By Dr. Veronica Kalas, Ph.D.
I have been asked to write a report for the International Center of Medieval Art newsletter concerning recent events in Turkey whereby Byzantine churches that long have held the status of state museums and cultural heritage sites are being converted into mosques. It is crucial to raise awareness about this very critical issue. The examples include the church of the Hagia Sophia in Iznik (Nicea), the church of the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon (Trebizond), and the plans for the church and associated monastic complex of St. John Stoudios in Istanbul (Constantinople). Although these events have been ongoing for quite some time, the world started watching more closely in recent months when certain representatives of the Turkish government publicly called for the conversion of THE Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. For every example, the original Byzantine church building testifies to the vast contribution of Byzantine culture and civilization to the history of medieval art and architecture and world architecture more broadly. These churches were converted into mosques under Ottoman rule and subsequently into museums under the Turkish Republic.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (photo credit: Veronica Kalas)
Although it has been reported that right-wing Turkish politicians and political parties introduced these ideas since the 1950s, in the last year or so the trend has been implemented and seems to be gaining momentum. The political background, individuals, and organizations involved in the issue is intricate and sensitive, as Andrew Finkel has discussed in “Mosque conversion raises alarm: Christian art in Byzantine church-turned-museum is at risk after controversial court ruling,” The Art Newspaper 245 (April 2013). The peg on which to hang the legality of these conversions stems from a multifarious set of maneuvers that includes the transfer of the right to care for the monuments from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to the Directorate General of Pious Foundations. This transfer is highly significant in the Turkish context as the two organizations adhere to separate rules, regulations, and approaches to historic monuments and museums that are often at odds with one another. In some ways these buildings embody a kind of secular state being taken over or occupied by a religious state within Turkey, although in essence the Directorate of Pious Foundations always had jurisdiction over the monuments, which technically have been leased to the Ministry to run as museums. The situation is very complicated, not entirely transparent, and is not the same for every case. Claims that some consider dubious are circulating by an MHP party member who introduced the bill in parliament to make legal the conversion of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on the basis that the original document legalizing its conversion to a museum in the 1930s was a forgery, and therefore the building has maintained its status as a mosque since its initial conversion in the fifteenth century.
Analysts have considered the issue from a variety of angles, from the attempt of some politicians within the current government to garner votes from the religiously conservative majority population in Turkey, to the wish to reclaim Turkey’s Ottoman past, to a direct antagonism toward Eastern Christianity for which these buildings are immensely symbolic. Largely left out of the news reports is a significant discussion of the damage these priceless structures face in the process of conversion, and their subsequent use as mosques from an archaeological and historic preservation point of view as Amberin Zaman has reported in The Economist, Al Monitor, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the examples cited are only a fraction of a larger issue of the destruction of culturally and historically significant monuments worldwide.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (photo credit: Veronica Kalas)
Among many alterations to the building’s fabric, all religious imagery must be covered-- a process that inevitably leads to damage as has been demonstrated in the past. In the case of St. John Studios, the fifth-century church building would have to be rebuilt as a mosque as it is currently roofless. It has been reported that the proposed plan is to reconstruct the monument with a dome, which is entirely incongruous with the original design of the structure as a three-aisled basilica. Although individual academics and archaeologists from both within Turkey and internationally are openly opposed to this, thus far there has been no concerted effort put forth from any angle to voice an effective objection to these events. Particularly absent so far is any statement by international bodies concerned with cultural heritage preservation, such as UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICOM, and WMF among other organizations either from within Turkey or globally, to address the grave concerns about the fate of these invaluable buildings. Most likely the general perception is that there is no adequate way to deal with the complexity of the problem and any criticism from the outside would be perceived of as imposed from the ‘west’ and therefore ineffectual. I include below an archive of links to recent news items in English worthy of note to help anyone wishing to follow the events as they unravel.
Dr. Veronica Kalas, Ph.D.
December 7, 2013
Articles about the conversion of Byzantine churches to mosques in Turkey:
On Hagia Sophia, Istanbul:
On Hagia Sophia, Trabzon:
On Hagia Sophia, Iznik
On St. John Studios, Istanbul
On the trend in general: