Turkey: after Hagia Sophia, a new church transformed into a mosque

The Hagia Sophia will not be the only one to change its identity. Friday, August 21, Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that an old old Orthodox church, well known to the inhabitants of the city of Istanbul, be converted into a mosque. And this, barely a month after the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a Muslim place of worship, a decision that had generated a flood of criticism on the international scene. The new building concerned is none other than the Church of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, also known as the Church of Chora.

Built by the Byzantines in the 5th century, it was converted into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, and then into a museum after the Second World War. In a presidential decree published in the Official Journal on Friday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered this popular place for tourists to be “opened to Muslim worship”, based on a decision by the Council of State in this regard last year.

14th century frescoes, including one from the Last Judgment

The decision to turn the Chora Museum (Kariye, in Turkish) into a mosque comes a month after the similar and controversial conversion of the former Hagia Sophia, a World Heritage Site. Besides its thousand-year-old history rivaling that of Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine Church of the Chora is best known for its magnificent 14th-century mosaics and frescoes, including a monumental composition from the Last Judgment.

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In the aftermath of World War II, the building underwent a lengthy restoration led by a team of American art historians and was opened to the public as a museum in 1958. The announcement Friday of the conversion into a mosque has raised fears for the survival of the mosaics and frescoes in the building, with Islam banning figurative representations.

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For Zeynep Turkyilmaz, historian of the Ottoman Empire, it will be impossible to temporarily hide them during prayer times, as is the case today in Hagia Sophia, because they decorate the entire building. “It is the equivalent of destruction, because it is impossible to transform this interior architecture while preserving it”, she is alarmed.

Erase the traces of Greek and Christian civilization?

For many observers, the recent reconversions of former Byzantine churches aim to galvanize the conservative and nationalist electoral base of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a context of economic difficulties aggravated by the pandemic. Tensions with Greece also play a role, according to Zeynep Turkyilmaz. “There is a desire to erase the traces of Greek and Christian civilization”, estimates the historian. “By getting our hands on a place belonging to Greek civilization, we also remind Greece of its place as a former member of the empire which the Turks dominated. “.

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Greece moreover strongly denounced Friday the reconversion of the Church of the Chora, seeing in it “another provocation towards believers and the international community”. “Another symbol of the multicultural history of our country has been sacrificed”, criticized Garo Paylan, opposition deputy of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP, prokurd).

According to a journalist from Agence France-Presse who visited the site just after the publication of the Turkish President’s decree on Friday, the building was still open to visitors, unlike Hagia Sophia, which was immediately closed with the announcement of its reconversion. Anna Naumova, a 25-year-old Russian tourist, also wonders about the fate of Christian frescoes. “They say that some mosaics will be covered because they are not Islamic. It could be a problem for people who like this stuff and therefore won’t come here anymore, ”she said.

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