Echoes of Byzantium: An Indian philhellene navigates Constantinople’s complex cultural history


As a philhellene deeply immersed in Greek and Byzantine culture and history, my recent visit to Constantinople (Istanbul) stirred a profound sense of déjà vu. The sight of the Greek Orthodox heritage, much like the Hindu heritage of my homeland, India, bore the scars of Turkish occupation.

Both the former churches and the latter Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples had been converted to mosques during the centuries-long rule of the Ottoman Empire.

The contrast with India and its secular constitution, was stark. Constantinople (Istanbul), the largest city of Greece’s often bellicose neighbour, Turkey, has been leaning more towards a political Islam under its populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his AKP party.

Muslim worshipers praying in Agia Sophia, the Orthodox Church, now reconverted into a mosque, after being a museum from the mid 1940s till now. Photo: deposiphotos

Erdogan has been actively promoting the reconversion of Byzantine churches into mosques. Reconversions , because the Eastern Orthodox churches were converted into mosques during the 400 year reign of the Ottomans from 1453 onwards. In Ataturk’s new Republican Turkey, as a measure of cultural respect and neutrality, Byzantine churches were repurposed as museums. Many are now are being stealthily repurposed into mosques again.In contrast India’s Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 – a landmark legislation – prohibits the conversion of any place of worship. The Act ensures the maintenance of the religious character of such places, as they existed from August 15, 1947.

Icon of St Paul in in the Chora monastery, Constantinople (Istanbul) Photo: Arunansh B. Goswami

However, several mosques in India were still built on holy sites of other religions. This law kept the disputed structure at Ayodhya – once a Hindu temple believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Hindu deity Rama and converted into a mosque during the rule of Timurid emperor Babur, then reconverted into a temple again – out of its purview, as it was then in ongoing litigation. The Act did not apply to this disputed structure because as the site was involved in ongoing litigation.

The Agia Sophia, bottom left, in scale with other major cultural and architectural sites. Image: depositphotos

The monumental Agia Sophia, built in 537 AD, served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453 when it became the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. It even endured a brief conversion period into a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latins. Today, this architectural marvel stands as a poignant symbol of lost heritage, being repurposed as a mosque. Its extraordinary icon hidden, the Agia Sophia, originally called Megale Ekklesia (Great Church), is a stark reminder of the rich Byzantine history being overshadowed.

Arunansh B. Goswami inside Chora Monastery. Photo: Prof. Arkaja Goswami

Like Agia Sophia, a model of several Ottoman mosques built after studying its architecture, Agia Sophia was based on the older Agia Irene model. The First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 was held in Agia Irene. Iconoclastic emperor Constantine V, who had commissioned a non-figural decorative programme that focused on the veneration of the True Cross, added the mosaic cross in the apse of this church, which consists of a stark black cross with flared ends on a golden mosaic background.

A Muslim worshipper prays at Byzantine-era Agia Sophia now a mosque during the first day of Eid al-Adha in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2024. Photo: AAP/Francisco Seco

Another Byzantine church was the Vefa Church. Pierre Gilles, who visited Constantinople in the 16th Century, around the mid-1500s and describes the church of Theodosius which is, in fact, the Vefa Kilise. I explored the Pantokrator Monastery, which, according to the World Monument Fund, ‘The church-turned-mosque (Pantokrator Monastery) is one of the finest examples of religious architecture from the Byzantine era in Istanbul and the second-largest surviving Byzantine religious structure in the city after Hagia Sophia. Emperor John II Komnenos built the church and monastery to honour his wife’s wishes to house the “poor, sick, and suffering souls.”

Tourists and locals visit Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia now mosque in Constantinople, Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, July 21, 2023. Photo: AAP/Francisco Seco

The north and south churches, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator and the Archangel St. Michael, are connected by an imperial chapel that was used as a mausoleum for the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties. Like many other Eastern Orthodox sites, the Ottomans usurped the Pantokrator Monastery, which they transformed into the Zeyrek Camii mosque. On the one hand, this was an erasure of Byzantine history; on the other, it was a recognition of the monastery’s beauty. The Chora Church, also known as Kariye Cami, is one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. The church in the western Erdinekapı district of Istanbul was in the 16th Century, converted into a mosque, to become a museum in 1948.

Front door of the monumental Agia Sophia Photo: Prof. Arkaja Goswami

Erdogan again reconverted the Chora Museum into a mosque. According to Natalia Teteriatnikov in her research paper on Chora Monastery, “the earliest information about Chora concerns the relics of St. Babylas, martyred in 298 AD and brought to the city of Byzantium shortly after that. The relics were associated with the monastery of Chora. From the time of Justinian, four churches or chapels have been recorded: those of St. Anthimos of Nicomedia, the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, St. Michael, and the Theotokos.”

Several other Byzantine churches are now being used as mosques, as Erdogan wilfully ignores the Byzantine past of Constantinople.

Icon of St Peter in the Chora monastery, Constantinople (Istanbul) Photo: Arunansh B. Goswami

Though the Byzantine Empire is no longer, and Constantinople is Istanbul, the urgency to preserve our cultural heritage should not be overlooked. It is a legacy that should be cherished by those that believe, for scholars in secular and faith studies, for artists, and locals, and tourists. Erdogan should understand that better relations, the historic and cultural links with its neighbour, Greece, and sensitivity over religious and cultural sites are critical.

Arunansh B. Goswami enters the magnificent Agia Sophia. Photo: Prof. Arkaja Goswami

Arunansh B. Goswami, advocate and historian, contributes travelogue reflections and observations, as well as opinion to Neos Kosmos.



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