A reflection of the island’s acculturation, Selimiye challenges the ways in which architecture communicates faith
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is host to a turbulent political past. Long before the Cyprus dispute and the division into north and south following the 1974 Turkish invasion, countless empires and kingdoms battled for control: the Crusader King Richard I (who would later sell the island to the Knights Templar), the French House of Lusignan, the Venetians and the Ottomans to name a few. With each conqueror’s new rule came an individual culture and style, and the deployment – or transformation – of architecture as a powerful means of taking control was no exception.
Nowhere is this sense of acculturation more pronounced than in Nicosia, the 11th-century capital city. A chequered cultural cityscape surrounded by 15th-century Venetian walls, its vast array of building styles is an impressive journey through the layers of Cyprus’s multicultural past. This is most keenly felt in the Selimiye Quarter. Here, buildings such as the Bedesten – a former church converted into a covered marketplace by the Ottoman Empire – often cause confusion when trying to decipher architectural styles and origins. The most striking example – the centrally located Selimiye Mosque – often prompts a more intriguing question: why, behind the two soaring minarets that pierce through Nicosia’s skyline, does this Islamic place of worship, now the largest in the whole of the capital, look so much like a Christian cathedral? Simply put, it used to be one – specifically St Sophia Cathedral. While this conversion of a non-Muslim place of worship into a mosque is not unique, when viewed through Cyprus’s turbulent past it becomes a particularly pertinent example of the importance of architectural language as a communicator of faith.
Selimiye Mosque Nicosia Cyprus 3
In 1192 – following a siege against the Templars’ severe rule – Guy of Lusignan, facing opposition to his rule in Jerusalem, was offered the kingdom of Cyprus by the English King Richard, keen to have it out of his hands. In the period that followed architecture thrived, seeing the construction of churches, palaces and castles often inspired by contemporary Western styles such as those seen in France and Germany – an exciting contrast to the vernacular. It was during this period, around 1209 under the rule of King Henry I, that the 150-year construction of Agia Sophia began. Evidence suggests it took the place of an earlier Byzantine Church called Agia Sophia, inspiring the name of the cathedral.
The church was never fully completed, being consecrated in 1326 with elements such as the flat-roofed bell towers remaining unfinished. Both during and after construction the church suffered, damaged in 1373 during the Genoese raids and in 1426 by the Mamluks . After a major earthquake struck in 1491, the entire eastern section was destroyed and further restoration was ordered and undertaken by the Venetian state. The most significant turning point came during the reign of the Ottoman Empire in 1570, when the church was stripped of its Christianity and converted into a mosque – although still operating with its original name, Agia Sophia, which was not changed until 1954. To Islamise the church, additions such as the minarets replaced the incomplete bell towers and an ablution courtyard fountain with trefoil-arched niches was created.
‘To a spectator who has no idea of the mosque’s history, the building presents a bizarre sight’
Nowadays, when trying to approach the mosque, you face a battle through shops attempting to promote their latest goods while mobs of clothes-hungry people put in their finest efforts to haggle for the best price. After finally conquering the crowds, the mosque looms in front of you with large white-and-red northern Cyprus flags swaying freely between the two minarets. Calmness is felt as the sound of the Muezzin reciting the Adhan calling worshippers for daily prayer echoes through the narrow streets of Nicosia.
To a spectator who has no idea of its history, the building presents a bizarre sight. If the building is a church, why are there minarets? And if it is a mosque, why is the roof flat instead of domed? Many of the decorative elements that suggested the style of this church were hidden behind layers of white paint and plaster, a move made by the Ottomans during the conversion of the sacred space from a church to a mosque. It was only in 1948 that the decorative elements on the western portals of the cathedral were revealed, showing sculptures of figures and foliage, which have been heralded for reflecting its Franco-Gothic identity.
Selimiye Mosque Nicosia Cyprus 2
Yet, looking closer at the western facade, it is questionable whether the church at the time was in fact truly Gothic. The 14th-century additions such as the three pointed-arched doorways, sheltered by the three bays of the porch that extend from the west of the cathedral, suggest that there is much more to this mosque than its previously life as a cathedral. Each one of these doorways is unique with a clear programme of sculpture. Historically speaking, the rise of Gothic and Western forms of art in Cyprus occurred at the same time that the Palaeologan style of Byzantium started to develop. What has been deemed a magnificent addition of the Gothic to the island may not in fact be so: could it be that this style is actually a unique palimpsest of different emerging architectural styles and cultures brought by conquerors of the time? If so, is it possible that the style of the Selimiye Mosque is in fact truly exclusive to the Island?
‘Nowadays, when trying to approach the mosque, you face a battle through shops attempting to promote their latest goods while mobs of clothes-hungry people put in their finest efforts to haggle for the best price’
The interior raises different questions of its own. At first glance, the inside of the mosque is unexpectedly underwhelming. It seems that a no-frills approach was adopted during the conversion. Similar to the exterior, all Christian symbols were stripped and covered with white paint and plaster. When entering the church, the sheer scale of the space is overpowering, the large columns and high ceiling supported by a semi-circular arrangement of flying buttresses. Yet despite the addition of Islamic symbols to the stark, white walls, the surroundings feel blank, almost as if the canvas has been left incomplete. It is quite easy to imagine the location of the choir stalls, altars, screens, coats of arms of Christian families, stained glass and the statue of Latin workmanship when this space was once a church. However, some significant changes to Islamicise the church are quite noticeable. A mihrab, which indicates the position of Mecca, and a minber (a pulpit) were added to the interior as a requirement to hold Muslim services, along with the addition of the two minarets, which were added in 1572. Raised steps have also been added to the main body of the church in the southern part, to orientate the space in the direction of Mecca.
Selimiye Mosque Nicosia Cyprus
The mosque is mainly promoted as a tourist attraction in the north of Cyprus, and yet when information is given about the mosque’s history it presents a far more holistic image of how Nicosia once was. It is hard not to wonder, however, what the fate of religious buildings such as the Selimiye Mosque and Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Famagusta (formerly Saint Nicholas’s Cathedral) lies in the ongoing Cyprus dispute. With economic constraints imposed by the lack of international recognition (the north of Cyprus has not been declared an official state), it is questionable if the north will be able to sustain the upkeep of these ancient buildings and fears are raised that these magnificent examples of the meeting of religious styles could potentially go to ruin. Nevertheless, recent progress in unification sheds a ray of hope on this situation, inspiring confidence for a brighter future on the island.