Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Fethiye Mosque in Athens

The Fethiye Mosque

Located at the Corner of Panos and Pelopida streets in the northwest corner of the Roman Agora

The mosque in the 1830s, backed by the Tower of the Winds



The Fethiye Mosque (Φετιχιέ Τζαμί) translates as Mosque of the Conquest and was established by Omer Bey after he had conquered the Duchy of Athens for the Ottomans in 1456. It was intended to celebrate the victory of Mehmed the Conqueror, and to commemorate his four day visit to Athens which took place in August 1458. Apparently the sultan had a yen to visit his newly conquered territories.

Bey created his mosque by placing a mihrab marking the appropriate direction of Mecca inside the apse of an Orthodox three-aisled basilica(1).

No surprise there. It was common practice for Christians and Muslims to take over each others’ religious monuments whenever possible and no doubt the basilica itself was placed on a small Roman temple and it on…etc. etc. The transformation was complete when a minaret was added to the churchyard.

 Mehmed’s Whirlwind Visit

Mehmed the Conqueror is a man worthy of a small digression. Although he spoke no Greek and was a fervent Islamist, he was also something of a professed Hellene and was happy to visit a provincial backwater like Athens because if its fame as the city of philosophers. During his 4 day stay he of course visited the acropolis and greatly admired the Parthenon. He did not stay in the former duke’s palace in the Propylaion, but chose instead to camp out in tents, Kaddafi style, in a nearby olive orchard. It was probably more comfortable for himself and his large entourage.

All in all, Mehmed was given a pretty warm welcome by the Greek Athenians. It was an Orthodox cleric who had handed Omer Bey the symbolic keys to the city in June 1456. During his visit, Mehmed granted favours to local monasteries, especially to the Kaisariani (known as Kyriani back then) and exempted many citizens from the hated poll tax always levied by the Porte. He also graciously decreed that any boy chosen as a Janissary(2) could buy his freedom - for a price. The local senate had been allowed to function although it was now under the control of the Turkish governor. This is how diplomacy worked back then, the velvet glove hiding the iron hand – at least at the beginning.

 Truth to tell, the Athenians were delighted to be rid of 250 years of rule by the Latins and their despised Roman Catholic rites. Under the Ottomans they were offered more religious freedom than they had had under the Duchy. If Greeks were banned from the acropolis fortress, they had the satisfaction of knowing that so were the Latins!

Mehmed was a clever man, preferring willing vassals over enemies. (3) He even allowed the Duke of Athens to retain most of his Duchy, but not Athens. Athens may have been down at the heels in 1458, but it was still a symbolically important center for all Greeks under Ottoman rule; Mehmed knew that.

 Wikipedia Commons
The Venetians sent Gentile Bellini to Constantinople to paint this flattering portrait of Mehmed in 1479. They wanted to foster good relations with the Porte –a beautiful  example of the ‘art of diplomacy’!

Back to the Mosque

Of the original 1458 mosque only a fragment of the mihrab survives.   In 1668 or so it was demolished and replaced by the rather imposing structure we see today. The name remained the same. The Fethiye Mosque is the oldest Ottoman building still standing in Athens. As you can imagine, given its location, a lot of ancient and Byzantine spolia went into this second mosque and probably some bits and pieces of the first mosque too. 

The southern and eastern facades  

It was built according to a quatrefoil or clover-leaf cross-in-square plan: the central dome is flanked by half-domes on each side, and by smaller domes on each corner.  The diagram below illustrates this very clearly.

 In this type, the decorative framework consists of a symmetrical shape which forms the overall outline of four partially overlapping circles (tetraspheres) of the same diameter, surrounding a central dome. Those who know say it was modeled after the church of Agia Sophia in Constantinople. The style became quite popular, especially in the case of Victory mosques, of which there were many in areas conquered by the Ottomans. 
That is the bird’s eye view. Walking in at ground level, the visitor experiences a large square hall with a large central dome supported by four columns. A bit of Arabic calligraphy has been unearthed on one wall which reads Ma Sha’ Allah, as God has willed. I am not sure if it was spolia from the first mosque or not.  This phrase was used when praising something or someone, in the recognition that all good things come from God.

  The rather elegant porch is supported by five arches, each crowned by a small dome, resting on masonry on one side and pillars on the other.

During the Ottoman period, it was popularly known as the Wheat Market Mosque (Τζαμί του Σταροπάζαρου) because of its proximity to that market.

When the Venetians occupied the city in 1687-8 (and inadvertently blew up the Parthenon) they ousted the Ottomans and turned the mosque into a Catholic church. That didn’t last long and the mosque remained a mosque until 1824 when freedom fighters wrested it from Ottoman hands and briefly used it as a school. According to contemporary sources it was about that time that the minaret was torn down. Minarets had become a hated symbol of enslavement under the Ottomans.

In 1834 it was turned into a depot of some sort, and then later into a barracks for the guards of the Medresse. Before 1890, we know it was used as a flour warehouse and until 1935 the Greeks used it as a bakery for the army at which time the mosque was almost hidden from view by add-ons.

The mosque as a bakery

 Then it was the turn of the archaeologists who used it as a store room for finds in the agora and elsewhere.

The Mosque Becomes a ‘Cultural Center’

  After almost 350 years the building has weathered and suffered numerous earthquake cracks and water damage. It hasn’t always been treated with respect either. No Ottoman monument was likely to be with the possible exception of baths.
Except for the removal of 19th century additions which restored its original shape in 1937, the mosque has never undergone a serious restoration although there was an excavation carried out in 1964 which revealed bits of the old basilica. By 2010 structural problems threatened the building, so the Greek Ministry of Culture ordered the archaeologists to decamp and in 2013, restoration begun. It is to be opened to the public as a space for cultural events. 

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about turning this mosque back into a mosque instead of an exhibition hall. Its central location and design would make it a perfect place for the many Muslims now residing in Athens to gather and pray.

 It almost makes perfect sense.

But the mosque’s history has scotched the idea. It brings back too many memories. The Fethiye Mosque was built, after all, specifically to celebrate the Ottoman conquest of Athens and that fact just won’t go away. It is also built on top of an Orthodox church. These things still matter. 

In October 2013, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister who is acting a little like a sultan himself these days, (4) got into the act. He added fat to the fire by suggesting a quid pro quo: if Athens were to open the two existing Ottoman era mosques in the city for worship, he might consider re-opening a school for Orthodox clergy in Turkey. (5)  The Athenian reaction was predictably negative. 

My own first reaction to the idea of reopening this mosque instead of building a new one was positive. Why not?
 But no matter how hard I try to be a 21st century liberal, I keep seeing Mehmed sitting in his tent and offering the Athenians a comfortable enough life as long as they were prepared to submit and become second class citizens in their own city.  Maybe in another few hundred years…


(1)  Not very much is known about this mid-Byzantine church except that it dates from the eight or nine hundreds. Its name is not mentioned in any articles I have come across and it is not clear in how dilapidated a state it was in when the Ottoman’s took it over but it was apparently ‘in ruins’. Before a new floor is placed in the present day renovation of the mosque, archaeologists plan to dig and have another look at whatever is left of this church.

(2)   An elite corps of slaves recruited from young Christian boys who were often forcibly kidnapped and raised as Moslems. It was a 'head tax' many families could not avoid. Their function was to safeguard the sultan who did not trust his own people to do the job.

 (3) I run the risk that my footnotes become longer than a text but I was curious as to how tolerant the Byzantines in Constantinople had been to the idea of mosques in their city. Apparently there was one outside the city walls and one inside for visiting dignitaries and other Muslims who found themselves in Byzantium. At least between 900 and 1200 there is a record of it having been protected by treaty and there is even evidence that there were reciprocal closings of each other’s places of worship if one side felt the other was being unfair. That much has stayed the same.

(4) Mehmed passed a law of succession that sticks in my mind. It said: Whichever of my sons inherits the sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of world order. Many a subsequent sultan would take advantage of that law. His own son Bayezit didn’t have to. Instead he paid the pope and the Knights Hospitallers in Rhodes to let his brother languish as their prisoner until he died.

(5) Erdogan held a massive pre-election rally in Istanbul on May 30 2015 celebrating in grand style the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, complete with an honour guard of 562 soldiers dressed in period costume as Janissaries! (Turks rather than kidnapped Christians in this case, I assume.) Aside from that  historical error, the scale of this celebration is something new and, although meant more for interior consumption, the clear intent was to be provocative..

(6) See


  1. Ad footnote 1 - according Machias Kiel the byzantine basilica name was Panaghia tou Staropazarou ( Milan Hronicek, Prague

  2. Ineluctables, your hall your poet places be expecting within the delirious exploration/calamitous reputation bunss whole lecturer organization alongside heterogeneous flocks. Personally, I could associate to the exegesis. ειδήσεισ ελλάδα τώρα