ESACH Blog | Reconversion and authenticity: the case of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

In July 2020, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, opened its doors to receive Muslim worshippers, after functioning as a museum for the past 86 years. The sixth century Byzantine church, which was constructed under the reign of Justinian I (Wegner 2004), was a subject of many coffee-table conversations, newspaper headlines, and official government statements and press releases. Under the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, an Ottoman Emperor, Hagia Sophia in 1453 became a symbol of the Empire’s power and pride. Since Hagia Sophia is recognised as an architectural wonder that upholds symbols of both Christianity and Islam, its conversion into a mosque caused an uproar.

Written by: Shaheera Pesnani and Valentine Mareau Flambeaux.

Hagia Sophia: a beating heart of Istanbul

Hagia Sophia formed a part of the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul’, which gained its inscription as a World Heritage Site (WHS) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1985 (World Heritage Committee 1985). The entire Historic Areas of Istanbul meets four out of six UNESCO’s criteria for a cultural WHS. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), president of the new Republic of Turkey, decided to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum and a library to align it with the three pillars of the revolution: “secularism, modernity, superiority of science” (Katipoğlu and Caner-Yüksel 2010). Throughout centuries, the architecture of Hagia Sophia has evolved around its many conversions, riots, and rise and fall of empires. Each of these historical events and conversions were in fact done to prove the superiority and strength of the newly victorious. Therefore, it can be stated that the conquest of Hagia Sophia represented a political statement ever since – a matter which has continued to-date. The decision to change the function of the site into a museum from a mosque in the early 20th century, and from a museum to a mosque in the 21st century, has deep political roots, raising issues on its authenticity and Outstanding Universal Value (OUV).

Figure 1: Haga Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Ilhan Ustuner Canva CC0

On built heritage and authenticity

With the Turkish government’s decision to change the function and purpose of Hagia Sophia, this raised questions on the site’s authenticity, access, and its status as a WHS. In this respect, who will be allowed and when became an essential and a crucial question.

According to ICOMOS (2020), the musealisation of Hagia Sophia preserved the OUV, as well as justified the inscribed status of being a WHS. However, what is the authenticity that is now allegedly being impacted, and how do we understand it in light of the existing Charters and in the context of architectural spaces? According to our research and understanding, authenticity has two main aspects:

  • Ontological authenticity – which can be defined as the congruence between the world-view of an architectural space and the world-view of the people who appropriated it. It refers to being true to the past through the present use.   
  • Authenticity of conservation – which can be best understood through the ICOMOS New Zealand Charter of the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value 2010. Wherein, the Charter not only differentiates between the forms of conservation processes and practices, but also explains authenticity as “truthfulness” of “the cultural heritage value of a place” by acknowledging the tangible and intangible values that are attached with it.

In addition to that, the Venice Charter of 1964, the Riga Charter of 2000, and the Nara Document of 1994 also refer to the issue of authenticity, however, they do so in terms of reconstruction for conservation purposes in a limited sense. For instance, while the NARA Document does elucidate the idea of authenticity by referring to the values the site must have had in the past or throughout its life, it does so in a conservation sense.

Figure 2: Hagia Sophia’s architectural evolution 1453-1481, 1481-1640, 1640-1861. Source: ICONARP

Preservation of authenticity or disruption?

The main question that arises now is, does the reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque alters its authenticity or does it, to an extent, adds to its significance and meaning? Therefore, we have attempted to problematize how authenticity becomes an issue as part of the conversation process. Can one function of the site be more authentic than the other? For instance, if the function of Hagia Sophia as a museum is considered more authentic – an idea which was supported by ICOMOS and the Union of chambers of Turkish Architects and Engineers (UCTEA 2020) owing to its Universal value and accessibility to all humanity – by extension, it implies that Hagia Sophia’s functioning as a mosque would hamper the authenticity of its conservation. The argument, then, that is presented in favour of musealisation is that it not only enables to preserve and maintain the architectural integrity of the site, but it also preserves the “historical memory, and the universal, holistic nature of the culture shared by nations” (ICOMOS Turkey 2020). On the other hand, the idea of musealisation is also criticised to be ontologically inauthentic as it turns a once “living heritage” into a “staged artefact” (Aykaç 2018) which, in turn, might affect, likewise, the production of historical memory, although in a different form.

Hence, it can be argued that authenticity does not have a single layer but layers of authenticities, depending on how the heritage site interacts with humanity and how people localise the heritage as part of their identity and meaning-making process. It could be concluded that the authenticity of Hagia Sophia is created, built and thrived around the communion of cultures. Though, it is important to take into account that the change in purpose of Hagia Sophia might have an impact on its historical, cultural, political, religious, architectural and social significance, if any.

Figure 4: Men working on mosaics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Ignatius Theophoros in the north tympanum of Hagia Sophia, 1940. Source: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection


The reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque has undoubtedly disrupted the image of it being a simple heritage that represents a certain culture. Instead, it further politicised and exacerbated the controversies on a contested heritage site. Hagia Sophia as a museum facilitated the process of extensive restoration, monitoring of its architectural integrity and of its various strati, and one can only hope that the previous conservation will be continued for all fabric of Hagia Sophia. Considering the novel and progressing nature of the conversion, the question then remains… has the authenticity of Hagia Sophia changed or is it still intact? On a broader scope, how do we really understand authenticity as it bears many layers? Lastly, how do we, as individuals, make sense of WHS in light of political interventions? 

About the authors

Shaheera Pesnani is a MSc candidate of Architectural Conservation at the University of Edinburgh. Previously, she completed her BSc (Hons) in Social Development and Policy from Habib University, Pakistan, and later a graduate program in Islamic Studies and Humanities at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. She is interested in the relationship of heritage conservation and community development. Shaheera is also a recipient of the Indian Ocean Exchanges Fellowship program 2021-2023.

Valentine Mareau Flambeaux completed her studies in architecture from l’École Nationale d’Architecture de Paris Val de Seine. She obtained her diplôme d’architecte d’État in 2019 with honours. As conservation has always been her prime interest, she worked throughout her studies in an architectural firm that specialised in it. Her latest employment, before joining MSc Architectural Conservation at the University of Edinburgh, was in AREP. She worked as an on-site architect on the restoration and rehabilitation of various Parisian train stations.