Reuse of Religious Sites

Another nice thing about traveling to so many places, especially within a reasonably condensed timeframe, is that you can easily recognize phenomena that recur in diverse settings and compare their manifestations. One such common phenomenon is the co-opting of places of worship for one religion by another (usually newer) religion, or, more simply put, the reuse of religious sites.

Examples are legion. Among the most famous that you may be aware of is the Pantheon in Rome, a Roman pagan temple that was turned into a Christian church in the 7th century, one of several such conversions in Rome. One of the single most contentious pieces of real estate in the world is Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the site of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque and formerly the site of the First and Second Temples of the Jewish faith. The most holy site of Islamic worship, the Kaaba in Mecca, used to be an ancient pagan shrine (and is believed to be built around a meteorite rock). An example familiar to the New Yorkers among you may be the Christian use of the Temple of Dendur, a Roman-era Egyptian temple which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when its home on the Nile was to be flooded by a new dam. An Asian example would be the temples of Angkor, which were alternatively Buddhist and Hindu depending on the religion of the reigning power.

Why were all of these sites and buildings, and so many others, reused? Well, the sites were probably reused because places of worship are often built at meaningful or strategic locations, such as city centers and hilltops. After a conquest or upon conversion of a population, the powers that be of the ascendant religion probably felt that the location occupied by the older faith was too prime, and that to establish the prestige of the newer faith it must take up that particular space. Or, even if location was not a consideration, perhaps the new religion reused the site because it wanted to reuse the building. Why adopt an existing building instead of building something new? I suppose there are two main reasons for this. The first is simply pragmatic. Places of worship are often built with heavy stones at enormous cost. To destroy an existing edifice and to rebuild in even a shade of its former self (certainly it would not do to have the new structure, presumably for a religion that is coming into greater favor, pale in comparison to the old) may be beyond the financial or technological means of those of the newer faith. Second, and perhaps a more generous reading, is that the newer religion views the old site and structure as having some sort of special, mystical quality to it. In some cases, as with the transition from Judaism to Christianity or either to Islam, sites retain their significance because the newer religion incorporates, to a certain extent, existing stories and beliefs. But even in other cases, such as the leap from the Roman pagan religion to Christianity, there is superstitious value, credibility and prestige attached to existing places of worship. Even if the talismanic value is simply limited to the reminder that the new religion defeated the old, the purported reason that an obelisk stands in the middle of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the reuse has purpose and value.

Whatever the reasons, reused religious sites are incredibly helpful to an understanding of the history of a place because they establish, visually, the pattern of conquest of a given location, or the adoption of faith and conversion of a given population. The reused religious sites become tangible markers of some of the greatest conflicts or social transformations in history, whether, in the case of the Pantheon, the adoption of the Christian faith by the Roman Empire or, in the case of the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the many changes of hands of the city of Jerusalem.

Our trip this year could be said to be a celebration or study of a single historical movement, the spread of Islam from the time of Mohammed to the present. Traveling through so much of the Islamic world has given us an experience mirroring in some ways the journey of the religion itself, from the Arabian desert outward. One common observation on the expansion of Islam is that it happened incredibly rapidly. Compared to, say, Christianity, which had to survive in secret for hundreds of years after the death of Christ before official recognition by the Roman Empire, the military conquests of the just-enlightened Arabs came extremely quickly, streaming out of Mecca and Medina in the seventh century to spread from Andalusia to Afghanistan by the eighth century. As quick as the Arab conquests were, however, the actual spread of Arab culture among and adoption of the Islamic faith by the peoples living in those territories, as well as the spread of the religion beyond those lands, has been a gradual process that is ongoing today. The religion’s expansion is still very much active, the Islamic faith having traveled deeper west into Europe, further south in West and East Africa, and outward east in Indonesia, since the travels of ibn Battuta in the 14th century.

Islam’s expansion has not come at no cost to other religions, given that currently Islamic societies previously had other beliefs, just as the Roman empire was pagan before it was Christian. In the Middle East, the arrival of Islam has largely meant a transformation from Christian into Muslim. The Levant, Jesus’s home and a homeland for the Christian church itself (see posts of 4.21 and 4.23), is now largely Muslim, save certain enclaves (see, e.g., post of 5.22). Coptic Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism, has faded to a small minority in an increasingly Islamic population, though in the case of Nubia Christianity was dominant as recently as the 14th century (see post of 10.01). The capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire itself, Constantinople, was conquered by the Turks in 1453 to become an Islamic city and for centuries served as the great capital of the Ottoman Empire, which reached even further into Christian southeastern Europe before its collapse in the early twentieth century.

As with other religions before it, Islam too has reused existing religious sites, and, for the Middle East portion of our trip, the three most memorable reused religious sites are churches-turned-mosques, reflecting the religious history of the region: the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Ayasofya of Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque of Cyprus.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

During the expansion of the Christian faith, it was of course the Christians who were adopting existing (pagan) religious sites for their own use. The list of such reused buildings and sites are too numerous to list, but include the Pantheon in Rome, and temples at Baalbek and Palmyra among the sites we have visited this year. In some cases, such as at Baalbek, the Christians used the existing pagan structures as a sort of quarry and foundation, rebuilding on the site using the pre-fabricated masonry at hand; in others, such as the Pantheon, things were pretty much left in place, a new altar and cross to designate the new faith.

Damascus was always a great city, going back far earlier than the life of St. Paul, and when the Christian faith came into power, the Christians converted the principal religious site of the city, the Temple of Jupiter, into their own house of worship. The Church of St. John the Baptist in the heart of the Old City of Damascus was probably among the greatest of these “new” churches of the Byzantine Empire.

The Roman colonnade leading to the old temple, still very much in place

The Christians reused not only the site itself, but many of the stones and columns of the old temple.

But the Christians were not to have the last word. After the Arab conquest swept through Damascus in the seventh century, and the new Umayyad caliphs wanted to make their architectural statement on their new capital of the Arab empire, they chose the most obvious site in the city, the site of the old Temple of Jupiter and the Church of St. John the Baptist, for their great mosque. It is said that the rights to the site were negotiated with the Christians of the city; no doubt the parties’ relative positions of power factored heavily into the balance. It is disputed to what extent the Umayyads kept the structure of the Christian church and to what extent the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was itself largely a new construction on the same site. However, all concede that the new mosque, if not a strict conversion of an existing building, was built with a great deal of influence from Byzantine Christian religious architecture, and certainly reused some of the very pieces of the old church. The Umayyad Mosque was one of the first great architectural statements of the Islamic faith, and so it might be said that through this building Islamic architecture as a whole owes quite a debt to Christian religious architecture (which in turn owes a debt to pagan religious architecture).

Main prayer hall, which resembles the nave of a church. The shrine in the middle is said to house the head of John the Baptist, the namesake of the old church. Muslims, who accept to an extent the stories and teachings of the New Testament, believe in the holiness of both John the Baptist and Jesus (for whom a minaret at the Umayyad Mosque is named).

In Greek, the language of the eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, an inscription of Psalm 145 reads, ironically, “Your Kingdom, Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” This doorway is on the south side of the mosque, the side on which the Umayyads built their (non-extant) palace.

Byzantine statuary incorporated into the outside wall of the mosque. One Damascus resident whom we met suggested that this was a statue of Christ–likely not, but it was certainly part of the former Christian church (and in turn possibly lifted from its pagan predecessor).

Ayasofya, Istanbul

Although the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus may be the earliest great example of a Christian church to Islamic mosque conversion, it is by no means the most famous: that title certainly goes to the Haghia Sophia or Ayasofya in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Church of Holy Wisdom or Haghia Sophia was built in the 6th c. AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who remarked at its completion that he had in fact constructed the greatest building ever built. And even today, his statement seems a plausible boast–in the sheer scale of its massive dome, not to mention the art that remains on its walls even today, the Ayasofya is with few equals, anywhere in the world, for houses of worship or for buildings of any kind.

Justinian presents the Haghia Sophia to the Virgin Mary, left.

The Haghia Sophia suffered much damage over the years, including in the Fourth Crusade, a savage looting of Constantinople by Western Europeans, but finally met its greatest transformation after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, after which Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer ordered the conversion of the Haghia Sophia into a mosque, making modifications such as the addition of minarets and a mihrab.

Quranic script medallions inside the great dome

But the conversion was far from a stripping of the building’s Christian history. The new inhabitants generally covered up rather than destroyed much of the great Christian art within the church, and even left some of it in plain sight. Twentieth century restorations have brought some of the covered art back into light.

Crosses are still very much visible, erased but not all that effectively or wholeheartedly.

Virgin Mary with Christ on upper left, Arabic script on lower right.

Just as the pagan Roman basilica became a model for Christian churches to come, the Ayasofya became a model for Turkish mosques, with many Istanbul structures mimicking the Ayasofya. Given the centrality of Istanbul and Turkey to Islamic architecture generally, and the construction of Turkish-style mosques in other parts of the world, the Ayasofya, like the Umayyad Mosque, can be said to have acted as a conduit for bringing Byzantine Christian architectural traditions into the Islamic world.

The Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, on right, Ayasofya on left

The Ayasofya, converted into a museum by Ataturk, still draws Christian pilgrims.

Selimiye Mosque, Cyprus

As significant as the Haghia Sophia/Ayasofya is in the history of the Byzantine Empire and Istanbul, and its status as perhaps the most historically monumental reuse of a religious building, it is not the most striking mosque-to-church conversion that we ran across on our trip. For sheer transparency of conversion, the Selimiye Mosque in Nicosia, North Cyprus, is hard to beat–no other place of worship I have ever seen looks so much like the very form of a place of worship of another faith.

The building now known as the Selimiye Mosque started its life, as is quite obviously apparent, as a Christian church, more specifically a Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral during the 13th-15th century Lusignan reign of Cyprus. After the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in the 16th century, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. But, as you can see, apparently little other than construction of minarets, a paint job and the addition of a mihrab were effected–the building is very much a Gothic cathedral in form.




At the lower left, note the “re-orienting” of the church toward Mecca, effected by the construction of somewhat odd raised, offset platforms. While the nave still stubbornly points east, worshippers face south-southeast, the direction of Mecca, or qibla, from Cyprus.

13 thoughts on “Reuse of Religious Sites

  1. On a much shorter timescale, I discovered in researching surviving early religious buildings in New York City that it was not unheard of for a congregation to bankrupt itself building its fancy new home, which it would barely or never get to move into before it was taken over by another denomination or faith.

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