Saint Sophia Cathedral of Cyprus: How it became a mosque?

Mosques Contributor
Saint Sphia Cathedral
Selimiye Mosque in Nicosia, formerly Cathedrale Sainte Sophie.Nicosia, Northern Cyprus. © Kirill Makarov |

Saint Sophia Cathedral was largest and oldest surviving Gothic church in Cyprus, possibly constructed on the site of an earlier Byzantine church. In its long history, the near-mythical land of Cyprus has gone through a multitude of notable societal transformations and metamorphoses. Leading to the existence of the wonderfully multicultural country that we know today. Amongst others, the cycle of different peoples arriving onto the lands, each leaving behind their own unique heritage has endowed the island of Cyprus with a most curious architecture. What’s curious is that despite its current population being less than 1,000,000 people, of which 89% are Christian, the island boasts an impressive amount of mosques. A total of 160 across Cyprus’s humble surface.

Saint Sophia Cathedral aka Selimiye Mosque

A mosque that has beautifully accompanied Cyprus throughout its enticing history is one which remained the city mosque for many years – The Saint Sophia Cathedral, Nicosia. Later renamed to the Selimiye Mosque in 1954, in honour of Sultan Selim 2.

The first stone of the edifice was officially said to be laid in 1209. Later discovered to be standing atop an old byzantine church, named all too familiarly to the now Turkish mosque, Hagia Sophia. This exoskeleton of what was first a church remained in an unfinished state. For over one hundred years due to the lack of funding and financial aid form the government. Until it was finally razed in 1326 for reconstruction.

For the next two hundred years, as it happens with many mosques situated across the border of a tectonic plate, this one too had suffered damage from multiple earthquakes. It was as well subjected to various raids and loots throughout the years.

Reign of Islam in Cyprus

As governments and people shifted, so too did the former church. By 1570, the reign of Islam in Cyprus was strongly upheld by the Ottoman Empire. It dominated not only over the whole Island, but also a large part of the regions around the Mediterranean. In the same year, the church was converted into a mosque. And appointed as the central city mosque.

The Ottoman Empire made little adjustments to the gothic architectural design of the building. Adding only two minarets in 1572 and a mihrab to point towards Qibla. Later on, a minbar was erected alongside. It was an addition of steps to the southern side. Leading up to the building, thus embellishing the structure and directing it towards Qibla.

Most of the ancient decorations and ornaments that reminded the Christian’s of God were painted over. Or covered up with white foliage by Muslim artisans. The final outcome looks quite intriguing with the exterior design strongly resembling the Notre Dame de Paris. It is of no surprise considering the Saint Sophia Cathedral was heavily inspired by its appearance. The cathedral had two large minarets peaking out form the sides of the facade.

Need for preservation

This metamorphic and ancient place of worship, which until now remains a mosque, is unknowingly in a crossfire of potential ruin between the northern and southern populations. As Cyprus struggles divided, the Northern side, in which the mosque is situated, will imminently suffer from a lack of financial up-keeping and funding.

Such strikingly explicit landmarks of history should most definitely be preserved at all cost. To ensure the preservation of this site, there lies hope in the reunification or in fiscal assistance from UNESCO.


(Written by Hussein Al-Bahir)

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