In July, Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia, the ancient building whose uses have followed the city’s fortunes, was rededicated as a mosque. Now it’s the turn of the Chora Museum.
The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, also known as the Kariye Mosque, was built during the Byzantine era in what is now the Fatih district. Like the Hagia Sophia, it was converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and then turned into a museum by the Turkish Republic in 1945. The interior of the building boasts some of the world’s most important Byzantine Christian mosaics and frescoes, and is one of Istanbul’s most frequently-visited museums.
Soon after the plans to rededicate the Chora were announced in late 2019, Christian symbols and images of Jesus on the walls of the museum were covered up with white curtains. At the end of October this year, the building reopened as a mosque.
For Engin Akyürek, an expert in Byzantine art at Istanbul’s Koç University, the move risks undermining an important part of the city’s cultural heritage.
“Alterations to prepare the building for Muslim worship will inevitably occur, covering up the frescoes and limiting visitors’ access,” Akyürek said. He said this had already happened to prominent Byzantine-era buildings recently rededicated as mosques in the cities of İznik and Trabzon.
“The conversion will hurt the city’s tourist appeal,” Akyürek continued. “A handful of conservatives shouldn’t be allowed to damage the city like this. It’s possible to build mosques anywhere in Istanbul, but it’s impossible to build another monument like the Chora.”
The Turkish government’s new-found enthusiasm for reconverting historic buildings into mosques has also upset Christian communities. A petition from representatives of Turkey’s Orthodox Christians to overturn the rededications of the Hagia Sophia and the Chora museum has been filed with the State Council, but a decision is still pending. In July, the reopening of the Hagia Sophia was criticised by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, prime minister of Greece, the majority of whose population identifies as Orthodox.
According to Hakkı Özdal, editor of the cultural magazine Yeni E, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is pushing to rededicate these historic buildings for ideological reasons.
“Erdogan’s nationalist-religious [impetus] is increasing,” Özdal said, explaining that the president’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) was trying to shore up support among core voters after several years of political and economic crisis. “This includes turning historical monuments into places of worship,” he said – a cause that energises some of the AKP’s more militant supporters.
Aydın Çubukçu, a political scientist and author of the book Culture and Ideology, told Inside Turkey that it was important to see the rededications as part of Erdogan’s attempt to project Turkey’s “cultural power,” both on the world stage and for a domestic audience.
“The conversion of a church into a mosque is [for Erdogan] the ultimate expression of sovereignty,” Çubukçu said.
This was yet another example of the government trying to “get rid of extraordinary problems with fireworks,” Çubukçu continued, explaining that the focus on cultural issues distracted the public from material challenges facing Turkey, now made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
“What with the economic disaster and international relations chaos, it would not be entirely wrong to say that prayers in these new mosques have been wasted.”
Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor in architectural restoration at Istanbul Technical University, said although Istanbul had many ancient former churches, the Chora museum was one of the only places where mosaics and frescoes were displayed in this way.
“There have been many years of efforts to unearth and restore these beautiful works, for people to see and love them and to enjoy their artistic value,” she said.
Ahunbay stressed that turning the museum back into a mosque would transform its identity, and that cultural assets should not be used as a tool for current political battles.
Latife Küçüker, who has worked as a tourist guide in Istanbul for 20 years, said that part of the attraction of ancient buildings such as the Chora was their many-layered history. In the Hagia Sophia, for instance, Islamic calligraphy and Byzantine Christian art sat side by side. Since the rededication, he said, tourism has dropped – although numbers have also been severely affected by the pandemic.
“The fact that these structures are within the borders of our country does not make them ours,” Küçüker said. “We are obliged to protect this heritage in the best possible way. I hope Hagia Sophia and Chora become museums again and are flooded with visitors.”