Tracing Ottoman architecture through works converted into churches

Istanbul: Searching and traveling across the land that once constituted the Ottoman Empire, a master architect traced Ottoman buildings in 18 countries and found at least 329 of them had been turned into churches or bell towers.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Mehmet Emin Yılmaz said he traced Ottoman architectural works for 10 years and identified the mosques, Islamic monasteries and shrines that have all been turned into bell towers.

Starting in the Balkans initially, Yılmaz said: “I first concentrated on Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece because most of the buildings converted into churches are in these three countries.”

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329 Ottoman-built structures converted into churches

“Later, I identified 329 Ottoman-built structures such as mosques, small mosques, Islamic monasteries and shrines that were converted into churches at various times in a total of 18 locations, including Algeria, Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the island of Cyprus, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Turkey,” he added.

Ibrahim Pasha Mosque, which was converted into a church, seen in Rhodes Town, Greece, July 16, 2020. (AA Photo) [Courtesy “Daily Sabah”]

Providing a countrywide breakdown, Yılmaz said 117 mosques, seven Islamic monasteries and shrines, a madrassa (Islamic school) were converted into churches and three clock towers were changed into bell towers in Bulgaria; eight mosques and a tower were converted into churches in Croatia; six mosques and a shrine were converted into churches in Crimea; and a mosque was converted into a church and a clock tower was changed into a bell tower in Kosovo.

“In Ukraine, two mosques were turned into a church and a minaret into a bell tower; in Macedonia three mosques, two shrines and two clock towers (were turned) into churches; in Serbia, 15 mosques and two shrines (were converted) into churches; in Georgia and Azerbaijan, a mosque from each was turned into a church during the Russian invasion; three mosques in Bosnia-Herzegovina were turned into churches during the Australian invasion,” he added.

“Three mosques in Algeria were turned into churches during the French invasion and two mosques in Armenia (were converted) into churches. On the island of Cyprus, a fountain, in Moldova, four mosques, and in Romania, five mosques were all turned into churches,” Yılmaz said.

Yılmaz noted that Hungarians are the only nation in Europe who did not convert any Ottoman architecture into churches. Twenty-three mosques, five shrines, a bathhouse and a school were turned into churches, but only during the Austrian invasion, he said.

Greece’s record stands out

Yılmaz said Greece has the most Turkish architecture that is “still in use” and added that the country converted 76 mosques, 19 shrines and a minaret into churches.

In addition, Greece also converted five minarets into bell towers and changed 101 architectural works.

Yılmaz said the Turkish architectural works were converted over political and spatial reasons. “Large monumental Turkish buildings and especially minarets in the city centers are seen as the first target to be destroyed due to their symbolism of Turkish domination and Islam. It is deeply saddening that in only one night in Sofia in 1878, seven minarets were destroyed with dynamite,” he said.

“Mosques are the structures most converted into churches. I have identified 272 mosques and masjids. Aside from the mosques, 36 monasteries and shrines have been turned into churches. There are clock towers turned into bell towers and minarets that bells were mounted on,” he said.

A tower in Croatia, a reservoir of a fountain on the island of Cyprus and a prayer area in Greece were all converted into Orthodox worship areas, Yılmaz added.

“A church was built inside a caravansary in Serbia. So it is not only mosques but also monasteries, shrines, minarets, towers, bathhouses, fountains and workhouses belonging to Ottoman architecture that were turned into churches,” he said.

This photo taken on July 16, 2020, shows Yıldırım Beyazıd Mosque was also converted into a church in Greece. (AA PHOTO) [Courtesy “Daily Sabah”]

Yılmaz noted that components such as the domes and arches reflecting Ottoman architecture were purposely destroyed and the architecture of many buildings was altered.

Main outer walls face Qibla

“However, no matter how much they alter them, the main walls, which we call the main outer walls, face the qibla (the direction toward Mecca) and cannot be changed, thus allowing us to identify the converted mosques. I was able to identify Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Budapest this way,” he said.

Yılmaz stressed that there is no other nation that respects architectural works more than Turkey. “Turks were never hung up on old civilizations, and that is why we never intervened in the architectural components of those works that were turned into mosques. The best example of this is the Hagia Sophia mosque,” he said.

This photo taken on July 16, 2020, shows Ali Pasha Mosque, which was turned into a church in Sigetvar, Hungary. (AA PHOTO) [Courtesy “Daily Sabah”]

“We have doted on Hagia Sophia since 1453 without interfering with the church features. We only added a mihrab, a minbar (Islamic pulpil) and minarets. When you look at it from the outside, you can easily understand that it was once a church. However, the architectural features of the mosques that Europeans turned into churches have completely been changed,” Yılmaz said.

He stated that his goal in this archive research was to register the Ottoman works with official documentation.

Yılmaz, who has been researching Ottoman architecture for nearly 20 years, has been involved in many restoration projects at home and abroad.

He established the Turkish Architectural Research Center. The book “Turkish Works Converted Into Churches” based on his research carried out between 2010-2020 will soon be published.

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