Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Professor Judith Herrin, one of our Executive committee members had the following piece published in the Washington Post on Wednesday; you can read it below:

Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is an act of cultural cleansing

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is famous for saying, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.” Last year, he lost the city’s municipal elections. Today, he is trying to reverse his sliding popularity by backing a religious fundamentalism that threatens Turkey’s minorities, the country’s secular character and Istanbul’s historic role as a tolerant metropolis where Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths coexisted for centuries.

On Friday, Erdogan’s shortsighted, cynical campaign struck at the very heart of world culture and Istanbul’s essential character. At his instigation, Turkey’s highest administrative court issued a scandalously dangerous and bigoted decision: Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul and a global symbol of world history and multicultural representation, should convert from a museum back to a mosque.

By serving as a museum, Hagia Sophia, a vast, 1,500-year-old structure that previously served as a church and then a mosque, represented the essence of Istanbul, a place where world-changing empires and religions conflicted and intersected but whose monuments and artifacts can be enjoyed by all. Friday’s ruling marks a symbolic end to this legacy of tolerance.

Hagia Sophia’s history contains the city’s history. It is a Byzantine church that has dominated the skyline of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, for the city’s entire history. When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, it became a mosque. In 1935, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, made it a museum, and Hagia Sophia was opened to all as a cultural and scientific site. It became a tremendous tourist attraction. Visitors marvel at not only its structure but also the layers of history it embodies.

Constantinople was founded in 330 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine I. He selected an amazing site overlooking the Bosporus with strategic control of the Black Sea. In his “New” Rome, he built an imperial capital that outstripped “Old” Rome.

His son constructed the first church dedicated to “Hagia Sophia,” Holy Wisdom. It served as the cathedral, where the patriarch conducted services attended by the emperor and empress as well as the local population.

As the city expanded, so did the church. In 537, Emperor Justinian, whose rule stretched from Italy to Sinai, dedicated the present structure as an expression of might and piety. It has an enormous dome, 102 feet in diameter, at a height of 184 feet. For nearly 1,000 years, it was the highest and largest in the world.

Decorated in contrasting colored marbles brought from all parts of the Mediterranean, the entire interior surface of Hagia Sophia glowed with golden and silver mosaics that reflected the light flooding in through its many windows.

Justinian’s original church had one internal decoration: a monumental, glittering cross in the dome, now removed. In the late ninth century, figural mosaics were added: the Virgin and Child in the main apse, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on either side. Later rulers, including the Empress Zoe, commemorated themselves with beautiful gold mosaic portraits and Christian icons.

The great church established the standard. When the Arabs broke out of the deserts to proclaim the faith of Islam, they modeled their first mosques on the Christian domes pioneered by the Byzantines. So when the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II breached the triple walls and rode into Constantinople in May 1453, he could order the symbol of the city, Hagia Sophia, to be transformed into a mosque rather than destroying it.

Under Islamic law, the figural mosaics were either removed or plastered over, a huge loss and a warning of what might happen again. Indeed, while Turkish officials on Friday promised the mosaics won’t be removed, on Monday they announced that they will be covered by curtains or lasers during Muslim prayers.

To turn the unrivaled building back into a place of worship threatens open access to a magnificent structure and the building’s invaluable mosaic decorations. By restricting access to Istanbul’s greatest historical legacy, Erdogan assaults the cosmopolitan traditions that make the city and Turkey itself a crossroads for the world. It is an act of cultural cleansing.

This is a decision of a beleaguered autocrat — the most dangerous — motivated by a desire to punish Istanbul’s inhabitants, who voted decisively against him, and by a desire to consolidate his position by stirring sectarian animosity between his pious followers and those attached to secular traditions.

Hagia Sophia belongs to the world. Its fate is not just a matter, as Erdogan defensively insists, of Turkish sovereignty.

Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Members who have been following developments may be interested to read the following open letter which circulated widely in the lead up to the decision and can be found here.

Dr Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Chair of the SPBS Publications Committee, has prepared a petition which you can sign up to by clicking on this link. If you would like to discuss this with her, please contact her via email (a.lymberopoulou@open.ac.uk).

Professor Robert Ousterhout has written a long blog on the same topic which can be accessed here:

https://blog.iae.org.tr/en/uncategorized-en/from-hagia-sophia-to-ayasofya-architecture-and-the-persistence-of-memory

Bulletin of British Byzantine Studies

The entire series of the BBBS, from issue 1 in 1975 through to issue 45 in 2019, is now available to download. Collectively they provide a unique insight into the development of Byzantine Studies in the UK.

Thanks are due to the present BBBS editor, Dr Fiona Haarer, for her diligent efforts in digitising the older issues.

Online Resource: Syrian Architectural Heritage Released on Wikimedia Commons

Dumbarton Oaks

More than 9,700 photographs of Late Roman and Byzantine monuments in Syria are being uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, in keeping with our Access Initiative to make Dumbarton Oaks collections and scholarship more broadly available. In 2016, retired historian Frank Kidner donated photographs he had taken of Syrian sites in the 1980s and 1990s to Dumbarton Oaks. Emphasizing ancient villages in the modern-day province Idlib, west of Aleppo along the border with Turkey, the Frank Kidner Photographs collection documents sites of historical and archaeological significance while capturing scenes of daily life. His poignant photographs of children playing among the nearly 2,000-year-old ruins stand in stark contrast to familiar images of the ongoing refugee and displacement crisis stemming from the Syrian Civil War. Kidner created a comprehensive resource—drawing together topography, evidence of communities that once lived in the region, and architectural details—that is useful for researchers and scholars across a breadth of fields.

Online Resource: Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt Catalogue

Dumbarton Oaks

Experience the vibrant colors and array of textures that enlivened interior spaces in early medieval Egypt. Recent exhibition Woven Interiors—a collaboration with The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum—presented rare and fragile masterpieces from major American institutions, including many textiles that had never before been exhibited or had remained in storage for decades. Now, download the digital catalogue free of charge to explore some sixty remarkable pieces. Essays from curators Gudrun Bühl, Sumru Belger Krody, and Dumbarton Oaks Assistant Curator of the Byzantine Collection Elizabeth Dospěl Williams highlight major themes of the exhibition, including aesthetics, sacred imagery, comfort at home, and continuity and change. To purchase a hard copy of the catalogue, contact our Museum Shop.

Online Resource: International Byzantinist Reading Group

A message from the organisers (note that, if you are too late for this session, the group will contiue to meet on subsequent Sundays):

Dear Colleagues,

In light of all the cancelled talks, conferences, etc. because of the current pandemic, we, Scott Kennedy and Ugo Mondini, have created the International Byzantinist Reading Group for graduate students, post-docs, and faculty as a digital space for discussion among scholars currently scattered around the world. We aim to build solidarity among academics interested in late antique and Byzantine culture as well as to lay the foundation for future exchanges and collaboration.

The Group is now in its fourth meeting. Meetings are held on Sundays at 8 pm (Rome time) via the video-conferencing platform Zoom. Based on the number of participants, we do two kinds of discussion groups during a meeting: (1) small group discussion and (2) large group discussion. Through Zoom, we can breakup meeting participants into groups of 5-6. For the first 30 minutes of the meeting, we break participants up into these small groups, so that everyone has the opportunity to speak and discuss the reading with their group. Then for the last 20-30 minutes of the meeting, we discuss the reading altogether. We use the raise your hand feature on Zoom to moderate discussion for the larger group.

For our next reading session (Sunday, 26th April 2020), we will be moving back to late antiquity with the following reading

A. Kaldellis, “How perilous was it to write political history in late antiquity?”, Studies in Late Antiquity 1 (2017) 38-64

You can find the paper on Kaldellis’ academia.edu account: https://bit.ly/3autKNO

If you are interested in participating in this week’s meeting or future meetings of the group, please email Ugo Mondini (ugo.mondini@unimi.it). All participants will be sent an invitation to join the meeting on Sunday via email.

See you next Sunday
Scott Kennedy (scott.kennedy@bilkent.edu.tr)
Ugo Mondini (ugo.mondini@unimi.it)

Statement regarding archaeological finds at Venizelos Metro Station, Thessaloniki

The Executive Committee of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies expresses its wholehearted support for the position adopted by the International Association of Byzantine Studies regarding the proposed relocation of the Byzantine finds in Thessloniki, opposing the removal of these finds and calling upon the relevant authorities to reconsider their recent decision.

Below are attached the statements of the AIEB’s Commission for Byzantine Archaeology and the appeal of the AIEB President, Professor John Haldon, to the Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, Mr Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

CBA-AIEB letter 21-4-20

Letter from the President

Update: SPBS Spring Lecture postponed

The SPBS is sorry to announce that its Spring Lecture – ‘The fortifications of Byzantine and Crusader Cyprus’, by Dr James Petre – will be postponed indefinitely owing to ongoing measures against the spread of COVID-19. The lecture was due to take place on 31 March in Senate House, London. We intend to reschedule the event at a later date when public gatherings become more practicable. In the meantime, please stay well!

URGENT: Spring Symposium Postponement

A message from Professor Leslie Brubaker:

We are sorry to inform you that, due to the ongoing risks of the COVID-19 virus and the possibility of a full campus closure at the University of Birmingham, and on the advice of administrators, we have decided to postpone Nature and the Environment: the 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies until 27th-29th March 2021.

This postponement will not affect the advertised programme for Nature and the Environment, and we will look forward to welcoming you in Birmingham next year, should you still wish to attend.

If you have already paid for registration, and would still like to attend in 2021, we can roll over your registration until next year and keep the funds in our dedicated account. Alternatively, if you would prefer a refund, please feel to contact Daniel Reynolds (D.K.Reynolds@bham.ac.uk) or Thomas White (T.P.White@bham.ac.uk) in the University of Birmingham Department of History Office.

For those of you who have already booked travel, the majority of flight operators are offering to rebook flights for people whose travel plans have been disrupted by the virus. We also recommend that you contact your insurance company as soon as possible.

Further advice may be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-advice-novel-coronavirus

If you require a formal letter to confirm the cancellation of the event, we will be happy to provide one for you. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch. In either case, please contact Dan Reynolds or Tom White, as above.

With all best wishes, and please stay well!

Leslie Brubaker

Chair, SPBS and
Director, Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies
University of Birmingham, UK.