Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 August 2020

UAE minister calls for cultural landmarks to be preserved amid Turkish move to turn heritage site into mosque

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, spoke out after Turkey's top administrative court announced plans to revoke the Hagia Sophia's status as a museum

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, said cultural heritage should be preserved for the good of society. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, said cultural heritage should be preserved for the good of society. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

A UAE minister has said cultural landmarks should "neither be misused nor altered" in the wake of Turkey's move to revoke Hagia Sophia's decades-long status as a museum and reopen it as a mosque.

The ruling from Turkey's highest administrative court on Friday was met with concern by US, French, Russian and Greek officials, as well as Christian church leaders.

The Unesco World Heritage site was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian as an Orthodox Christian cathedral before being converted to a mosque under the Ottoman empire about nine centuries later.

It was declared a museum in 1934 after the secular modern Turkish republic was established in 1923 and is one of Turkey's most visited sites.

Turkey has ruled that the Hagia Sophia can be converted into a mosque. Courtesy: EPA    
Turkey has ruled that the Hagia Sophia can be converted into a mosque. Courtesy: EPA    

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, said cultural heritage should be preserved for the good of society.

"It should neither be misused nor altered through change in a way that touches the human essence," she said.

"Especially for sites that are inscribed under World Heritage by Unesco. They have exceptional international value, and are the common heritage of all peoples and cultures."

On Saturday, Ms Al Kaabi said the status of Hagia Sophia was changed without any regard to its wider value.

"It has remained a global landmark with significant cultural legacy. It also served as a bridge connecting different peoples and cementing their bonds," she said.

"World heritage sites have become the platforms for knowledge exchange between diverse cultures and civilisations that evolved in history across time.

"Hagia Sophia is an important example of interaction and dialogue between Asia and Europe and should remain a witness to harmonious human history."

Ms Al Kabbi emphasised the importance of the statement issued by Unesco, which had stressed that Hagia Sophia was part of Istanbul's rich history.

"It is designated as a heritage museum by Unesco. It is an architectural marvel and is a unique witness to the interaction between Asia and Europe across centuries. It is a symbol of dialogue," she said.

Unesco said countries that are home to cultural heritage sites should not alter them in ways that harm their outstanding universal value.

"Hagia Sophia is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a property inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List," said Audrey Azoulay, director general of Unesco.

“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

Unesco said any measures to alter the site could breach regulations set out by the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

“It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with Unesco, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management,” said Ernesto Ottone, Unesco's assistant director general for culture.

The UAE is a member of Unesco's executive board.

Updated: July 12, 2020 06:36 PM

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