This article in The Art Newspaper outlines recent court rulings in Turkey that have implications for many Byzantine churches. Academics, art historians, architectural historians, and Byzantine history specialists are particularly concerned about whether this means that other Byzantine / Christian churches that are currently protected museums are also at risk of being converted into mosques. Not only does this conversion mean that the non-Muslim public will have reduced access to the monument, it also means that the monument itself will have to be modified to serve its new function.
The thirteenth century Church of Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was built by Manuel I Komnenos (1238–63), a king of the eastern Empire of Trabzon (also called Trebizond). Trabzon is located in the north of Asia Minor along the coast of the Black Sea. The church’s artistic and architectural features include a depiction of Christ Pantokrator in the dome surrounded by inscriptions and a frieze of angels. The twelve apostles are shown between the windows. On the exterior is a frieze of the Fall of Man from Genesis. The building is a cross-in-square church with a high dome, a narthex, and a nave divided into three spaces. The central apse is pentagonal and the apses on either side are semi-circular. Above the narthex is a small chapel. Porticoes are on the three entrances at the west, north and south sides. It is currently a museum managed by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Dr. Antony Eastmond has published on the art and architecture of the Byzantine church. And two years ago I heard a paper by Dr. Sarah Brooks about the church’s monumental base, or stylobate, that is now covered by the earth.
A claim was made by the General Directorate of Pious Foundations that Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was a foundation of Sultan Mehmed II who converted the church into a mosque in 1462 after he conquered the Empire of Trebizond. Their argument: once a mosque always a mosque. Their reconstruction process operates independently from academic input. For example, the sixth-century Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus was completed in 2006 without any academic input. Likewise, the fifth-centuiry basilica Church of Hagia Sophia in Iznik/Nicaea was converted from a museum and reconstructed as a mosque with an attached roof.
The immediate question is about whether the Christian figurative decorations and wall paintings at Hagia Sophia, Trebizond, will be masked or covered up. This strategy of covering Christian imagery has been used as recently as last year after the conservation of frescoes and mosaics was completed on a fourteenth-century Dominican church in Istanbul. I haven’t seen pictures of this church but I am extremely interested in Mendicant foundations in the eastern Mediterranean, so advice on how to get access these now hidden frescoes and mosaics would be much appreciated!
The bigger question is whether the reconversion of Hagia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque sets a precedent for the reconversion of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This has already been done with the fifth-century Church of St. John Stoudios, which is the oldest surviving church in Istanbul. This church was transferred to the General Directorate in January and they plan to convert it back into a mosque. The future of Kesik Minare in Antalya is also in question. This monument was originally a Roman temple that was later used by Byzantines, Seljuks, and Crusaders. The General Directorate seeks to convert it into a mosque also. And, as i mentioned above, the Church of Hagia Sophia in Nicaea was dramatically modified in its conversion into a mosque.