Standing outside the Lala Mustafa Paşa Mosque in Famagusta, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dissonance. The Lala Mustafa Paşa Mosque was originally Saint Nicholas’s Cathedral, built in the fourteenth century by the Lusignans. The call to prayer blasted from the mosque’s single minaret, which sticks out from the building’s Gothic roof. There was something so bizarre about hearing Allahu-akhbar coming from a cathedral. Inside, though, I just felt a sense of calm – the Arabic calligraphy blended perfectly with the flying buttresses and stained glass windows.
A student told me he felt really uncomfortable seeing this building – which looks like a Catholic church – used as a Muslim religious space. Even if we overlook the fact that Christians have converted all kinds of places of worship into churches, I don’t feel the same frustration. There’s a strangeness and a beauty to the mixing of religious symbols. People move; communities change; empires fall. This doesn’t always happen under the cheeriest circumstances, of course. But it is a rather pessimistic (and draining) world view to only see the repurposing of religious spaces as an insult to groups who previously worshiped there. Adding a minaret is, arguably, more respectful than if the Ottomans had torn down the cathedral entirely and built a mosque according to Anatolian architectural principles.