Built in the 6th Century as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque under the Ottoman empire nine centuries later, before being declared a museum in 1934 under secular Turkish rule. In her statement, Minister AlKaabi notes the importance of viewing cultural heritage “as a human legacy that ought to be preserved.” Speaking to the decision by Turkish authorities, she says cultural landmarks “should neither be misused nor altered through change in a way that touches the human essence.”
Directing her comments particularly toward World Heritage sites, as determined by the specialized agency, Unesco, AlKaabi says landmarks like the Hagia Sophia “have exceptional international value, and are the common heritage of all peoples and cultures.” Stressing that the change in status was effected without much regard for “civilizational value,” the Minister’s comments highlight important issues of cultural dialogue that have, for decades, been facilitated through the historical edifice that is the Hagia Sophia. “It has remained a global landmark with significant cultural legacy,” says AlKaabi. “It also served as a bridge connecting different peoples and cementing their bonds.”
Preserving human heritage and promoting values of tolerance, Al Kaabi explains that world heritage sites have “become the platforms for knowledge exchange between diverse cultures and civilizations that evolved in history across time.” “[The] Hagia Sophia is an important example of interaction and dialogue between Asia and Europe and should remain a witness to harmonious human history,” she says. “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.”
Hagia Sophia: UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of #WorldHeritage to be preserved.
— UNESCO (@UNESCO) July 10, 2020
Echoing the sentiments of Unesco, whose Executive Board the UAE is a member of, AlKaabi’s concerns have been shared by officials from around the world, including the United States, France, Russia, Greece, and myriad Christian church leaders. In its statement, Unesco demands that States with properties officially inscribed on the World Heritage List must refrain from making changes to the outstanding universal value of the property, and that “any modification requires prior notification by the State to Unesco and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee.”