Turkey Converts ANOTHER Former Byzantine Church into a Mosque
Just one month after announcing that the world-famous Hagia Sophia, originally a Byzantine cathedral, would be converted back into a mosque , Turkish President Erdogan has inflamed tensions yet again by announcing that another Christian Church would be converted into a mosque. The deeply symbolic move comes during a period of tension between Islamic Turkey and Orthodox Greece.
The Holy Saviour in Chora was a medieval Byzantine church. This sandstone building was originally a monastery but had been converted into a church in the 4 th century AD. It had been one of the most popular places of worship in Constantinople for centuries until the seizure of the city by Mehmet the Conqueror the Ottoman Sultan in 1453. It remained this way until WWII, when the mosque was converted into the Kayrie Museum and many of its Christian artworks were restored by American scholars.
The Holy Saviour was originally a Byzantine Church. Spectacular mosaic in the center of its domed ceiling. Credit: Nastya Tepikina / Adobe Stock
Masterpieces of Christian art
The former church has distinctive sandy colored stones and is adorned with a minaret and cascading domes which were added after it was converted into a mosque. The frescoes and mosaics in the museum are considered to be some of the most important surviving examples of Byzantine art. They are mainly of biblical scenes such as the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ and the ‘Flight into Egypt’. According to the Daily Mail it is also ‘decorated with 14th-century frescoes of the Last Judgement that remain treasured in the Christian world’. This site is of huge significance to the Greek Orthodox Church.
The ‘1000-year-old building closely mirrors that of the Hagia Sophia-its bigger neighbor’ according to News 24 . There are many similarities between the two buildings design and history. Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was once the most important church in the Byzantine Empire and it was originally built on the orders of Justinian the Great in the 6 th century AD. After the Fall of Constantinople, it was turned into a mosque by the Ottomans but in the 20 th century, a secular Turkish government turned it into a museum. That was until 2020 when a court-ordered that it be opened to Muslim worshippers as a mosque.
Important frescoes on the walls of the Holy Saviour. Credit: Gelia / Adobe Stock
Conversion to a Mosque
Since 2004, an association has petitioned for the museum to be reconverted into a mosque. Turkey’s top court granted their petition in 2019 and its legal status has been changed to that of a mosque. The move has been welcomed by the Turkish government led by President Erdogan. When the Muslim place of worship was turned into a museum it was part of the secular policy of the then government. The conversion of the museums at Hagia Sophia and The Holy Saviour is seen as evidence of the growing influence of Islam on public life in Turkey, which is supported by Erdogan.
It is widely believed that the Erdogan government wanted the conversion as part of ‘efforts to galvanise his more conservative and nationalist supporters as Turkey struggles with a new spell of inflation and economic uncertainty because of the coronavirus crisis’ according to the Daily Mail . The move has been widely criticized especially in Greece which has long had a strained relationship with Turkey.
The world-famous Hagia Sophia will be turned back into a mosque. Credit: Givaga / Adobe Stock
The Greek Foreign Ministry in a statement stated that ‘It is absolutely reprehensible. We call on this country to keep pace with international developments in the field of protection of world cultural heritage’ according to the Greek City Times. The move has caused a great deal of anger in Greece.
Many are concerned that Turkey’s decision to change the status of a heritage site indicates a growing intolerance of minority religions in the country. A European Union spokesperson reminded the Erdogan government of their responsibilities ‘As a member of the Alliance of Cultures, Turkey is committed to interfaith and intercultural dialogue and the promotion of tolerance and coexistence’ reports the Greek City Times .
Some Turkish lawmakers believe that the conversion of the former church is a retrograde step. Garyo Paylan an opposition politician called it a ‘shame upon our country’ according to News 24 . However, many Istanbul residents are happy with the decision and do not regard it as a big problem. Yucel Sahin stated that only a few churches of the very many in the city have ‘been opened to prayer as mosque’. He also noted that ‘there is a lot of tolerance in our culture’ reports News 24 .
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Greek and Turkish tensions
While the museum is now a Mosque it is believed that the Byzantine artworks will remain in place and can be seen by visitors. This is also the case with Hagia Sophia. The court decision that returns the museum to Muslim worshippers could not have come at a worse time.
The Daily Mail reports that ‘Erdogan is placing an ever greater political emphasis on the battles that resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans’. This is leading to growing tensions between the Turkish and the Greek and Cypriot governments. Moreover, there is a dispute between the Greeks and Turks over drilling rights in some disputed waters. Recently an accidental collision between vessels from the rivals has ratcheted tensions further. The French government has sent some warships as a show of support for their Greek allies.
Top image: The Holy Saviour Church in Chora. Credit: Yordan Rusev / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan