Turkey’s ancient churches are losing a century of secular protection.
By ROBERT OUSTERHOUT • March 11, 2014
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Just over 100 years ago, on March 26, 1913, at the height of the Balkan Wars, the Bulgarian army captured Edirne, once capital of the Ottoman Empire. To celebrate their victory, the Bulgarians planned to convert the grand, 16th-century Selimiye Mosque into a Christian church. Fortunately, the Bulgarian Tzartisa Eleanor intervened and put a stop to it. By July, the Bulgarian army was in retreat, Edirne returned to Ottoman control, and the incident was forgotten.
Looking back, the proposed conversion of an historic mosque into a church might strike us as shocking, but the United States and many other Christian countries were vocal supporters of the Bulgarians. Their ultimate goal was the conquest of Istanbul—once Constantinople and the capital of the Byzantine Empire—and the reconversion the Ayasofya Mosque (as it was known in Turkish) into the Church of Hagia Sophia. Emperor Justinian’s Great Church, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) had been converted to a mosque in the Ottoman Conquest of 1453, but for many it stood as a symbol of a lost, Christian civilization. Cries for its return might surprise modern readers, but the move was regularly advocated for in the pages of American newspapers.
An 1877 New York Times article begins, “How soon the crescent over the minarets of St. Sophia will be replaced by the cross, or how soon the minarets themselves will be entirely swept away, leaving the outlines of the church in their ancient condition, no seer has foretold.” A 1912 article predicts that the Bulgarians, advancing on the Ottoman capital, would soon plant the cross atop of Hagia Sophia. A decade later, the Greek Megale Idea held the conversion of Hagia Sophia as one of its top priorities. In 1921, a special service was held in St. John the Divine, with Orthodox and Episcopal clergy praying in six languages for the restoration of Hagia Sophia as a Christian sanctuary—enthusiastically reported in the American press.
It didn’t happen, of course. The Turks won their war of independence. On November 24, 1934—the same day that Gazi Kemal was proclaimed Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”)—the Turkish Council of Ministers decreed that the Ayasofya Mosque should be turned into a museum: “Due to its historical significance … its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.” The secularization fit with Atatürk’s vision to reshape Turkey as a part of Western civilization. But one wonders if it came as a compromise, a defensive strategy when facing the unified desires of the very Christian West.
Seventy-nine years later, the Hagia Sophia remains the most popular museum in Turkey.
All this might seem like ancient history but for recent events in Turkey. Early in 2012, the identically named Ayasofya in Iznik (Byzantine Nicaea) was reopened as a mosque. Originally the church of Hagia Sophia and the setting of important Church councils, the building had been converted to a mosque with the Ottoman conquest. But it had fallen into disrepair long before the foundation of the Republic, and stood as a roofless ruin. For decades it had functioned as a museum and recently had begun to attract Christian pilgrims.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç found a loophole in the law, insisting the building had never officially been deemed a museum, and that allowed its conversion. Reaction has been predictable: secularists and academics have decried the move; Islamists are delighted. Locals expect tourism to decline, even though admission fees are no longer collected.
The reconversion of one Ayasofya has spurred efforts for others. In May 2012, thousands of devout Muslims, organized by the Anatolian Youth Organization, prayed outside the Istanbul monument, shouting, “Break the chains! Let Ayasofya Mosque open!” As their leader explained, “Keeping Ayasofya Mosque closed is an insult to our mostly Muslim population of 75 million. It symbolizes our ill-treatment by the West.”
Early in 2013 it was announced that the Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya in Trabzon (Byzantine Trebizond) would reopen as a mosque. With its rich Byzantine fresco program lovingly restored, the 13th-century building has been a museum for the last half-century. Never the focus of controversy, the reconversion seems to have been instigated solely on the basis of its name.
A major force behind the conversion movement, Vakiflar (Ministry of Pious Foundations) Director Adnan Ertem proclaimed that, of the Ayasofyas in Turkey, five are functioning as mosques, while two are “inactive” (i.e., museums), calling their present owner, the Cultural Ministry, an “occupying force.”
A parliamentary commission is now considering an application to reopen Ayasofya in Istanbul as a mosque.
This time they’re serious. Indeed, supporting the reopening of Istanbul’s Ayasofya has become the litmus test of the true believer. Protests by the academic community have fallen on deaf ears, as Erdogan’s Islamist government presents the conversion as a move toward “religious freedom.”
How far have we come in the last century? A few recent incidents are telling. The 5th-century St. John Stoudios (the Imrahor Mosque) is the oldest surviving church in Istanbul and the center of the city’s most important Byzantine monastery. Destroyed by fire in 1894, the archaeological site belongs to the Cultural Ministry as an historic site, but its evocative remains have never been properly documented. A parliamentary commission has determined that the basilica will be rebuilt to function as a mosque.
The Kesik Minare in Antalya faces the same fate, despite public opposition. Recently excavated, the ruin preserves substantial remains from a Roman temple, a Byzantine church, a Crusader church, and an Ottoman mosque. As in so many other sites, its rich history would disappear if rebuilt.
One final example: The Arap Camii in Istanbul, originally a 14th-century Dominican church, suffered minor damage in the 1999 earthquake, after which plaster began to fall from the vaults, revealing remnants of the original frescoes and mosaics. Although the paintings were conserved last year, the Vakiflar covered them up again. They are no longer visible.
One wonders if this is to be the fate of Turkey’s rich, colorful, and heterogeneous past. At least the Tzaritsa had the good sense to say no.
17 Responses to Hagia Sophias: From Museums to Mosques
March 11, 2014 at 9:20 am
Thank you for bringing attention to this story. However, your reader (or at least this reader) is left hanging by the end. There is a tacit ethical argument tying the piece together, but it is not articulated save for the two sentences in which you refer to Eleanore Reuss-Kostritz of Bulgaria.
You compare Bulgarian and Greek irredentism, Turkish secularism, and contemporary Turkish islamism. It seems that you think Attaturk’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum was ethically justified (or at least prudent given the circumstances), whereas the other three attempted or desired restorations were/are ethically unjustified, or at least imprudent.
But what is the ethical principle standing behind your reasoning?
1) Is it that secularization is ethical or prudent, or more ethical or prudent that the others?
2) Is it that irredentist aspirations are unethical and imprudent?
3) Is it that islamist restorationism is unethical and imprudent?
4) Are all three unethical and imprudent?
What is your major premise?
A) That all churches, once converted into mosques, ought to stay mosques?
B) That all churches, once converted into mosques, ought to be converted into museums?
C) That the status quo of all religious buildings ought to be respected for perpetuity?
What do you really think?
You must think something about this, for this story touches upon an important ethical question that Byzantine art historians must answer.
When monuments, such as the Kariye Cami (Chora Monastery) or the Fethiye Cami (Pammakaristos Monastery) are taken out of religious use by government fiat in order for their Christian mosaics to be studied and restored, art historians who make a career publishing on these monuments ought to be able to articulate a judgment on the history and status of these monuments.
I do not wish to sound pugnacious. Rather, my post is a paraenesis in that I think that the discussion about this issue must start with a serious dialogue about the ethics of historical monuments.
March 11, 2014 at 9:31 am
I’m not Muslim, but to me it would seem to make more sense to worship within a building intended for worship.We’ve got plenty of religious items on display in museums already.
March 11, 2014 at 12:39 pm
I’m against the destruction of historical sites and to the extent proposals would involve that, they’re a very bad idea. However, assuming the frescos in the Hagia Sophia remain well cared for and open to see outside prayer time (I assume a Muslim service would need to cover them up), I don’t see a problem with the building being used as a mosque. In an ideal world they’d let an Orthodox service in there on Sundays and feast days, but I expect that would be less politically popular which is unfortunate. Bottomline: it was meant to a House of God, assuming bits aren’t going to fall off it through usage, let it be used as such.
Stephen Gould says:
March 11, 2014 at 12:44 pm
This article put me in mind of an incident reported in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (ch 51) concerning a Zoroastrian temple in Herat: “Under the payment of an annual tribute, the Mahometan law secured to the Ghebers of Herat their civil and religious liberties: but the recent and humble mosch was overshadowed by the antique splendour of the adjoining temple of fire. A fanatic Iman deplored, in his sermons, the scandalous neighbourhood, and accused the weakness or indifference of the faithful. Excited by his voice, the people assembled in tumult; the two houses of prayer were consumed by the flames, but the vacant ground was immediately occupied by the foundations of a new mosch. The injured Magi appealed to the sovereign of Chorasan; he promised justice and relief; when, behold! four thousand citizens of Herat, of a grave character and mature age, unanimously swore that the idolatrous fane had never existed; the inquisition was silenced and their conscience was satisfied (says the historian Mirchond) with this holy and meritorious perjury.”
March 11, 2014 at 1:44 pm
My advice, let it go. Unless you want to refight centuries old fights again.
Constantinople stood for a thousand years, but by 1453 it was a tired and crumbling civilization, it was ripe for conquest by a new vigorous people from the Central Asian steppes. Just like millenia old Egyptian civilization eventually yielded to Coptic Christianity, so Christian Byzantium had to yield to Ottoman Islam. The Orthodox should let it go as Muslims must let go Al-Andulus.
My second piece of advice, don’t let some building, no matter how beautiful as the Hagia Sophia, become an idol, an object of obsession (Hagia Sophia is no Temple Mount in Jerusalem). And don’t let it become like Alsace-Lorraine vis a vis France/Germany.
My third point, Turkey is a Muslim country. It is officially ‘secular’ in the same way as Israel and America are secular, in other words not, … both Israel and America are deeply Jewish and Christian nations. The Orthodox need to recognize that Turkey is Muslim, converting churches and converting them into mosques is what they do. Just as the Israelites destroyed pagan temples in Canaan during their conquest, and Europeans destroyed the civilizations of the Aztecs/Maya/Inca/Indians in the Americas, so the Muslims destroyed Christian Byzantium. Such is the way of history.
March 11, 2014 at 2:19 pm
The picture looks a lot like stock photos of the Blue Mosque, also in Istanbul. Am I missing wrong? [EPG, due to a photo service error, there was an inappropriate photo originally attached. It has since been replaced with an actual photo of the Hagia Sophia. Our apologies for the error. -JC]
March 11, 2014 at 3:07 pm
Shocking? I’m all for retaking Constantiople and converting all the mosques into churches. Only PC weenies are shocked by that proposition.
March 11, 2014 at 4:41 pm
If it is politically unpalatable for muslims to accept the Hagia Sophia to have christian worship then all the more reason to oppose it being used as a mosque.
There are christians being descriminated, persecuted and murdered all over the world and it is disgusting and repulsive how the christian and secular world just ignores the persecution when they could end it.
Demand the persecution stop or muslim religious privileges will be denied in christian and secular nations.
Demand tolerance and diversity or do not extend tolerance and diversity.
The idea the mushy liberals demand an atheist secular west be cleansed of christianity and then blatantly ignore every intolerant and overt refusal towards diversity is not just unacceptable in the west. Liberals should not be hypocrits and fight for it on their sofa at home or with their neighbor but then dismiss it when its a jew or a muslim or a chinese communist etc
Mont D. Law says:
March 11, 2014 at 7:44 pm
Secular Turkey is in open revolt and they weren’t the only ones in the streets last time. Red meat for the base is likely seen as the best way to shore up the tottering government. I’m not sure if it will work, but if it does, it’s a good choice. It would be better to burn it to the ground then see Turkey turn into Syria or Egypt.
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