Following the recent announcement by the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque will commence charging admission fees for foreign visitors from 15 January 2024.
- Admission fees apply only to foreign tourists.
- Entrance for worship purposes remains unchanged for Turkish citizens.
- Introduction of separate entry points for worship and tourism.
- The decision aligns with UNESCO’s guidance to protect World Heritage Sites.
- The finalized fee structure is to be announced before the implementation date.
Enhancing the Quality and Security of Visits
The newly introduced “visitor management plan” primarily focuses on preserving the historical and cultural essence of the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque and its surrounding square. Ersoy emphasized during a press conference that the new measures are anticipated to ensure a more streamlined flow of visitors and reduce overcrowding. He said, “In line with UNESCO’s guidance, the quality and security of visits will be enhanced, ensuring that the Hagia Sophia Mosque and its square remain protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.”
Addressing the Overflow of Visitors and the Risk of Collapse
This strategic move comes on the heels of concerns raised about the immense number of visitors the mosque receives, putting the monument at potential risk. The Hagia Sophia, historically significant as the epicenter of Christian worship in Constantinople and having served various roles from an Orthodox cathedral to an Ottoman mosque and a museum, now functions as a mosque and sees a substantial daily footfall.
Turkish historian Ilber Ortayli, writing for Hurriyet, expressed grave concerns, highlighting the mosque’s vulnerability. Ortayli warned of the urgent need for restoration to prevent any potential collapse. He stated, “The building needs to be closed for restoration to prevent any potential collapse.” He further elucidated that the mosque has undergone significant wear and tear since its conversion, attracting three million pilgrims annually, exclusive of tourists. Ortayli argued that even a modest annual footfall, including various professionals and officials, far exceeds the monument’s endurance limits.
Recent Restoration Efforts and Damages
Ersoy informed stakeholders about the extensive restoration work currently underway in various sections of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. The plan is to move on to other parts upon the completion of the current sections.
However, recent restoration and maintenance activities have come under scrutiny. In June 2022, damages were reported to the ancient marble floors due to the use of heavy cleaning machinery. Another incident in April 2022 drew attention when the Turkish Association of Art Historians pointed out severe damage to the historic Imperial Gate in Hagia Sophia, with a picture highlighting the harm done to the oak wood of the 15-century-old gate.
Reactions from the International Community
The decision to charge an admission fee for foreign tourists visiting Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque has garnered mixed reactions from the international community. While many understand the need for sustainable tourism and the importance of preserving global heritage sites, there are concerns that the fee might deter some tourists, especially those traveling on a budget.
Understanding the Implications
It is essential to note that many iconic global landmarks, ranging from historical monuments to natural wonders, charge an entrance fee. These fees primarily go towards maintenance, restoration, and ensuring the longevity of these sites. Given the historical significance and the wear and tear Hagia Sophia has experienced, especially with its vast influx of visitors, the decision seems pragmatic.
The decision to introduce an admission fee and the visitor management policy stands as a crucial step in preserving the cultural, historical, and architectural integrity of the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. It remains paramount for authorities to ensure that the monument’s preservation is prioritized while accommodating the global interest it garners, as it remains a testament to Turkey’s rich history and the confluence of diverse cultures.