Museums News Turkey

Mosque conversion raises alarm

Christian art in Byzantine church-turned-museum is at risk after controversial court ruling

A unique ensemble of 13th-century Christian paintings, sculpture and architecture

One of the most important monuments of late Byzantium, the 13th-century Church of Hagia Sophia in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, which is now a museum, will be converted into a mosque, after a legal battle that has dramatic implications for other major historical sites in Turkey. Many in Turkey believe that the Church of Hagia Sophia is a stalking horse for the possible re-conversion of its more famous namesake in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi).

For around 50 years, responsibility for the Church of Hagia Sophia in Trabzon has rested with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The courts now accept the claim made by the General Directorate of Pious Foundations, the government body responsible for most of the country’s historical mosques, that this has been an “illegal occupation”. The court has ruled that Hagia Sophia is an inalienable part of the foundation of Sultan Mehmed II who first turned the church into a mosque after his conquest of the Empire of Trebizond in 1462.

“A building covenanted as a mosque cannot be used for any other purpose,” says Mazhar Yildirimhan, the head of the directorate’s office in Trabzon. He declined to speculate on whether this would mean covering up nearly half the wall space taken up with figurative Christian art, including the dome depicting a dynamic Christ Pantocrator. “There are modern techniques for masking the walls,” he says.

The church was rescued from dereliction (it had been used variously as an arsenal and a cholera hospital) between 1958 and 1962 by the University of Edinburgh under the direction of David Talbot Rice and David Winfield. This included restoring the original ground plan and removing a prayer niche constructed into an exterior porch. The church also has an exterior frieze depicting “the Fall of Man”.

“It is the whole ensemble—architecture, sculpture and painting—that makes Hagia Sophia unique,” says Antony Eastmond of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, who is an authority on the building. “This is the most complete surviving Byzantine structure; there is no 13th-century monument like it.”

Concern for the building is prompted by the fate of Istanbul’s Arab Mosque—originally a 14th-century Dominican church—also administered by the directorate. An earthquake in 1999 shook loose plaster from the vaults revealing frescoes and mosaics. The conservation of these paintings was finished last year but they were immediately re-covered.

Like its namesake in Trabzon, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was also turned into a mosque, after Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453. It was famously made into a museum in 1935 by cabinet decree—unlike the informal arrangement in Trabzon. The re-conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque has long been the “golden apple” sought by Turkey’s religious right.

For such a thing to happen would have major implications for the country’s standing as a custodian of world heritage, according to one senior Western diplomat based in Istanbul.

Yet already the current government has been working on a list of historical properties administered by the Hagia Sophia Museum. In January, Istanbul’s oldest surviving church, the fifth-century St John Stoudios, which became the Imrahor Mosque in the 15th century before fire and earthquake left it in ruins, was transferred from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to the General Directorate, which plans to rebuild it as a mosque.

Shrouded in secrecy

Turkish scholars are also up in arms at the directorate’s decision to transform another ruin, the Kesik Minare in Antalya, into a mosque. The local chamber of architects has gone to court to prevent this happening. Originally a Roman temple, the Kesik Minare has a Byzantine, Seljuk and Crusader past. A plan had already been drawn up to turn the site into an open-air museum.

Recent experience suggests that the directorate reconstructs mosques without regard for the millennia of history they contain. The restoration of the sixth-century Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus (now the Small Ayasofya Mosque) was shrouded in secrecy and completed in 2006 without the academic community being allowed to conduct a proper survey.

Similar complaints have been levelled against the repurposing of yet another Hagia Sophia—the fifth-century basilica in Iznik where the Second Council of Nicaea was held in AD787. It was a museum, but now it is a mosque. Contrary to accepted archaeological practice, the walls were capped with an attached rather than freestanding roof. “It has lost most of its original character,” says Engin Akyurek, an archaeology professor at Istanbul University. “There is a great difference between conserving a historical building and reconstructing it so it can be used as a mosque,” he says.

The 13th-century Church of Hagia Sophia in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, which is now a museum, will be converted into a mosque
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27 May 14
19:16 CET


Why it raises alarm?? They can do whatever they want in their own land. What about the mosques that were converted to Christian churches or completely destroyed in Granada and other cities of Spain? Not to mention other cities of Europe.

25 Oct 13
15:15 CET


good news for muslims

26 Jul 13
18:46 CET


This is a very sad story but there are many similar conversions in the west e.g. Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church in Bulgaria which was built by Turks as a mosque in the 16th century but it was converted into a church in 1902 but these kind of stuff dont attract media attention. The Greeks has destroyed everything that reminded it of its Ottoman heritage, including thousands of mosques that were built by the Ottomans..

1 Jul 13
16:39 CET


How can you turn this beautiful church into a mosque? Don't you have enough mosques to pray? What are you trying to achieve? Yazıklar olsun!

18 Jun 13
22:8 CET


I will never go to Turkey after reading this.

31 May 13
15:2 CET


There is precedent here, but much farther in East in Turkey - over the last century, countless Armenian Churches have been converted to mosques and madrasas, with no protest from the international community, much less domestically in Turkey.

20 May 13
10:51 CET


All my support and my respect to my Turkish brothers and sisters in the Pontus/Karadeniz that struggle and care for these last evidences of the common memories of our anchestors and our communities that once knew how to live in peace in one of the most beautiful places on Earth...

20 May 13
10:51 CET


protect World Heritage Monuments!

18 May 13
16:9 CET


To support our Turkish friends we have started an online petition in English, on, search for Hagia Sophia, Trabzon, please sign the petition!

22 Apr 13
15:10 CET


I also think that pressure must be put on Turkish politicians in context with their european ambitions, they are the only ones which can prevent this if a court has already given the green light for the changes.

19 Apr 13
19:18 CET


To destroy this History for the sake of modern religion and it's aspirations is very sad. "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him...." —Nietzsche. So can't 'god' just be left alone, to sleep in his house ,undisturbed.

17 Apr 13
18:17 CET


World heritage Trabzon Hagia Sophia must be stayed as a Museum! Support us! Sign the Petition More info at

15 Apr 13
16:14 CET


In my point of view, Hagia Sophia must be stayed as a Church, because it is the historical site for the next generation in the world, and i think we have to maintain what the context behind the architecture. Converting the purpose and function is not the best way amid changing times. I think repect to the past will enrich the future. Thank you

15 Apr 13
16:15 CET


This outrage against historical sites has to cease! Religious Fanatics cannot change history. What is wrong with you Diplomats?

15 Apr 13
16:15 CET


This is disgusting and completely in violation with the international freedom of religion act. It has always been a monumental struggle to preserve Hagia Sophia and I pray that the world's efforts do not stop here, by working together we can put pressure on Turkey to stop this!

12 Apr 13
18:53 CET


Perhaps "masking the walls" will be tastefully done" like the Budda Statues in Afghanistan! First Egypt now Turkey. I agree that all possible pressure must be applied to the Turkish government. History cannot continue to be erased by religious zealots.

11 Apr 13
20:14 CET


Absolute protest required by all means possible, especially diplomatic, against these examples of what has been called modern islamist imperialism. This is utterly at variance with EU principles and practice which Turkey is supposedly keen to engage with.

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