ATHENS – UNESCO’s director general, Audrey Azoulay, has been called on by the Association of Greek Archaeologists (SEA) to “intervene forcefully” to protect the Aghia Sophia in Constantinople in a published open letter.
Aghia Sophia, one of the most significant religious and cultural sites in the world, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Initially built as a church and later converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city, it was turned into a museum after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was changed to a mosque by the Turkish government in 2020, a decision that was considered highly controversial. Since that time, the Byzantine-era cathedral has seen increased damage and vandalism, according to SEA.
In the letter, SEA asked UNESCO, under whose protection the site falls, to “intervene forcefully to reverse the current situation, which only poses risks for Hagia Sophia.” SEA described current management of the site as “destructive.”
Constructed by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, Aghia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world up until 1453, In 1935, it was turned into a museum by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The open letter comes at a time when Aghia Sophia’s marble floors have been damaged due to a cleaning mishap, along with vandalism over the last two years to well-known art and architecture inside the building such as the Imperial Gate and the mosaic of the Theotokos.
In the letter, SEA wrote, “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.”
Since Muslim prayer services resumed, the integrity and maintenance of the site has been in question, according to SEA. The association plans to address the international scientific community, seeking both resolutions and signed petitions for the structure’s preservation.
“Justifiably, there has been concern inside Turkey and on a global level about the further life of the unique Hagia Sophia,” read the letter.
The letter also raised concerns over the conversion of the renowned Chora Monastery, also in Constantinople, into a mosque.