Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, a marvel of Byzantine art, in turn became a mosque

One month after the opening of Muslim worship of Hagia Sophia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday ordered the conversion to a mosque in Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, Istanbul’s iconic former Orthodox church, known for its mosaics and frescoes.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his policy of reviving old Byzantine churches. After Hagia Sophia, the Turkish president on Friday, August 21, ordered the conversion of a mosque into another ancient Orthodox church in Istanbul: the church of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, known for its mosaics and frescoes.

Built by the Byzantines in Vecentury, the church of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, also known as the Chora Church, had been converted into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, then into a museum after World War II.

In a presidential decree published in the Official Journal of the European Union on Friday, August 21, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered that this popular place for tourists be “opened to Muslim worship”, based on a government decision made in that direction last year.

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With its thousand-year history, Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora has nothing to envy at the Basilica of Sainte-Sophie. It was built in Ve century, at the time outside the city walls, the term “i-Chora” meaning “in the countryside”. When the place is connected to Istanbul, the term “Chora” takes on a spiritual meaning: the church is assimilated at the virgin’s womb, which is recalled by a mosaic near the entrance: “the incarnation place of the impossible god”.

It is in addition to the mosaics and frescoes that make the Byzantine church famous. On behalf of Théodore Métochite, they were delivered between 1315 and 1321. One of the most important works in the church is a monumental composition of the last judgment, which is located in the dome.

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Atik Ali Pasha, grand vizier of Sultan Bayezid II, transformed the church into a mosque in 1511. Islam forbade figurative representations, mosaics and frescoes covered with lime, making it possible to hide them without destroying them, as reminded of the Twitter account @comte_A__, specializing in art history.

Museum 1958

Following World War II, a team of American art historians carried out a long restoration of the building, which was opened to the public as a museum in 1958.

The announcement on Friday about the conversion to a mosque aroused fear of mosaics and frescoes. For Zeynep Turkyilmaz, the historian of the Ottoman Empire, it will be impossible to hide them temporarily during prayer times, as is the case today in Hagia Sophia, as they decorate the entire building.

“It is the equivalent of destruction, because it is impossible to transform this interior architecture while preserving it,” she worries.

“Another provocation” from Erdogan

For many observers, the recent restructuring of former Byzantine churches aims to galvanize the conservative and nationalist electoral base of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a context of economic hardship exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tensions with Greece also play a role, according to Zeynep Turkyilmaz. “There is a desire to erase the traces of Greek and Christian civilization,” said the historian. “By obtaining a place belonging to the Greek civilization, we also remind Greece of its place as a former member of the empire dominated by the Turks.”

Athens also strongly condemned on Friday the restoration of the Chora Church, as it saw “another provocation against believers and the international community”.

“Another symbol of our country’s multicultural history has been sacrificed,” criticized Garo Paylan, opposition member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP, procurator).

According to an AFP journalist who visited the site shortly after the publication of President Erdogan’s decree on Friday, the building was still open to visitors, unlike Hagia Sophia, which had been closed after the announcement of the transformation.

With AFP