Thousands of Turks performed prayers at Hagia Sophia for the first time since Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the monument, revered by Christians and Muslims for almost 1,500 years, a mosque once again.

Earlier on Friday, crowds formed at checkpoints around the historic heart of Istanbul where police maintained security.

Once through the checks, worshippers sat apart on prayer mats in secured areas outside the building in Sultanahmet Square.

“We are ending our 86 years of longing today,” said one man, Sait Colak, referring to the nearly 90 years since Hagia Sophia was declared a museum and ceased to be a place of worship.

“Thanks to our president and the court decision, today we are going to have our Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia.”

A top Turkish court announced this month it had annulled Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum.

Erdogan immediately decreed that the building, a Christian Byzantine cathedral for 900 years before being seised by Ottoman conquerors and serving as a mosque until 1934, had been converted once again to a mosque.

As crowds grew, leaving little space for social distancing, Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said authorities had stopped people entering the area due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

On Twitter, he called for patience and said the mosque would be open for prayer until Saturday morning.

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By kashif

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