Istanbul's Chora Museum should belong to history

The Chora edifice can no longer be called a mosque or a church. It is a testament to history. We should respect its storied character.

The practice of Islam is a highly sensitive matter in Turkey. The widespread construction of mosques has shaped our political space and affected our daily life. Yet while many mosques are being built, the assumption that prevails is that there cannot be other places of worship in a country in which 99% of the population Muslim.

Two days ago, news came out about the prospect of reverting the status of Istanbul's Chora Museum to that of a mosque. A church first erected in the 4th century by the Eastern Roman Empire, the Chora structure was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in the 16th century. In 1958, it was secularized and open to the public as a museum. Turkey's Council of State - the country's highest administrative court - has sent a decision to the President to turn the museum into a mosque. The presidential cabinet is to deliver the final decision.

Though the Chora Museum is mentioned as such on its website, it is usually referred to as the Chora Mosque. If it is stripped of its museum status and turned into a mosque, the Chora site can set a precedent for the Hagia Sophia whose status has long been a source of debate.

History is made of empires that are founded, rise and collapse. As empires undergo invasions, borders shift and new cultures emerge. Yet such edifices as churches, mosques and palaces often outlive the tides of history. While they may be looted, damaged and see their function change, what matters is that they endure.

That was the fate of the Chora site. The 1,500-year old church was razed during the Fourth Crusade and occupation of Constantinople by the Latins (1204-1261), before being rebuilt in the 14th century. A new chapel was added and it was decorated with Byzantine-style mosaics and frescos. It continued to serve as a church after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, until its conversion into a mosque in 1511. During Ottoman times, the worship area was left intact though its monasteries were demolished and a theological school (madrasa) was founded in its place. Later, in the Republican era, covers that had been added by the Ottomans to cover the church's mosaics were removed. In 1958, it was open to the public as a museum.

Since it has been a church, a mosque and a museum, the Chora structure is a hybrid one. Explaining its decision, the Council of State maintained: "a mosque cannot be used other than in its original function". But the Chora edifice can no longer be called a mosque or a church. It is a testament to history. That is why it is famous across the world, it features on the 'must visit' places in guide books and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

The Chora museum can't belong to anyone but to history. We should respect its storied character.

January 10, 2020 Mapping Kanal Istanbul