On Recent News of Appropriation and Re-use of Byzantine World Heritage Monuments

After the fairly recent change in the status of the church of Hagia Sophia [Holy Wisdom] from museum to mosque, it appears as though we may be witnessing a string of other Byzantine churches in the region of Turkey, under the reign of Erdoğan, meet the same fate with most recent being the Church of Holy Saviour of Chora.

As a platform dedicated to the arts and to advocating for the value of cultural production and history, we felt the need to make an open statement on this matter and specify that what we address is only in relation to these unwarranted changes on behalf of governmental officials.

Also known as Chora Church, the Church of Holy Saviour is known mostly for the few remaining historically invaluable mosaics of its interior dating around the 13th century AD. These mosaics have been the subject of many research projects and presentations, including my own. From their material and technique to their strategic placements within the architectural structure, this building is a monument and testament of artistry, socioeconomic history, and religious history as well.

The main claim by government officials, that seemed the most unstable of all, in the case of Hagia Sophia in particular (which extends to the other churches as well) was that the building was being returned to “its original use.” Historically speaking, it is irrational to make claims on the original use of any building when one does not refer to the use it was designed and constructed to serve. In the particular cases of Hagia Sophia and Chora, the original use is marked even by the symbolism embedded within their original floor plans, if the timing and subject matter of the early hagiography adorning their walls is not enough evidence.

Their religious use may have changed throughout the years, especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but that does not change what the “original use” was in any of these cases: a church. Similarly to how the Parthenon was once used as a church, and later a mosque does not make it’s original use anything else but a religious temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.

Aside from this, changing the status of these churches and monasteries to mosques, against UNESCO World Heritage rites, raises the issue of accessibility. Strong and justified concerns remain as to whether these buildings will remain widely inaccessible during specific times throughout the day, every day, while certain areas will remain entirely inaccessible to women regardless of time or day, as emphasized by historian colleagues currently residing in the East.

In this day and age, and from a country that seeks to boast of its progress and growth, returning to an earlier appropriation of world heritage historical landmarks instead of seeking other architectural solutions appears as a direct offense toward ethnic minorities still residing within Turkey.** These monuments are as much a part of their identities as they are of Muslim inhabitants of Turkey and keeping them within museum status was a form of neutral compromise, demonstrating a modern state that valued equality and respected its constituents. Considering that in the past such changes to historically acclaimed buildings affected the integrity of iconography, and often, even structure (as denoted in the open letter issued by several US universities), such moves draw direct references to Turkey’s dark and still recent past of ethnic cleansing and genocide.*

In the 21st century, when a government could seek a route of coexistence that has proven to yield impressive results in progress, both social and economic, it is deeply saddening and disturbing to witness such politically dubious treatment of culturally and historically invaluable monuments. It is equally appalling to see the direct effect such moves on behalf of the government have on the remaining Christian minorities in the region, as well as a broader population which does not condone these recent actions.

Sources:
* Ömür Harmanşah, “The Conversion of Hagia Sophia: Desire, Spectacle, and a Historical Re-Enactment,” July 31, 2020
“[…]Hagia Sophia has been an icon of secular modernity in Turkey, whereas the AKP government’s neo-Ottoman, neo-imperial gesture to recapture the holy space of the Hagia Sophia constitutes a legal, political, and indeed architectural undermining of the modernist institutions of museums and global cultural heritage, not unlike recent iconoclastic (although far more violent) acts of fundamentalist governments in the Middle East.[…]”

Menekse Tokyay, “

Sources:
* Ömür Harmanşah, “The Conversion of Hagia Sophia: Desire, Spectacle, and a Historical Re-Enactment,” July 31, 2020
“[…]Hagia Sophia has been an icon of secular modernity in Turkey, whereas the AKP government’s neo-Ottoman, neo-imperial gesture to recapture the holy space of the Hagia Sophia constitutes a legal, political, and indeed architectural undermining of the modernist institutions of museums and global cultural heritage, not unlike recent iconoclastic (although far more violent) acts of fundamentalist governments in the Middle East.[…]”

**Menekse Tokyay, “Turkey’s cultural wars at full gallop with reconversion of historic church,” Arab News, August 21, 2020
“The Edirnekapi neighborhood of Istanbul, where the building is located, has 16 other mosques around Kariye Museum, sparking criticisms about the necessity of a move that further polarizes society.”

“Archbishop Elpidophoros decries the conversion of another former church into a mosque,” e Kathimerini, August 21, 2020

3D Virtual Tour of Chora

Greek:
“Απέναντι στην ισλαμιστική μισαλλοδοξία του Ερντογάν, η γαλήνια ομορφιά της βυζαντινής Τέχνης,” LIFO, July 24, 2020

Statements:
UNESCO statement
Common statement of Archbishop Elpidophoros and Cardinal Dolan
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

“Archbishop Elpidophoros decries the conversion of another former church into a mosque,” e Kathimerini, August 21, 2020

3D Virtual Tour of Chora

Greek:
“Απέναντι στην ισλαμιστική μισαλλοδοξία του Ερντογάν, η γαλήνια ομορφιά της βυζαντινής Τέχνης,” LIFO, July 24, 2020

Statements:
UNESCO statement
Common statement of Archbishop Elpidophoros and Cardinal Dolan
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

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