Recent legal news from Turkey has provoked concern among a number of commentators in both the art world and the Christian world. As reported in several news outlets, such as in this article which appeared in The Art Newspaper, Turkish courts have decided that a historic former church in the city of Trabzon can now be turned into a mosque. It is part of a slowly increasing seepage of more strictly Islamic thought and practice into secular Turkish law and politics, which has been underway for some time now.
The beautifully decorated Byzantine building dates from the 12th century; it was turned into a mosque in the 15th century, subsequently abandoned and used for various secular purposes, then restored and turned into a museum in the early 20th century. Many art historians and legal watchers believe that this is simply a legal test case, and a prelude to the great Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, which itself is currently operated as a museum rather than a house of worship, being turned back into a mosque. Yet we should keep in mind of course this sort of thing has happened throughout human history, as a result of some very basic human tendencies and motivations.
One of the key points to realize in the study of history is that the victors get to write the story in a very visible way, i.e. in the form of art and architecture. They build monuments to themselves, naturally enough, since that is what men do, whether on a grand scale like a public memorial, or in a small way when the founder of a business has a portrait of himself commissioned for the board room. Yet we should also remember that the victors try to remove those things which call to mind those whom they have replaced.
In Ancient Egypt for example, when a pharaoh died and was succeeded by another from a different family, the carved or painted name of the deceased monarch would often be eradicated from any structures built during his reign. In Tudor England, Catholic churches such as Canterbury Cathedral were confiscated and made over to the use of the Anglican Church, as a result of which many works of art were destroyed in the frenzy of early Protestantism. These sorts of things are done, as Yuri Zhivago observes in “Doctor Zhivago” when the family learns of the death of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in order to show the populace that there is no going back. Even if occasionally there are attempts to bring back what was lost, such as the Bourbon Restorations in France, they are usually short-lived.
What is particularly interesting about the article linked to above is that it brings together two very different groups of people. This building has not been used as a church for a very long time, of course, so the question of whether it would return to its intended use is not even on the table. On one hand we have art lovers, who do not want to see the beautiful and historic decoration of this building lost. And on the other we have Christians, who do not want to see images of Christ, His Apostles, and Our Lady destroyed as a result of Islamic aniconism.
These two groups are so often completely at odds with one another at present, that their having a common interest will make it interesting to see whether they can act in concert on what will no doubt be a growing number of cases such as this, not just in Turkey but in Europe itself. For of course with the demographic shift toward Islam taking place throughout much of Europe as a result of immigration, falling Christian birth rates, etc., more and more European churches with dwindling numbers of congregants will almost certainly be converted into mosques over time. If indeed politics makes strange bedfellows, as Charles Dudley Warner once noted, we will see how the art world establishment and the various Christian churches concerned about what will happen in Trabzon and elsewhere, will do in trying to get along with one another.
Dome fresco in the former Church of Hagia Sophia (12th-13th centuries)