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“If It Is Not Closed, It Will Collapse”: Converted Hagia Sophia Is Now Crowded and Crumbling

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul‘s iconic cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque, will begin charging foreign tourists an entrance fee starting January 15, 2024, Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy announced this week

The 1,500-year-old structure—easily one of the world’s most significant architectural landmarks—has been free to enter since 2020, when the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the highly controversial move to reconvert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque with regular religious services. For eight and a half decades before that, the building had been a secular space. 

Since 2020, the site has faced growing international concern about overcrowding, damage to the building, and questionable management when it comes to preserving the unique art and architecture located there. 

UNESCO, which inscribed the Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site in 1985, expressed dismay over the change almost immediately. Since then, archaeologists and historians have sounded the alarm about troubling evidence of vandalism on the 6th-century Imperial Gate and damage to marble tiles reportedly caused by cleaning machines. 

The wear and tear resulting from a sudden influx of worshipers, reported to be as high as 120,000 a day, is another source of worry.

Earlier this fall, prominent Turkish historian Ilber Ortayli cited all that foot traffic as the main reason for what he regards as an urgent need to close and restore the Hagia Sophia.

“If it is not closed, it will collapse,” the academic said in a televised interview

But instead of closing the interior of the Hagia Sophia (pictured below), the government will implement “a visitor management plan in line with UNESCO’s guidance,” according to Ersoy, the tourism minister.

A major component of that plan will be the new entrance fee, the amount of which hasn’t been finalized yet. 

In addition to paying for admission, tourists will use a separate entrance from worshippers as a means of streamlining crowd flow. 

Turkish citizens who go to the Hagia Sophia to observe their faith will not have to pay to enter the building. It’s unclear at this point whether people from other countries who want to pray at the mosque will get to use the free entrance—or, for that matter, how they would go about proving their motives. 

The Turkish government says the entrance fee is designed to reduce crowds and help fund maintenance and repairs—including, presumably, the ones necessitated by the government’s own decision to take away the job of preservation from people who know what they’re doing.