Former Byzantine churches are being converted to mosques – this threatens Istanbul’s cosmopolitan identity

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Suggested reading by the Muslim Times: Would Pope Francis be willing to swap Cordoba Cathedral / Mosque with Hagia Sophia?

Source: The Conversation


  1. Ilay Romain Ors: Research Affiliate, Centre of Migration, Policy, and Society, University of Oxford
  2. Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir: Research Associate in Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh

Two former Byzantine churches of Istanbul, the famed Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, which served as museums for decades, have been converted to mosques in the space of a month. This has raised concerns. Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox community knows that more is at stake than these two monuments.

Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox, the Rum Polites, form the greater part of the flock of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the traditional centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Having been numerous and influential during Byzantine and Ottoman eras, they now constitute a small minority of merely 2,000. The traumatic experiences they have suffered, including pogroms and expulsions, have caused them to become globally dispersed. But the Rum Polites continue to retain a strong connection to Istanbul and its Byzantine heritage, made palpable by architectural landmarks like Hagia Sophia and Chora.

Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora were revered churches of Byzantine Constantinople. Hagia Sophia served as the imperial church of the Byzantine Empire and awed with its architectural ingenuityChora was part of a rural monastic complex and was richly adorned by stunning mosaics and frescoes.

Both sites were converted into mosques by the Ottomans: Hagia Sophia immediately after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and Chora half a century later. Then in the 1930s and 1940s during the Turkish Republic, Hagia Sophia and Chora were turned into museums, illustrating the secular ethos and Western-oriented attitude of the newly formed state. The figural representations in the mosaics and frescoes that were plastered over by the Ottomans were uncovered during extensive restoration projects in this period.

Read more: Hagia Sophia: turning this Turkish treasure into a mosque is at odds with its Unesco status

This republican resolution was undone when Chora and Hagia Sophia were officially re-converted into mosques after president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent presidential decrees.

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