By Uzay Bulut
Much of the international community has been shocked by the news concerning Turkey’s conversion of two historic Hagia Sophia churches into mosques in Istanbul and Trabzon.
The famous Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul was originally founded as a Greek Orthodox cathedral in the sixth century CE. It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Turkish invasion of the city in the fifteenth century. The historic church has never been allowed to operate as a church since. The government of Turkey turned it into a museum in 1935 and then back into a mosque on July 24. Four days later came yet another violation of a former church/museum. The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was reopened as a mosque on July 28 in a ceremony joined by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan through videoconference.
These are not the only abused Hagia Sophias in Turkey. There are nine churches named Hagia Sophia, which means “Church of the Holy Wisdom” in Greek. They are now used as mosques, or are so-called “abandoned” buildings being restored as mosques, according to the book ‘Türkiye’de Kilise ve Manastırlar (Churches and Monasteries in Turkey)’ by Dr. Ersoy Soydan.
In addition to the two Hagia Sophia former churches in Istanbul (Constantinople), the others include Edirne (Adrianople), Kırklareli (Saranta Ekklisies), Trabzon (Trebizond), Gümüşhane (Argyroupoli), Karadeniz Ereğli (Heraclea Pontica), Bitlis (Baghesh) and Iznik (Nicaea).
These former churches no longer have local congregants because the Christians of these cities were massacred or deported about a hundred years ago.
The genocide against Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians committed by Ottoman Turkey from 1913 to 1923 has nearly marked the end of the indigenous Christian communities in the region. But it was not only hundreds of thousands of lives that perished in the genocide. The religious and cultural heritage of these peoples was also largely destroyed.
The cities where the Hagia Sophias are located were built, enriched, and ruled by Greeks for centuries prior to the Turkish invasion in the eleventh century. However, except for Istanbul (which is home to fewer than 2,000 Greeks today), there are no longer Greek Orthodox inhabitants in any of these cities.
The former Hagia Sophia Church in Nicaea (Nicea) is particularly significant for its deep-rooted Christian history. It was turned into a mosque first after the Ottoman takeover in the fourteenth century and then in 2011.
From Nicaea to Iznik
Nicaea was an ancient city of Bithynia located in northwest Asia Minor. In the fourth century bc, it was rebuilt by Greek king Antigonus I Monophthalmus, who “founded several cities, especially in Asia Minor, and united several small communities into unitary, large centres,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Nicaea is primarily known as the site of the First and Second Councils of Nicaea (the first and seventh Ecumenical councils in the early history of the Christian church), the Nicene Creed, and as the capital city of the Empire of Nicaea.
The First and Second Councils of Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea, which was the earliest ecumenical council of the Christian church, was held in the city in 325 C.E. and organized by Constantine the Great. Professor Robert M. Grant wrote about this event in his article “Religion and Politics at the Council at Nicaea.” He stated,
“The council of Nicaea met during the first year in which Constantine the Great was ruler of the whole Roman world from Britain to Mesopotamia… Later generations referred to it as the first ecumenical council of the Christian church. They revered its decisions and regarded them as permanently valid. Many churches still say or sing the Nicene Creed. More historically, it marks the end of early church history and the dawning of the middle ages. There was a fundamental change in church-state relations. For centuries Roman emperors had intermittently persecuted Christians; now the Roman emperor took his seat among the bishops and discussed theology with them.”
Bruce L. Shelley wrote in Christianity Today:
“July 4, 325, was a memorable day. About three hundred Christian bishops and deacons from the eastern half of the Roman Empire had come to Nicea, a little town near the Bosporus Straits flowing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
“Constantine spoke only briefly. He told the churchmen they had to come to some agreement on the crucial questions dividing them. ‘Division in the church,’ he said, ‘is worse than war.’
“The bishops and deacons were deeply impressed. After three centuries of periodic persecutions instigated by some Roman emperor, were they actually gathered before one not as enemies but as allies? Some of them carried scars of the imperial lash. One pastor from Egypt was missing an eye; another was crippled in both hands as a result of red-hot irons.
“But Constantine had dropped the sword of persecution in order to take up the cross. Just before a decisive battle in 312, he had converted to Christianity.
“Nicea symbolized a new day for Christianity. The persecuted followers of the Savior dressed in linen had become the respected advisers of emperors robed in purple.”
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Second Council of Nicaea, otherwise known as the seventh ecumenical council of the Christian church, met in Nicaea in 787 at the Hagia Sophia church.
Nicaea flourished during Eastern Roman (Byzantine) times and “served as the interim capital city of the Byzantine Empire between 1204 and 1261, following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, until the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantines in 1261,” according to Bible History Online.
However, after Ottoman Sultan Orhan invaded and captured Nicaea from the Byzantine Empire in 1331, the Hagia Sophia church was converted into a mosque and became “the Orhan Ghazi mosque.” The name of the town was then Turkified as “Iznik”.
This historically Greek city does not have an active Orthodox Christian population anymore. One major reason for that was the 1913-1923 Greek Genocide.
Greek genocide in Nicaea
Historian Dr. Vasileios Th. Meichanetsidis notes in his article “The Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, 1913–1923: A Comprehensive Overview” that the whole Greek population of Nicaea was targeted during the genocide. He writes:
“Beginning in spring 1920, reports about massacres in all parts of Asia Minor began coming in in ever-increasing numbers. [British diplomat George William] Rendel reports that ‘the spring of 1920 also witnessed the outbreak of intensiﬁed persecutions against the Greeks….Later, the persecutions became worse and were frequently accompanied by actual massacres.’… In August, Cemil (Djemal) Bey and his men massacred the entire population of Nicaea (Iznik). Rendel has quoted the following from a report from a British ofﬁcer attached to the general headquarters of the British Army of the Black Sea:
“‘From information in the hands of the Smyrna Division, which is conﬁrmed by a previous report, the whole Greek population of Isnik [Iznik] has been massacred. Apparently, the majority of the massacres took place at the end of August—the remainder [s] of the population were killed before the Greeks [i.e., the Hellenic troops] took the town, i.e. at the end of September. The number of killed is said to be about 130 families, or about 400–500 men, women and children. I myself was taken round some of the places where the remains of the bodies lay… At the foot of the mountains east of Isnik [Iznik], about 300 yards outside the city wall, is a large cave. In this the burnt and mangled bodies had been thrown, a few odd bodies lay about outside, though it was difﬁcult to judge very accurately owing to the state of decomposition. I should say there were at least 100 dead at this spot alone. All the bodies I saw had been mutilated. Apparently, they had ﬁrst had their hands and feet cut off, after that they were either burnt alive in the cave or had their throats cut. I clearly recognized the bodies of women and children among them—apart from the mutilated remains, odd bones which lay about proved conclusively that the bodies had been cut up . . . Djemal Bey is said to be responsible for these massacres. Many stories are in circulation regarding his outrages in the town . . . The ancient Greek Church at Isnik, which dates from 332 AD has been thoroughly smashed up, only the walls remaining. The images, carvings, etc., were all broken up, and the church literature taken outside and burnt in pile. It is said that a number of people were massacred inside the church.’”
The Hagia Sophia “Mosque” in Iznik
Over the years the remnants of the church were badly damaged by earthquakes and fires. In 2007, it was turned into a museum. But in 2011, the Ottoman-Islamic tradition was again revived and the former church was converted into a mosque.
Archaeologist Dr. Füsun Ertuğ wrote an article in 2011 for the Bianet News Agency which criticized this conversion:
“Though its certain date of building is not known, the Hagia Sophia church, which had the plan of a basilica, is known to have been built some time between the fourth and eighth centuries. It is particularly famous for the seventh ecumenical council gathered there in 787. The seventh ecumenical council is the last council of Christianity attended by 350 bishops and many monks and recognized by all Christians. It had a vital role in shaping the Christian faith. Hence, Iznik has a special place for the Christian world.
“[The church’s] old bell tower, which had been converted to a minaret, was restored in 2007 and the place was opened as a museum then. For the last 2 years, an official of the governor’s office took 7 liras from tourists, and 3 liras from Turkish nationals who wanted to visit it.”
The Hagia Sophias, and other countless churches, are either in ruins or used as mosques or for other purposes across Turkey. Turkey’s abusive treatment of churches, as well as other Christian and Greek religious and cultural centers, demonstrates that the Greek genocide by Turkey is today ongoing as cultural genocide.
About the author: Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in various outlets such as the Gatestone Institute, Washington Times, Christian Post and Jerusalem Post. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics, and history, religious minorities in the Middle East and anti-Semitism. Bulut is also a contributor for Greek City Times.