Christian Byzantine mosaics, Persian Islamic miniatures or tiles, Western Renaissance paintings or ancient Egyptian frescoes – they all belong, first and foremost, to the human spirit shared by us all who also share the common experience of living with temporary residence permits on Planet Earth.
At the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow you can watch Andrei Rublev’s famous icon symbolically representing the Holy Trinity. Orthodox Christian believers may cross themselves and say a silent prayer in front of it; others may remain for a while in front of the picture meditating on its semiotic expression of the Absolute in its complete serenity and harmony.
At the Pergamon Museum in Berlin you can watch the most astounding examples of Islamic calligraphy. To Muslim believers these convey a specific and profound religious content; in us – the others – they may generate a similar experience as when standing before Rublev’s icon: the sense of a wordless experience of the Absolute, the pure equilibrium.
Hearing the tragical, recent news from Istanbul about the fate of two famous ancient buildings in Istanbul was a harsh reminder of how easily and quickly values like these are lost. The idea of the “Islamic State”, as it was carried out by the Daesh, was finally defeated with guns on the battlefield. Now the same idea has been taken up anew, though, and is being developed in a way that is perhaps intended to be slightly less hurting and provocative to the rest of the world: the idea of an Islamic State where the most precious and indispensable artefacts and memorials of the country’s Christian past will be suppressed and hidden from the public. I am talking of the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church at Karye, both of which contain – in particular the latter – an abundance of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. Both having been built as Christian Orthodox churches and then converted into mosques, they have later served as museums for several decades.
Both have now, by order of President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, been converted again into mosques – meaning that their art treasures will be covered, hopefully just with veils or loose panels, otherwise just plastered over. In any case, since they will be functioning as shrines for prayer around the clock 365 days a year, these artefacts will never be displayed publicly again, and no measures will ever more be taken for their preservation.
This happens in a Muslim city, in a Muslim country, where there is by no means any shortage of mosques. These are found everywhere, smaller and larger, and many of them being stunning examples of the most excellent Islamic architecture and decorative art. So Mr. Erdoğan’s decision about the two Byzantine shrines is just an expression of prestige and of his concept of an Islamic-Ottoman supremacy, in which he is dreaming not only of an Islamic revival but also of a revival of the Ottoman empire, of which he himself would be the Sultan – or at least a Sultanesque leader. Then, of course, this is not only about Islam but also about the restoration of territories. Nick Danforth (“Foreign Affairs”, July 31, 2020) writes:
The president [Erdoğan] has criticized the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne while also invoking the “spiritual borders” of the Ottoman Empire and describing a broad swath of the eastern Mediterranean as Turkey’s “blue homeland.”
A language clear enough.
Yes, our grief over the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church may be awfully hurting. But, in the last instance, let us remember Plotinus’ wise words: ΟΥΔΕΝ ΑΠΟΛΕΙΤΑΙ ΤΩΝ ΟΝΤΩΝ - “Nothing which really is will ever perish.” And let us instead turn our worries and our anger at the wicked concepts which today occupy the minds of the leaders of our miserable planet.