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After Hagia Sophia reversion, Turkey reopens its iconic madrassa

By: Sushil Kumar

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Hagia Sophia Fatih Madrassa, the first Ottoman school built in Istanbul, returns to its glory after being demolished decades ago, this time as a massive education facility next to the eponymous mosque, reverted to its original function two years ago.

Rebuilt from scratch based on the original plans, Hagia Sophia Fatih Madrassa of Istanbul was opened on Friday at a ceremony attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The madrassa (a type of school in Muslim countries with a curriculum focusing on religious teachings as well as science) was the first of its kind in this former capital of the Ottoman Empire. It takes its name from Fatih (Conqueror), the title given to Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered the city in 1453. It was the sultan who repurposed this building used as living quarters of priests at then-Hagia Sophia church as a madrassa after the church was converted into a mosque.

The new facility, bearing the marks of Ottoman architecture, will serve as a home for many educational and research centers. Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakıf University, founded in 2010 by a foundation established by the Ottoman sultan centuries ago, will run the two-story madrassa.

Directorate General of Foundations, a department of the Culture and Tourism Ministry had started the reconstruction work of the madrassa in 2017, three years before Turkey took a landmark step and reverted the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, renaming it Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque.

Situated northwest of the mosque and among a trove of Ottoman and Byzantine legacy of the city adorning Sultanahmet Square, the madrassa endured the test of time for centuries. In the 19th century, Sultan Abdülaziz ordered its demolition as the madrassa fell into disrepair and rebuilt a new one, slightly farther from the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. Until 1924, it served as a madrassa. In that year, the Istanbul municipality repurposed it as an orphanage. Two years after Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1934, the former madrassa was demolished.

A local conservation board had approved the government’s 2012 project for restitution and reconstruction of the madrassa and in 2017, the project was formally launched.

The new madrassa shares only the same foundation walls of the old building and is a brand-new addition to the Sultanahmet Square where centuries-old buildings from the Blue Mosque to a Roman-era obelisk are located.

The two-story building has 38 spacious rooms that will serve as sections of the Hagia Sophia Studies Center, Center for Research of Mehmed The Conqueror and His Era, Center for Application and Research of Islamic Arts, Islamic Law Research Center, Application and Research Center for Manuscripts, Center for Research of Foundations, Center of Studies of (renowned Ottoman-era explorer) Evliya Çelebi and Center for Application and Research of Visual Communication and Design.

In the Ottoman times, the madrassa hosted most prominent figures of the Ottoman times. Molla Hüsrev, one of the greatest legal scholars of Sultan Mehmed’s time, was the first professor of the madrassa. Ala al-Din Ali ibn Muhammed, also known as Ali Qushji, also served in the building as one of the leading astronomers and mathematicians of the Islamic world in the 15th century.

The new building is a mix of wooden and metal architecture with wooden girders combined with iron support and its facade is constructed of stone coverings. Constructed on a space of 1,473 square meters (15,855 square feet), it houses three courtyards, with wooden walkways in each courtyard supported by metal reinforcement material. Remains of the old madrassa, including parts of a cistern, are well preserved.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said they were pleased “to give back the city another important structure whose traces were deliberately erased.”

“They demolished this place under the pretext that it blocked the view. This historic site was quietly destroyed,” Erdoğan lamented.

The president acknowledged that Turkey had failed to preserve the legacy of its ancestors at one point, laying the blame on the “single party mindset.” He was referring to a period in the early years of Republic of Turkey governed by Republican People’s Party (CHP), Erdoğan’s main rival. “Ancient buildings were demolished or collapsed themselves because of negligence. Hundreds of mosques were sold or converted into museums or stables for horses,”

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