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

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

Built by the Byzantines in the Ve century, the Church of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, also called the Church of the Chora, 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 on Friday August 21 in the Official Journal, Recep Tayyip Erdogan orders to“open to Muslim worship” this popular place for tourists, based on a decision of the Council of State in this regard last year.

Mosque in 1511

With its thousand-year-old history, Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora has nothing to envy Hagia Sophia. It was built in the Ve century, at the time outside the city walls, the phrase “in-Chora” meaning “in the countryside”. Once the place is attached to Istanbul, the term “Chora” then takes on a spiritual meaning: the church is assimilated to the belly of the Virgin, as recalled by a mosaic near the entrance: “place of incarnation of the immeasurable God “.

It is besides the mosaics and the frescoes which make the fame of the Byzantine church. Commissioned by Théodore Métochite, they were delivered between 1315 and 1321. One of the major works of the church is a monumental composition of the Last Judgment, 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 prohibited figurative representations, mosaics and frescoes were covered with lime, which allowed them to be hide without destroying them, as recalled by the Twitter account @comte_A__, specializing in the history of art.

Museum in 1958

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

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

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

“Another provocation” from Erdogan

For many observers, the recent reconversions of former Byzantine churches aim to galvanize the conservative and nationalist electoral base of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a context of economic difficulties aggravated 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 getting our hands on a place belonging to Greek civilization, we also remind Greece of its place as a former member of the empire dominated by the Turks.”

Athens also strongly denounced Friday the reconversion of the Church of the Chora, seeing it “another provocation towards believers and the international community”.

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

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

With AFP

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