Turkey's latest mosque conversion provokes outrage over heritage 'destruction'

Turkey's latest mosque conversion provokes outrage over heritage 'destruction'
A Byzantine-era Istanbul church is set to re-open as a mosque on Friday, with images of its covered mosaics prompting anger.
3 min read
28 October, 2020
Like the Hagia Sophia, the Chora mosque has been a museum and a church [Getty]
The conversion of a Byzantine-era church to a mosque has prompted fresh controversy in Turkey this week, three months after the conversion of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia from a museum provoked global outrage.

Turkish authorities revealed plans to convert the Chora Museum into a Muslim place of worship earlier this year.

The  monument, which dates back to the 4th century, was originally constructed as a church under Byzantine Christian rule, then later converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Like UNESCO World Heritage site Hagia Sophia, the Chora church became a museum after the foundation of the modern Turkish republic.

Due to widely held prohibitions around Muslim worship in the presence of figurative art, authorities have covered the priceless mosaics in both former museums.

Although visitors are able to view the Hagia Sophia mosaics outside of prayer times, future arrangements for the ancient mosaics in the Chora mosque are unclear.

A photo of the current covering shared by an Istanbul municipality official has caused uproar on social media this week.

The photo posted by Istanbul Municipality Deputy Secretary General Mahir Polat shows a section of the mosque's mosaic-covered domed ceiling with flat white boards, contrasting with the curtains used to cover the images in the Hagia Sophia.

"The covering of the Chora's mosaics and frescos - which are considered to be masterpieces in art history - is unfortunately unskilled to the point of destroying the structure's character and artistic value," Polat said in a tweet.

The image has sparked concern for the preservation of the former church's architecture and art works.

"It has been turned into a slum," a Twitter account focused on Turkish architecture said. "With thanks to the ministry of culturelessness and vulgarity."

Turkish Twitter personality Can Okar chimed in: "Turkey did not need a 85,753rd mosque. But the world does need to see the frescoes of the Chora Church.

"Covering up the frescoes as though they are somehow sinful is a violence to history, culture, beauty and art," Okar added.

Critics of the conversion fear covering the frescoes and mosaics could cause permenant damage.

Unlike in the expansive Hagia Sophia where Byzantine mosaics are surrounded by traditional Islamic art, the compact Chora mosque is covered nearly top-to-tail in figurative art works.

"Apart from the absence of taste, I am very concerned about how they are affixed to the walls, and the short and long term damage they will cause - unless of course they are miraculously floating mid-air," tweeted Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir, a Turkish expert in cultural and religious heritage.

The Chora mosque is scheduled to hold its first Muslim prayers since 1945 on Friday.

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