The Association of Greek Archaeologists (SEA) published an open letter Monday, calling on UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay to “intervene forcefully” to protect the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
One of the most important religious and cultural sites in the world, the Hagia Sophia became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Originally constructed as a church, the Turkish government converted the structure to a mosque in 2020 in a highly controversial decision. In the years since, 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 between 532 and 537, the Hagia Sophia served as the largest Christian cathedral in the world until 1453. At that time, Constantinople was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. It was then converted into a museum by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1935.
The open letter comes on the heels of recent damage to the Hagia Sophia’s marble floors incurred during a cleaning mishap, along with vandalism over the last two years to well-known art and architecture within the building such as the Imperial Gate and the mosaic 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 regular liturgical services resumed, the integrity and preservation of the site has been in question, according to SEA. The organization 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.
Additionally, the letter raised concerns about the conversion of Chora Monastery in Istanbul into a mosque.