Aya Sofya and the Turkish Republic

We’re now in the highlands of Georgia, and have left behind the bittersweet scent of tea that clings to the coast of the Black Sea, but this post has been brewing for a little while, and it’s time to put my thoughts to paper. In our final week in Turkey, we were lucky to see two remarkable buildings, the monastery of Sumela and the church of Aya Sofya in Trabzon. Both buildings were symbols of the power of their patrons, the rulers of mediaeval Trabzon, or Trebizond. While Sumela was built high in the mountains, away from the bustle of the Silk Route below, Aya Sofya is perched on outcrop looking out over Trabzon, and must have been the first thing merchants saw as they entered the city, whether by caravan or ship. Both are deeply impressive buildings, testament to the power of the people who patronised them. In a way Sumela is all the more powerful because you have to climb up into the mountains to see it (and let me assure you, it’s a long way up). The buildings have had rather different lives under republican rule, however. While Sumela is a national monument, under the control of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which is currently renovating it, Aya Sofya in Trabzon has just been reclaimed as a mosque. This follows a long legal battle between the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which had been responsible for running it as a secular spoace, and the General Directorate of Pious Foundations, which claimed that it formed an inalienable part of the foundation of Sultan Mehmed II. Mehmed II turned the church into a mosque after his conquest of Trebizond in 1462, and technically the building still formed part of his foundation, or vakf. The conversion is supported by the current government, which wants to reclaim other buildings too, including (possibly) the museum of Aya Sofya in Istanbul. This bizarre legal battle between different branches of government is a circuitous route for a moderate religious government to reclaim a building within a secular legal framework. Certainly, the conversion of museums back into mosques fits with a broader conception of Turkey as a Muslim country, but for the time being it must be accomplished through secular legal means, and vakf provides that route. At the moment, it seems to be half museum, half mosque, with the plain half the entrance to the museum, the carpeted half the entrance to the mosque. You can still see most of the frescos, but perhaps unsurpisingly, the interior of the dome – a Christ Pantokrator – is covered up. You can read more about it here: http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Mosque-conversion-raises-alarm/29200). So while Sumela, out of sight in the mountains, is being developed as a tourist attraction, Aya Sofya is being reclaimed as a symbol of the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond. If you get the chance, then try to see Aya Sofya while you can. It’s well worth a look. For those who can’t make it in person, I’ll put some pictures up as soon as I get a chance!


Categories: Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Aya Sofya and the Turkish Republic

  1. nathaliekernick

    can you leave us soùme breathing space Alex???
    pretty dense … but very interesting!!
    please keep on writing!
    a few pictures will help !!

  2. Michèle

    Intéressant cette opposition actuelle entre laïcité et préoccupation religieuse. Il ne faut pas oublier la demande d’entrée dans l’Europe d la Turquie.

  3. Ellie and Ian

    Your piece adds a new dimension to that well-known phrase ‘from our own correspondent’! We love the idea of the bittersweet scent of tea clinging – wonderful imagery.

  4. Cass

    Impressive buildings, impressive comment!

  5. sorry Alex …apparently “lack of breathing space ” is not something that translates well…. I absolutely love your thoughts as it provokes ours and thank you for that! it takes us even a bit further …. do keep them coming. je dois juste prendre ma respiration quand je commence parce que c’est toujours un gros morceau !! Merci beaucoup xx

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