Before dawn on May 31, 2014, 40,000 Turkish Muslims assembled on mats in front of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum in an organized prayer of protest calling for the famed basilica’s conversion back to a mosque. Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir was there, and as far as she could tell, she was one of just three women in the vast crowd not wearing a headscarf. For Tanyeri-Erdemir (GRS’05), this was neither worship nor activism: it was fieldwork.

It could be said that the future of the Hagia Sophia is the future of Turkey. No physical structure embodies Turkey’s increasingly fractured society more boldly than the iconic domed edifice. The Hagia Sophia, which translates to “Divine Wisdom,” became a museum in the early 20th century after a millennium as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was an Ottoman mosque for more than 500 years after that, and finally became the opulent attraction it is today. Completed in 537, the structure’s story is Turkey’s—Christian rule toppled by Islamic rule, followed by the restive, Europe-leaning secular regime of founding father and first Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Hagia Sophia has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and is a secular rebuke to calls for sectarian rule in a nation that is 98 percent Islamic.

As a Turkish-born archaeologist who studies the history of religious sites around the world, Tanyeri-Erdemir is captivated by the simmering debate over the nearly 1,500-year-old building. She believes that archaeologists like herself are the guardians of structures like this one, and she routinely speaks out about what she sees as her government’s brazen disregard for its historic sites and the threat to archaeological treasures posed by Turkey’s recent building boom.