Towering over the city of Ioannina, crowning the Ic Kale, or citadel, looms the Fethiye Mosque. Constructed near the ruins of a 13th century church dedicated to the archangels Gabriel and Michael, it commemorates the surrender of the city to the Ottomans in 1430. In front of it, an intricately woven metal cage marks the spot where the great despot of Ioannina, Ali Pasha, was buried, after his failed revolt against the Sultan. A short distance away, one can find the Aslan Pasha mosque, built on the site of the church of St John in 1619, which was torn down by way of reprisal, after the suppression of the 1611 anti-Ottoman revolt, led by Dionysius the Philosopher, who was flayed alive nearby. Since 1933 the mosque has housed the Municipal Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina, which contains a vast array of artefacts attesting to the Islamic heritage of the city.
These two buildings are the reason why mosques have been part of my cultural identity ever since I can remember. On our living room wall, there hung for years two brass souvenir dishes depicting the Fethiye Mosque with its tall minaret rising majestically above the town and its surrounding lake, in it, but not of it, and this was the only image I had of my mother’s homeland until I visited Greece in my teenage years. Considering the devastation wreaked upon the hapless architecture of the city of Ioannina by the 1950s’ construction boom, which transformed charming streets and beguiling facades into faceless, ugly and uniform concrete monstrosities, causing the city to lose much of its history and character, the Fethiye Mosque defines Ioannina like no other building.
This is why, in contrast to the nationalistic and kitsch approaches to souvenirs that can be found in other parts of Greece, it seems perfectly natural to the Ioannitan to purvey representations of the mosque as a tangible reminder of the city, without this in any way compromising its Greek character, just as it was natural for Orthodox women like my great-grandmother to wipe her face after eating a meal, in a manner closely resembling an Islamic prayer.
That is why, in response to my expressed admiration for the existence and aesthetics of the two mosques, while my cousin treated me to a diatribe about how: “those mosques should be pulled down as they are a symbol of oppression”, her husband interjected gruffly, stating: “Don’t be ridiculous. This is the only distinguishing feature of Ioannina.” Ioannitans would cringe if told that they are incurably romantic and seized with a nostalgia for the past, yet I suspect that this is so. There are few Muslims left in the city after the Balkan Wars, which saw the sizeable Turkish and Albanian population leave the area. As late as 1930, the Osman Cavus mosque was demolished to make way for a school, and yet both the Veli Pasha and Kaloutsiani Mosques still stand, though denuded of worshippers. Similarly, the most distinguishing feature of the town of Konitsa is the ruins of its mosque, constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent over a Byzantine church. Its minaret, most of which has crumbled away, stands as a mute sentinel over the picturesque settlement sprawled on the slopes of the mountain. Navigating the torturous Ottoman streets of the town in 2008, I was treated to an impromptu lecture by an Orthodox priest who explained the history of the mosque. “We won’t pull it down,” he concluded. “Any place where God is worshipped is holy. But let’s hope that the people who oppressed us never come back.”
All over Greece, remnants of the Islamic presence in Greece still remain, largely shut, mouldering away or converted to other uses. Thessaloniki, being a large metropolis in Ottoman times and having been liberated a year after Ioannina, boasts several purpose-built mosques, without counting church conversions. One of these, the Yeni Camii, or New Mosque, bears witness to the melting pot of cultures and influences constituted by Salonican society. Built by Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli in 1902, with decidedly North African overtones, it was constructed especially for the city’s Donmeh community, being Jews who converted to Islam. The Donmeh community left for Turkey during the population exchange and today it serves as an exhibition centre.
Apart from the Alaca Imaret Mosque or Ishak Pasha Mosque, built in the fifteenth century, of particular interest is the Hamza Bey Mosque, for it is known locally as Alkazar, after a cinema that operated in the premises for decades and has been a protected monument since 1926.
So entrenched are some of the Greek mosques in the local psyche that they subconsciously try to culturally appropriate them as their own. This is certainly the case with the Mehmet Bey Mosque in Serres, a city that houses several mosques, built by the son-in-law of Sultan Bayezit in 1492, which though it has never been used as a church, is commonly referred to as ‘Hagia Sophia’. The Zirinci Mosque of Serres is also of great architectural significance, as it was designed and built by Mimar Sinan, an islamised Cappadocian Greek who was perhaps the greatest Ottoman architect of all time, responsible for popularising the style of domed mosques modelled on Byzantine churches that has defined Ottoman religious architecture for evermore.
With Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan recently linking the preservation and use of Christian monuments in Turkey to reciprocity vis a vis Islamic monuments in Greece, it cannot be doubted that the large number of such monuments, some of which have been present on Greek soil for over five hundred years, comprise an inseparable part of the Greek identity as well as forming an invaluable bridge between cultures and faiths. One can only hope that the celebration and current restoration of many of these monuments will lead to closer and enhanced ties between the peoples for whom they form a common historical heritage. Judging by the recent burning of an age-old Cappadocian church by a Turkish filmmaker in order to lend verisimilitude to his so-called artistic endeavours, such ties and mutual respect for monuments is sorely needed.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.