February 27, 2020

TURKEY: Erdogan Controlled High Court Ruling That Kariye Museum Must Become A Mosque Could Imperil Its Byzantine Art And Have Repercussions For Other Early Christian Monuments.

Apollo, The Art Magazine
written by Merih Danalฤฑ Cantarella and Anthony Cutler
January 7, 2020

In one way or another, all nations exploit their cultural heritage for political reasons. Perhaps the most extreme contemporary example is Turkey where, in November 2019, the country’s top administrative court ruled the use of the Kariye Camii (mosque) in Istanbul as a museum unlawful on the grounds that it violates the Ottoman decree dedicating it to Muslim worship.

The structure was originally the Church of Christ in the Chora Monastery in Byzantine Constantinople, which took its current form in c. 1316–21 under the patronage of Theodore Metochites (1270–1328), the ‘prime minister’ to the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II and a true polymath, who authored hundreds of essays on philosophy, theology, and astronomy. Metochites expanded and renovated the church, furnishing it also with superb mosaics and wall paintings that reflect his taste and erudition. Considered as a masterpiece even in its own time, the decorative programme of the Kariye is a pivotal monument of the ‘proto-Renaissance’, comparable to the early 14th-century fresco programme of Giotto at the Arena Chapel in Padua.

Following the Ottoman (Islamic) conquest of the city in 1453, the Byzantine church was appropriated for Muslim worship and its frescoes and mosaics were gradually (never completely) covered by a thin layer of dye and lime. After the building was declared a national monument in 1945 under the secular Turkish republic, the Kariye Camii underwent a major conservation program, which restored the 14th-century Byzantine paintings and mosaics to their original splendour. Today the Kariye Camii Museum is a major tourist destination in Istanbul.

The decision to return the Kariye (or Chora) Museum from its non-confessional status to a mosque is a populist one intended to appeal to the pious, nationalistic base of Recep Tayyip ErdoฤŸan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party).The transformation of Byzantine churches into mosques is the ultimate manifestation of AKP’s neo-Ottomanist vision, its main legitimising cultural policy. If the court’s verdict is indeed implemented, it sets a clear precedent for the most politically charged landmark of the city: Hagia Sophia, the liturgical and political centre of Byzantine Constantinople, which was claimed as the imperial mosque by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1453 and has been serving as a museum since 1934.

The Kariye Museum itself will be following the course of the Hagia Sophia of Iznik (Nicaea) and its namesake in Trebizond – both of which served as museums until they were transformed into mosques in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Since then, colleagues in Turkey have reported that the wall paintings in Iznik, already in a derelict state, are being left to decay and the better-preserved 13th-century examples in Trebizond are now hidden behind curtains. There are rumours that due to declining revenues from tourism, the culture ministry is considering the installation of remote-controlled panels or shutters to reveal the mosaics outside of prayer times – a problematic strategy that would create pockets of humidity and could damage or stain the wall surfaces. There is evidently a great conflict of interest at play, when the interventions needed to make the Byzantine churches fitting for a Muslim congregation are detrimental to the conservation of the art they contain.

In the mosaic panel over the entrance door to the Kariye, Theodore Metochites is represented on his knees, presenting his church to the enthroned Christ. He is clad in a sumptuous silk caftan and wears a prominent turban, which is padded and covered with white silk highlighted with gold stripes. To a Byzantine viewer, the representation of Metochites’s sumptuous dress was, first and foremost, a signifier of the donor’s enormous wealth, which made the restoration and decoration of the Chora monastery possible. For a contemporary visitor to the Kariye Museum today, Metochites’s dress is also visual testimony to the artistic and material exchanges between Byzantium and the Islamic world and to the intertwined histories of Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages. The 14th-century Byzantine statesman’s eagerness to display his taste for contemporary Islamic fashion provides a contrast to the current Turkish regime’s growing unwillingness to embrace the Byzantine cultural heritage as its own.

‘I made the monastery a treasury of countless books of various sorts […] Thus does the monastery forever possess this […] great universal work of philanthropy, at the disposition of all mortals […] for the common use of all men.’ These were the hopes of Theodore Metochites, who, in addition to the extensive decorative programme, furnished the monastery with an impressive library. Only a fraction of the monastery’s precious manuscripts have survived. Its splendid mosaics and wall paintings, on the other hand, are in fairly good condition – thanks to a number of well-funded restorations – and are still in view for all humankind to marvel at. However, some of the finest examples of Byzantine monumental art we admire today may cease to be ‘at the disposition of all mortals’, if the 14th-century Byzantine monument falls victim to contemporary politics.
The Art Newspaper
written by Ayla Jean Yackley
December 3, 2019

Decision that Kariye Museum must become a Muslim house of worship again could imperil its Byzantine art and have repercussions for other early Christian monuments.

The stunning mosaics of Istanbul’s 1,000-year-old Chora Church are at risk—not from vandalism or theft but a legal order to transform the museum back into a mosque.

The Church of St Savior in Chora, which was converted into the Kariye Mosque in the early 16th century by an Ottoman vizier, was designated a museum by the Turkish government in 1945. Its 14th-century frescos and mosaics are regarded among the world’s finest examples of Byzantine art.

Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, ruled last month that the historic cabinet decision that made Kariye a museum was unlawful because a mosque “cannot be used except for its essential function”. Now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to implement the court’s verdict or issue a new regulation to protect its status, according to Yeni Safak newspaper.

The ruling has repercussions for other monuments from Turkey’s Christian past, especially the Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s greatest cathedral for a millennium before Constantinople’s conquering Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, claimed it as his imperial (Islamic) mosque in 1453. In 1934, the Turkish republic’s secularising founder, Mustafa Ataturk, made Hagia Sophia a museum in a goodwill gesture towards the West.

Despite the risk of international opprobrium, Erdogan vowed in March to re-consecrate Hagia Sophia as a mosque, in an ultimately futile attempt to win his conservative party control of Istanbul in this year’s mayoral election.

Islamists have long prayed for both the Chora Church and the Hagia Sophia to reopen as mosques, arguing that their neutral status is an affront to the Ottoman (Islamic) caliph’s decrees forbidding other uses.

The two sites are inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list, which recognises the “architectural masterpieces” of Istanbul. The agency has said in the past that changes in status of the city’s historic monuments would undermine their heritage value. A Unesco spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Council of State ruling.

Other Byzantine sites converted into mosques have covered frescos to comply with Islamic tenets prohibiting the use of images. But for much of the Ottoman period, Muslims worshipped at Chora and other former churches in view of the art, says Edhem Eldem, a professor of history at Bogazici University. Turning Chora into a museum served as a compromise between Muslims and Christians, he says, adding that the current uneasiness around Turkey’s Byzantine heritage is part of the “politics of populism that appeal to basic feelings of ethnic, national and religious identity”.

For now, the Kariye Museum’s frescos remain on view, although a long-running restoration project has closed portions of the building. Visitors must crowd into the gift shop set up in the outer narthex to peer at the prized mosaics of the Massacre of the Innocents. The repair work depressed Kariye’s visitor numbers to 100,000 people last year.

No comments: