Byzantine Mosaics: Interfaith Experiences In Istanbul, Turkey

(Photograph taken by Caelin Niehoff at Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos; Fethiye Mosque)
(Photograph taken by Caelin Niehoff at Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos; Fethiye Mosque)

There is something inherently interreligious when a Roman Catholic finds herself under the dome of a 15th century Ottoman Mosque. There is something even more rousing when she studies Orthodox Christian mosaics IN a mosque just down the street from the first right down the street from the first mosque.

During the 2012 DePaul December intercession winter break, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Istanbul, Turkey. As a DePaul interfaith scholar, I was particularly interested in the city’s rich and multifaceted religious history. When one thinks about the city’s religious identity crusades, conquests, and conflict might initially come to mind. Given these stigmatisms I thought that the destruction of religious buildings would have been inevitable. I was surprised to learn that many Byzantine churches were not destroyed, but rather repurposed and preserved by the Ottomans after their conquest of Constantinople.

The only Byzantine churches of Istanbul that were not converted into mosques are St. Mary of the Mongols and Hagia Eirene. This means that many Turkish Muslims pray in structures initially built as Orthodox Christian churches. The Latin’s had, similarly, occupied Byzantine churches as Roman Catholics after the crusades.

Time has worn the exteriors of these mosques to expose their original Byzantine brick work: a beautiful yet skeletal façade. Hidden on the inside of several of these mosques is the vibrant glow of gold and precious gems constructed into elaborate mosaic icons.

How can this be? In the tradition of Islam the human figure is not to be portrayed in art. The Ottomans had decided to simply cover and plaster over these images. Subsequently, Muslims preserved over six hundred years-old of ancient Orthodox Christian mosaics and Latin Roman Catholic frescos.

The Church of Saint Savior in Chora and the church of Theotokos Pammakaristo show cases the exquisite mosaic masterpieces preserved by 15th century Ottomans. While Chora was once a mosque, it is now a museum. Pammakaristo, however, is still home to the Fethiye mosque. While observing the mosaics I admired the reality and privilege to witness this expression of religion through art: craftsmanship preserved in gold and fastened with the remnants of ancient, interreligious conscious. Yet in the present, I could feel the negotiation of space and the clear establishment of religious boundaries. The chapel hallway of mosaics accessible to the public was distinctly separated from the mosque itself. The exposition of these Byzantine mosaics not only reflected an interreligious encounter hundreds of years old, but also brought to light interreligious engagement (or perhaps lack thereof) in the present.

After entering the Chora museum, a fellow student asked our Turkish Armenian, Christian tour guide, “Do you wish that they hadn’t converted the churches into mosques?” He replied with a smile, “I believe that where there is life and light in a place of worship, it will breathe. It will live and it will last”. I think that admits the chaos that often comes with transitions of peoples and political powers, faith endures in creative and nuanced forms; giving life to the spiritual thirsts of each passing time period.

By: Caelin Niehoff

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