ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sealed his long-stated desire to restore the historic Hagia Sophia as a working mosque on Friday, opening the magnificent Byzantine structure built in the sixth century as the world’s largest cathedral to thousands of Muslim worshipers for the first time in nearly nine decades.
Huge crowds began gathering even in the pre-dawn hours around Hagia Sophia, to attend Friday Prayer, a crowning moment for Mr. Erdogan after 18 years at the helm of Turkish politics.
Under heavy police security, worshipers settled on the streets and sidewalks on their rugs, covering their faces with masks against the coronavirus and their heads with makeshift shades as the sun grew searingly hot. Every cobbled street around the mosque was packed, as well as the open spaces along the length of the ancient hippodrome where Roman chariots once raced.
Mr. Erdogan arrived at noon, wearing a mask, and sat on the mosque floor, head bowed and eyes closed, listening to the melodic recitation of the Quran, which was carried live on national television. At 1 p.m., the crowd fell silent and knelt in unison.
“This is a festival for us today, we are so happy,” said Selahattin Yigiter, a retired businessman who was sitting with his wife on a prayer mat on the sidewalk below the nearly 1,500-year-old building. “With the pressure of Muslim people it is reconverted.”
But the atmosphere of celebration among the Muslim faithful in Turkey contrasted with the angst and dismay Mr. Erdogan’s decision has generated among Christians around the world and among many in the academic and conservation communities.