NO TO RELIGIOUS TRIUMPHALISM – RETURN THE HAGHIA SOPHIAS OF TRABZON AND ISTANBUL TO THEIR LEGITIMATE OWNERS
The Haghia Sophia of Trapesunta (Trabzon in Turkish) has been erected in the 13th century as the main (royal) cathedral of the Pontos Greek kingdom at the Southern Black Sea littoral. Its valuable frescoes have been whitewashed after the Ottoman conquest of Trapesunta. 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”. According to Antony Eastmond of the Courtauld Institute of Art (London), who is an authority on the building, “it is the whole ensemble—architecture, sculpture and painting—that makes Hagia Sophia unique. This is the most complete surviving Byzantine structure; there is no 13th-century monument like it.”
Since 1962 the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon has rested as a museum with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. In recent decisions the court has now accepted the claim made by the General Directorate of Pious Foundations (which is a state body), and ruled that the cathedral is an inalienable part of the foundation of Sultan Mehmed II who first turned the Haghia Sophia 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 local directorate’s office in Trabzon. But 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 Sergios and Bacchos (now the Small Ayasofya Mosque) was shrouded in secrecy and completed in 2006 without the academic community being allowed to conduct a proper survey. This raises fear that
- The frescoes of the Haghia Sophia of Trabzon (which at present cover half of the interior) will be destroyed or no longer be preserved. Concern for the building is prompted by the fate of Istanbul’s “Arab Mosque”—originally a 14th-century Dominican church—also administered by the General Directorate of Pious Foundations. An earthquake in 1999 shook loose plaster from the vaults revealing frescoes and mosaics. The conservation of these paintings was finished in 2012, but they were immediately re-covered.
- The Haghia Sophia will be no longer accessible to Non-Muslim visitors of Trabzon
- The conversion will serve as test run for the conversion of the Haghia Sophia of Istanbul which has long been the “golden apple” for Turkey’s religious right.
Finkel, Andrew: Christian art in Byzantine church-turned-museum is at risk after controversial court ruling. “Museums”, Issue 245, April 2013; Published online: 11 April 2013.
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