New article outlines the on-going conversion in Turkey of Byzantine churches into Mosques
Byzantine churches that have held the status of state museums and cultural heritage sites for a long time 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 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. Recently, the world started watching more closely when certain representatives of the Turkish government publicly called for the conversion of The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The political background of the 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.
Recently Dr. Veronica Kalas was recently asked to prepare a report on these on-goings to the newsletter published by the Society of Architectural Historians (Sah). This article is an extract of this report.
Recent News on the Conversion into Mosques of Byzantine Churches in Turkey
By Dr. Veronica Kalas, Ph.D.
Published by SAH News 12.12.2013
Links to further articles are provided there
ICOMOS Turkey – Briefing on the Hagia Sophia Museum (Link added 12.02.2014)