Thrace

Catherine Saliou, Université Paris 8/École Pratique des Hautes Études, PSL

Jaime Vizcaíno Sánchez, Universidad de Murcia

Paula Caballero Sánchez, Universidad de Málaga

Joseph E. Sanzo, Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice

Marinos Sariyannis, Institute of Mediterranean Studies, Rethymno

Peter Sarris, University of Cambridge

Irvin Cemil Schick, EHESS Paris

Oliver Jens Schmitt, University of Vienna

Sabine Schrenk, University of Bonn

Ellen C. Schwartz, Eastern Michigan University

Mira Xenia Schwerda, Harvard University

Roger Scott, University of Melbourne

Tamara Sears, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Lara Sels, KU Leuven

Athanasios Semoglou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

A. Tunç Şen, Columbia University

Nancy P. Ševčenko, independent scholar, USA

Wendy Shaw, Freie Univeristät Berlin

Jonathan Shea, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Petr Shuvalov, St. Petersburg State University

Irene Simantoni, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Nino Simonishvili, independent scholar, Georgia

James Skedros, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Dimitrios Skrekas, University of Oxford

Engelina Smirnova, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Sharon C. Smith, Arizona State University

Svetlana Smolčić Makuljević, Metropolitan University Belgrade

Kostis Smyrlis, National Hellenic Research Foundation

Pushkar Sohoni, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research

Lucinia Speciale, Università del Salento (Lecce)

Foteini Spingou, University of Edinburgh

Dimitris Stamatopoulos, University of Macedonia

Tatjana Starodubcev, University of Novi Sad

Christos Stavrakos, University of Ioannina

Mark L. Stein, Muhlenberg College

Shannon Steiner, Binghamton University

Yannis Stouraitis, University of Edinburgh

William Stroebel, University of Michigan

Fabian Stroth, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Alice Isabella Sullivan, University of Michigan

Yasser Tabbaa, retired professor

Alice-Mary Talbot, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Michael Talbot, University of Greenwich

Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, University of Pittsburgh

Rabun Taylor, University of Texas, Austin

Allie Terry-Fritsch, Bowling Green State University

Natalia Teteriatnikov, independent scholar, USA

Baki Tezcan, University of California, Davis

Irakli Tezelashvili, Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University

Haris Theodorelis-Rigas, Koç University

Anne Tihon, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

Galina Tirnanić, Oakland University

Gul Tokay, Richmond University (London)

Jesse W. Torgerson, Wesleyan University

Hjalmar Torp, University of Oslo

Ida Toth, University of Oxford

Giovanni Travagliato, Università degli Studi di Palermo

Warren Treadgold, Saint Louis University

Ionut-Alexandru Tudorie, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Ece Turnator, Massachussetts Institute of Technology

Vessela Valiavitcharska, University of Maryland

Günder Varinlioğlu, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University

Nükhet Varlık, Rutgers University

Manolis G. Varvounis, Democritus University of Thrace

Maria Vassilaki, University of Thessaly

Myrto Veikou, Uppsala University

Manuel Vial-Dumas, University of Girona, Spain

Marina Vicelja, University of Rijeka, Croatia

Tim Vivian, California State University, Bakersfield

Dragan Vojvodić, University of Belgrade

Oleg Voskoboynikov, National Research University, Moscow

Branka Vranešević, University of Belgrade

Milan Vukašinović, Uppsala University

Lauren Wainwright, University of Birmingham

Alicia Walker, Bryn Mawr College

Annabel Wharton, Duke University

Elizabeth Williams, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Robert Wiśniewski, Uniwersytet Warszawski

Ethel Sara Wolper, University of New Hampshire

Warren T. Woodfin, Queens College, City University of New York

Renée Worringer, University of Guelph

Diana Gilliland Wright, independent scholar, Washington, DC

Maria Xanthou, Harvard University

Veli N. Yashin, University of Southern California

Ann Marie Yasin, University of Southern California

Edith Ybert, EHESS

Ayşin Yoltar, Brooklyn Museum

Nikos Zagklas, University of Vienna

Anna Zakharova, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Natalia Zajac, University of Manchester

Zeido Zeido, Brandenburg University of Technology

[For a brief history of this letter, click here.]