Religion and Contested Cultural Heritage: The Rotunda and Hagia Sophia as Church, Mosque, and Museum
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This project uses the fourth-century Rotunda in Thessaloniki, Greece and the sixth-century Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey as case study sites for exploring conflicts over religious heritage. These two sites have a shared history of repurposing, from pre-Christian sites, to churches, to mosques, to museums, and to hybrid religious/heritage spaces today. These transformations are the outcome of shifting political powers and changing religious priorities over the centuries. As a result of these complex histories, the Rotunda and Hagia Sophia are notable examples of “dissonant heritage” (Tunbridge and Ashworth 1996). That is, they are loci of competing narratives and public representations of the past, and thus they are also sites of contestation between different religious, political, and (inter)national groups today.Through its examination of the Rotunda and Hagia Sophia, this project explores three interrelated topics. First, it examines the architectural changes religious sites undergo when they are repurposed for a different religious use, and when they are made into monuments and museums—that is, when they are officially recognized as “heritage.” Second, it identifies how stakeholders negotiate the spatial and conceptual boundaries of religious practices at heritage sites today. Third, it investigates the ways in which the preservation and management of religious heritage presents unique challenges for the heritage industry. Through these three lines of inquiry, this project teases out what is at stake in the (re)conversion and secularization of religious sites for stakeholders, and why these transitions so often lead to conflict. It presents a historical account of the Rotunda and Hagia Sophia, using ancient and modern first-hand accounts, archaeological reports, urban plans, correspondences, and online media posts to craft a narrative of continuity and discontinuity and of preservation and destruction, focusing on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in particular. In uncovering key moments of transition in these palimpsestic, layered histories of the sites, it seeks to contextualize recent conflicts over their ownership and interpretation. It explores how controlling the Rotunda and Hagia Sophia has often meant controlling the societal identity of Thessaloniki and Istanbul more broadly. Though the secularization of religious historic sites is still understood by some stakeholders as an answer to contested heritage, this project demonstrates the ways in which this strategy can fail. It interrogates how the preservation and management of religious sites should account for the different needs embodied in the “religious” and “heritage” uses of historic places, arguing that there needs to be a better sensitivity to the dynamics of and tensions that result from religious and nonreligious engagements, modes, and moods within the same site. Ultimately, this project reveals how heritage sites can become loci for religious revival and for negotiating the role of religion in the modern world. Religious heritage sites, it concludes, ought to be understood as living places, which means giving space to religion and religious practices.
Machabee, Stephanie, "Religion and Contested Cultural Heritage: The Rotunda and Hagia Sophia as Church, Mosque, and Museum" (2022). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 630.