The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. An event with historical parallels

By Katrin Kogman-Appel and Franziska Kleybolte

© Timor Espallargas (cc-by-sa-2.5)

Recep Erdoğan’s declaration on 10 July 2020 to convert Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque again is an act of serious political and diplomatic significance. Interestingly enough is the taking over, reusing and transforming of a religiously and politically charged space by no means an isolated case – neither within Turkey nor in the longue durée: for example, a museum – formerly a mosque – in the Turkish town of Iznik was re-converted into a mosque in 2011; the same was considered for the Turkish town of Trabzon in 2013; and it has also been a phenomenon in history since antiquity, found again and again in all epochs, religions and regions. The history and context of such transformations always have to do with changes in the balance of power and the desire to make these clearly visible.

The research project Religious Buildings Change their Identity. Iberia 709–1611 conducted at the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics. Dynamics of Tradition and Innovation” at the University of Münster analyses such processes for the period of the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula and in a supra-regional and inter-religious comparison.

Previously, in the project The Destruction of Sanctuaries in Late Antiquity at the Cluster of Excellence, the classical scholar Johannes Hahn analysed the destruction of synagogues in antiquity: in Roman times, a Temple of Zeus was built at the site of the former central sanctuary of the Samaritans, a Jewish sect, on Mount Garizim in northern Palestine. In 484 AD, after suppressing a bloody revolt of the Samaritans, Emperor Zenon had a Church of St Mary built on the summit in triumphalist demonstration. With the introduction of Christianity as state religion under Emperor Theodosius I (389-395), a disastrous development had already previously begun, in which fanatical Christians – monks as well as bishops – had illegally stormed synagogues, converted them into churches and consecrated them. In individual cases, the transformation and functional conversion of the sacred buildings can still be traced in the archaeological evidence.

Currently the focus of the project “Buildings Change their Identity”, which is headed by the Institute for Jewish Studies, is on transformations of synagogues into churches during the Middle Ages. Even though the religious, political, social and economic context of each individual case of sacred space conversion must be uniquely considered and examined in order to make precise statements about the case in question, many parallels can be identified which justify naming general characteristics of this phenomenon.


Fig. 2. Fresco in the eastern part of the synagogue Ibn Shohan in Toledo, which was added after the conversion of the synagogue into a church. The capitals and arches in the foreground are part of the original features of the building
Fig. 2. Fresco in the eastern part of the synagogue Ibn Shohan in Toledo, which was added after the conversion of the synagogue into a church. The capitals and arches in the foreground are part of the original features of the building
© Katrin Kogman-Appel
  • Fig. 1 Marienkapelle in Würzburg in the foreground, seen from the fortress of Marienburg. After the synagogue was demolished, or set on fire, in 1349 and a wooden chapel was built on the same spot, this stone chapel was erected in 1377. Würzburg is another example of the consecration of a church sitting on the ruins of a former synagogue and consecrated to the Christian Mother of God, Mary. The importance of this chapel can be seen in this picture even by its size and its dominance in the townscape.
    © Franziska Kleybolte
  • Fig. 3 The late Gothic interior chapel of Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba. In the background and on the right, the red and white arches in the style typical of Iberian mosques can be seen.
    © Fresko im Ostteil der Synagoge Ibn Shohan in Toledo, das nach der Umwandlung der Synagoge in eine Kirche angebracht wurde. Die Kapitäle und Bögen im Vordergrund gehören zur ursprünglichen Ausstattung des Gebäudes

Not only does the seizure of power and its political implications play a role in the interpretation of these conversions, but the investigation of affected buildings also deals with the question of how, in the course of such an appropriation, one group treats another group’s ritual spaces as well as their visual language. Different processes of reception and adaptation occurred, indicative of weblike intercultural entanglements. Architecture, on the one hand, and visual language, on the other, have a particularly great potential for expressing identity, and both have been used in this sense in many contexts. Building conversions often forced new users to deal with this identity or to reinterpret the visual language of the building in question. In the same way, those conquered – if they continued to live in the area – were exposed to these conversions and the imagery that often made their defeat all too obvious to them. The importance of these churches on former Jewish grounds is shown, for example, by the fact that, although they often only had the status of chapels, their architectural design was much more elaborate and they dominated the townscape far more than most parish churches (image 1). The clearly visible use of synagogal building materials in these places of worship or the installation of works of art representing, for example, anti-Jewish ideas or the oppression of Judaism, clearly shows the motivations and messages of the buildings for both Christians and Jews.

In most cases, such appropriations occurred as a direct result of the resettlement, forced baptisms, expulsion, persecution or extermination of religious minorities. As mentioned above, such conversions are to be understood as political acts of seizure of power and, regarding the cases analysed by the Cluster of Excellence, express the triumph of the Church over Judaism. Economic motives also played a role, however, because in most cases the Jewish community lost all its public and private property together with the synagogue. Since the Jewish quarter was often located close to the centre, its place of settlement was an object of desire. And so, after the expropriations, the centrally located houses were often quickly sold or the area was converted into a marketplace. For the Jewish communities that survived or were resettled, this often meant moving to another, less central or secure and therefore less attractive part of the town. Thus, such conversions had (and still have) an impact on the townscape and changed the urban dynamics.

Little is known about the rituals of re-consecration. However, the names given to many synagogues that were converted into churches testify to the fact that conversion was understood as purification. Many have been consecrated to Mary, whose immaculateness is a symbol of Christian purity and innocence – ‘Liebfrauenkirche’ (Church of Our Lady) in Nuremberg, ‘Zu unserer Schönen Maria’ (Our Beautiful Lady Mary) in Regensburg or ‘Santa Maria la Blanca’ (‘the White’ and therefore ‘pure’) in Burgos, Seville, Toledo and elsewhere in Spain. For Rothenburg ob der Tauber, even signs of an attempted exorcism can be detected. During the conversion in 1519, not only was care taken that there were no more mortal remains of a Jew in the place, but also that the whitewash was stripped off the walls inside and out and then repainted so that everything ‘Jewish’ was expelled from the walls. A similar move of whitewashing is found in the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453: it was as well ‘purified’, so to speak, by the whitewashing of the Byzantine mosaics in order to do justice to the Qur’anic restrictions towards images in religious contexts.

The relevance and dynamics that the dispute over sacred spaces and their medieval transformations can have on the present day and across religions and regions not only show in the example of the Hagia Sophia, but also on the Iberian Peninsula: in 2013, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain approached the Catholic Church and requested that the Ibn Shoshan Synagogue in Toledo – which is not used as a church but is owned by the Catholic Church (image 2) – be re-converted into a synagogue. The request has not been granted to date. A better known example exists in Córdoba: in 1236, Ferdinand III of Castile conquered the city, once the political and spiritual centre of al-Andalus. Shortly afterwards, the ‘Great Mosque’ became the Cathedral of Cordoba, which today is often called the ‘Mezquita-Catedral’ and is still in use as a church (image 3). In 2004, Muslims living in Spain claimed that it would be a sign of tolerance and dialogue if the Catholic Church allowed Muslim prayers in the Mezquita-Catedral again. This was rejected by the Vatican in 2006. A scuffle broke out in 2010 when two Muslims started to pray in the crowded Mezquita during Easter week, and their refusal to end the prayer led the police to intervene. These cases demonstrate the relevance and the dynamics of interreligious controversies about sacred spaces up to this day, even if their appropriation took place in the Middle Ages.