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Huge crowds of Muslims join Turkish President Erdogan in first official prayer at Hagia Sophia for eight decades (VIDEOS)

Thousands of revellers, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have flocked to the Hagia Sophia in the historic heart of Istanbul, for the first official Muslim prayers held at the site in 86 years.

The Friday prayers marked the monument’s reopening for worship after Turkish President President Tayyip Erdogan declared it to be a mosque once more. Prayer mats were laid out in Sultanahmet Square as the call to prayer rang out.

A holy site for Christians and Muslims for almost 1,500 years, the Hagia Sophia was initially built in 537 as a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire, before being seized by the Ottoman Empire 900 years later and converted into a mosque until 1934, when it became a museum.

It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, with the organization’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay having said previously that she “deeply regrets” the decision by a Turkish court to annul the monument's status as a museum earlier this month.

Despite criticism from church leaders that the move would inflame religious tensions both within Turkey and regionally, authorities say the site will remain open to all visitors despite its renewed status as a mosque, and that its Christian artworks would be protected.

Also on rt.com It will be free: Turkish govt shows ‘silver lining’ of turning Hagia Sophia into mosque for Istanbul visitors

The Christian frescoes and mosaics inside the monument will reportedly be concealed during Muslim prayers.

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