Thursday, November 28, 2013

Note to Turkey: Not everything has to be a mosque

[Originally posted at NOW]

With moderates like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, I often wonder, who needs Islamists?

Having only last week referred to the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Hagia Sophia museum as a “mosque,” the ruling party is now turning its conversionary zeal on the 5th-century Monastery of Stoudios – or the “Imrahor Ilyas Bey Mosque,” as it will apparently soon be known. This follows the unpardonable Islamisation that has already been inflicted on other priceless Byzantine-era churches in the towns of Trabzon and Iznik.

This kind of thing has a long and ugly history, implicating Christians as much as Muslims. No less a structure than the Parthenon of Athens, the finest monument of all antiquity, was irreparably wrecked during its conversion in the 6th century into a Byzantine church (also named Hagia Sophia, as it happens).

Though the Ottomans later turned this too into a mosque, they had enough reverence for it not to make alterations beyond painting over the Christian mosaics, which were anyway disfigurements in the first place. One wishes one could say the same of the Istanbul Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans placed lugubrious black calligraphy discs like crude stickers over the still-visible and colourful artwork with which the building had originally been decorated. Of course, to this day, a crackpot Christian fringe still dreams of knocking down the minarets there and restoring it as an Orthodox place of worship. Not for nothing did Ataturk decide to do away with the building’s religious significance altogether and make it a museum.

That his secularizing project looks to be under redoubled and fortified threat in today’s Turkey is already very clear. Yet the notion of purifying or “conquering” (fetih in Turkish) every last pebble of non-Muslim heritage is a much larger issue than the domestic secularist/Islamist debate. It is, in fact, nothing short of an aesthetic and cultural crime; the spoliation of unique and irreplaceable remnants of world history; and for these reasons demands the attention – and if, necessary, intervention – of the international community.

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