President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree on July 10 to formally declare the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, minutes after Turkey's administrative court annulled a 1934-dated decision that paved the way for the use of the 15-century-old structure as a museum.
Muslim religious conservatives and nationalists in Turkey have for years pushed for the reclassification of the Hagia Sophia.
Visitors pose for a picture at Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, the UNESCO World Heritage Site which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque and now a museum.
In 1934, Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forging a secular republic out of the defeated Ottoman Empire, converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, now visited by millions of tourists every year. Following the Fall of Constantinopole, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Erdogan made his declaration, only an hour after the court administering was uncovered, in spite of worldwide alerts not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old landmark, worshipped by Christians and Muslims the same.
Erdogan had previously signaled that he meant to make that change.
Shortly after the court decision, Erdogan signed a presidential decree handing over the administration of "Hagia Sophia Mosque" to Turkey's religious affairs directorate known as Diyanet.
"With this court ruling, and with the measures we took in line with the decision, Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after 86 years, in the way Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul had wanted it to be", Erdogan said in a national address. He said, "Like all our mosques, its doors will be open to everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim". It will "continue to embrace everyone", Anadolu quoted Erdogan as saying.
The Ottomans built four minarets, covered Hagia Sophia's Christian icons and luminous gold mosaics, and installed huge black panels embellished with the names of God, the prophet Mohammad and Muslim caliphs in Arabic calligraphy.
His declaration came after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Byzantine monument's status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be turned back into a mosque.
"This extraordinary site is a testament to religious expression and to artistic and technical genius, reflected in its rich and complex 1,500-year history", said US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, as he advised Turkey to preserve Hagia Sophia on Wednesday.
It said the decision could lead to even greater divisions.
"It's just another example of the long pattern now of Turkey's turn away from its commitments as a member of the NATO Western alliance, and its commitment to the norms that are associated with democracy", Prodromou added.
On Friday, the plaza in front of the Hagia Sophia, normally packed with visitors standing in long lines to get in, was almost empty, after officials warned against large public gatherings that could spread the coronavirus. Visitors strolled in and out of the building without waiting.
"We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all", she said.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus stated that "we are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia". He said he'd be back next Friday to pray.
Fatma, a woman with tears in her eyes, said: "Of course I am crying".