The conversion of two Byzantine-era temples in Istanbul into mosques is fueling extremism in the Middle East. Anthropologist Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir of the University of Pittsburgh said this in an interview with “Ahval”.
According to Erdemir, in July, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque, after which the same attitude towards the Church of the Holy Savior changed the symbolism around two important monuments.
During the first Friday prayer after the conversion of Hagia Sophia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan detailed the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, citing parallels between this victory in the 15th century and his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
In the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque immediately after the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople.
The Church of the Holy Savior (also called Chora Church) was originally part of a monastery in the village of Chora. According to Erdemir, the church was “a symbol of Byzantine devotion”, with expensive frescoes and mosaics that covered almost all of its surfaces. Fifty years later, a vizier turned this building into a mosque.
Both monuments were turned into museums during the secular Turkish Republic. According to Erdemir, the museums were “very much in alignment with the ethos of the early Turkish republic, in which the artistic value of these monuments was recognized.”
According to her, the young republic “wanted to preserve and present them to the world as these wonderful edifices that the Turkish state now had and open them up for people of all faiths and all cultures.”
Erdemir said that now, the symbolism of heritage shifted back toward the idea of conquest, which is a dangerous process.
According to Erdemir, many Islamists in Turkey included the Chora in a narrative of conquest, although historically it did not happen. However, the fates of the two monuments were intertwined in another way.
“We may not be able to turn them back into museums,” Erdemir said, “But we have to make sure that these priceless, amazing artworks and architecture survives to future generations. This is our responsibility.”