Reconversion of Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments emboldens religious extremism - Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir

The reconversion of two of Istanbul’s iconic Byzantine era sites into mosques and the accompanying conquest-related discourse has emboldened extremism across the Middle East, anthropologist Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir from the University of Pittsburgh told Ahval.

The transformation of the Hagia Sophia in July, followed by the Chora museum earlier this month has changed the symbolism around the two important monuments from one of coexistence to dominance, Erdemir told Ahval’s Yavuz Baydar.

“From what I’ve been observing in the Middle East, a lot of extremists have been replicating Erdoğan’s words in their discourse now,” she said.

During a speech  announcing the first Friday prayers after Hagia Sophia’s conversion,Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke extensively about Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, hinting at parallels between the 15th century victory and his 1994 election as the mayor of Istanbul.

Extremists in the broader region have since “been using this as a pretext to think about how they will dominate over others in their geographies,” Erdemir said. “It emboldens extremism across the middle east and the world, if you think about it.”

The 6th century Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque immediately after Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul, then Constantinople, to symbolise the conquest.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, or Kariye in Turkish, in contrast was originally part of a rural monastery. The Chora was “a symbol of Byzantine devotion,” with precious frescoes and mosaics covering virtually all of its surfaces, Erdemir said.

The structure was converted into a mosque some 50 years later by a vizier.

“Hagia Sophia is of course an imperial building that was created from the start as a political statement,” she said – the imperial church where Byzantine emperors were crowned. “Chora never had the same imperial domination significance attached to it.”

Both monuments were converted into museums under the secular Republic of Turkey, after the same team worked on both their restorations.

These museumifications, as Erdemir put it, were “very much in alignment with the ethos of the early Turkish republic, in which the artistic value of these monuments was recognised.”

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,” she said.

Now, the symbolism of heritage has re-shifted back to an idea of conquest, in what is a dangerous process, the anthropologist said.

“With the idea of the conquest, we actually stop being the people who take care of heritage, and then we start being people who dominate over heritage,’’ Erdemir said. “And that level of domination brings in itself the whole idea that there is somebody that needs to be dominated in this country. That we are not equal citizens anymore.”

Such shifts attack the very heart of a democratic society built on the very idea of equal citizenship, she added.

Many Islamists in Turkey have included the Chora in a similar conquest narrative, although historically that is not the case, Erdemir said. However, the fates of the two monuments have been intertwined in other ways.

Chairman of a historical conservation association, İsmail Kandemir, who filed a lawsuit to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, filed another lawsuit for the Chora.

In 2019, Turkey’s Council of State ruled in Kandemir’s favour in the case of the Chora, months before the same ruling came for the Hagia Sophia.

What initially set the conversions into motion was the Directorate of Pious Foundations filing three lawsuits for similar Byzantine monuments in 2010. All five monuments will, for the foreseeable future, continue to serve as mosques.

“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.”