Did you know that Hagia Sophia recently held its first ‘Taraweeh’ prayers in 88 years? Taraweeh is a special evening prayer held during the holy month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. During this month, Muslims all over the world fast from dawn to sunset every day. It is a month of spiritual self-restraint, extra prayers, charity and generosity, and intense study of the Quran (the holy book of the Muslims). It involves contemplation of one’s relation to the Almighty.

But why were these prayers held after 88 years? Well, that is a long story.

Hagia Sophia is a monument in Istanbul, Turkiye, that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a rectangular building capped by a huge dome of nearly 105 feet (32 meters) across.

Hagia Sophia was built under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 532-37 as a church. The original interiors consisted of colored marble, gold, silver, and stunning mosaics. But much of it has been lost over time starting with an earthquake in 558 followed by the Crusaders’ loot in 1204.

When the Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul – which was then called Constantinople – Sultan Mehmed II converted the church into a mosque in 1453. He added minarets outside and huge disks with Islamic calligraphy inside. The mosaics depicting figures were also covered. Over the years, structures such as a school, library, and fountain were added to it.

The Ottoman Empire fought in World War I and lost. Due to this defeat, the empire fell apart in 1922. A young military leader called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the new country of Turkey in its place in 1923. He became its President. Kemal Ataturk was a secular leader. That is, he wasn’t associated with any religion. So, he decided to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934. It became a symbol of Turkiye’s multiculturalism.

The Hagia Sophia continued to be a museum till 2020. But in July 2020, a high court in Turkiye annulled (canceled) the order that converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum. On July 24, 2020, it was declared open to worship for Muslims. But it couldn’t be used as a mosque because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision was criticized by UNESCO and various world leaders. Nonetheless, the first prayers were held in the mosque this year after 88 years.