By Deirdre Good
My last office in an 1825 building at the seminary where I live had two doors. One was used as an entrance to the office from the corridor outside and the other was permanently closed. Once upon a time, when my office was a waiting room, that door was the access for seminary students to the infirmary next door. Further down the corridor was the infirmary with four beds. Several seminarians were designated as infirmarians and they looked after sick students, bringing them food from the refectory. Knowing something of the history of a room brings its features and its character to light. I used to think of seminarians sitting anxiously in my office, not across the room from me, but waiting to be seen by a doctor who came to the seminary once a week.
In the seminary's neighborhood, our once unknown Chelsea Market now draws local school kids, bus tours and is a prominently-featured destination in tourist guides to the city, which makes a visit during lunch hour almost impossible. But if you want to buy fish, it's the place to go. And it has a bookstore. The building that houses Chelsea Market used to be the headquarters of the National Biscuit Company, (Na-BIS-co), from the 1890's to the 1940's. If you enter the building on 9th Avenue at 15th street, there's an exhibit showing biscuit tins and other memorabilia. And the NaBisCo logo can be seen on the walls as you walk past the food shops from 9th to 10th Avenue. The history of this building is noticed and recorded. And the change from factory to retail has given the building continuity and perhaps status.
Further away, on 6th Avenue, Limelight Market, in which retail shops occupy the interior of a restored church, was once the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion built by Richard Upjohn in the style of Gothic Revival. Upjohn's better-known churches in New York City are Trinity Wall Street and Church of the Ascension. Deconsecrated and sold in the 70's, the Church of the Holy Communion became a nightclub, the Limelight, in the 80's, finally closing in 2007. The 2009 renovation, which was finished in 2010, restored stained glass windows and other interior features of the church as a setting for the Limelight Marketplace. In this case, although the retailers might disagree, we see the recreation of the former church as marketplace. After all, churches and cathedrals in this country and abroad offer visitors restaurants and shops full of ecclesiastical and religious items within their walls. Those who run these institutions will argue that bookshops and cafes inside the west doors of Cathedrals don't undermine its religious identity because the products are religious. But isn't it a question of degree? Doesn't the very presence of shops and restaurants already concede that the character of the Cathedral has taken on even a minor commercial aspect?
These examples show how rooms and buildings have become something else, even while their former identity is a small part of what they are now. You could visit my office without wondering why it has two doors. You could visit Chelsea Market and not notice features of the Nabisco factory. But when a building specifically built as a church exists today as a sacred building of another religion, a different kind of transformation has taken place.
On a recent visit to Istanbul, I encountered these kinds of transformations in visiting mosques that had once been churches; mosques themselves; and museums built as churches that have at one time also been mosques.
My mother and I visited the Bodrum Camisi mosque, or "mosque with a cellar," formerly the Myrelaion Church (Church of the Holy Anointing Oil). We met the Imam who told us, "The transformation of the church into our mosque saves its old identity."
We took off our shoes and put on headscarves to admire the largest mosque in the city, the newly renovated Süleymaniye Mosque, built by the great architect Sinan for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. We also went to the Laleli (Tulip) mosque whose distinctive minarets are topped with what look like tulips.
We visited the Church of St. Savior in Chora, now known as Kariye Camii, converted to a mosque after 1453, and now a museum. The beautiful mosaics and frescoes were covered over with plaster in the conversion to a mosque but recent restorations show today's visitors something of their glorious colors.
And then there is Hagia Sophia, rebuilt on the ruins of two earlier churches by the Emperor Justinian I in 537 as a Byzantine Church. Today it is known as Ayasofya, a museum, visited annually by millions. It has a remarkable history as a church, a seat of the Patriarchate, a seat of the Caliphate, a museum and as a source of architectural inspiration for many later mosques and churches. Until 1453 when Constantinople was taken over by Ottoman Turks, it was the Cathedral Church of Constantinople and the seat of coronations. But between 1204 and 1261 it was a Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. After 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had Hagia Sophia converted into a mosque by removing the altar and iconostasis and adding the mihrab (directional pointer niche to Mecca), minbar (a freestanding pulpit) and four minarets. Some mosaics were covered with plaster in conformity with the ban of images in Islam. In 1935, it became a museum in the Republic of Turkey. As a desanctified building, it represented the distancing of the new Turkish Republic from its Ottoman past.
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The sheer size and its political importance probably contributed to the survival and transformation of Hagia Sophia. Constantine laid out fourth-century Constantinople as a setting for the display of imperial power from the imperial palace to the hippodrome (now in front of the Blue Mosque adjacent to Ayasofya), mausoleum, churches and processional routes. As I stood in Ayasofya recently it seemed quite unlike any museum. Any gaze immediately looks up to the dome, 55.6 metres above, suspended in light over the nave, and just below it to the recently uncovered face of one of the four seraphim. That gaze rotates down one level to the restored mosaics including the De'esis of the upper gallery, the enormous medallions hanging on columns inscribed with the names of Allah, the prophet Mohammed, and his family, to the golden mosaics of John Chrysostom and Ignatius the Younger. Lower still on the ground level my gaze takes in the mihrab and the minbar decorated with marble. What I see seems to be not just a memorial but also a witness to lived religious experience.
The adaptation of buildings is a complex process over time that is as much about architecture, as it is about politics and religion. It is about transformation, imitation and assimilation. The transformation of non-Islamic places of worship into mosques, which this essay does not discuss, is a counterpart to the examples in Istanbul mentioned here. In the above examples, what is new seeks to transform, even eclipse the old. And yet the religious character of the older building shines through and enhances the new identity providing, among other things, continuity, stability and status.
All the liturgies ever conducted and all the prayers ever prayed in this space do not disappear because it is now a museum. These religious acts are part of the fabric of the building. If God deals with these mixed religions broadcasting out of the same station, why can't we?
Photos by Deirdre Good.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.