06 July 2012

In search of the surviving mosques of Rethymnon

The minaret of the Valide Sultana Mosque in Rethymnon, seen from the gardens of Pepi Studios in Tsouderon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

From the balcony behind my rooms at the Pepi Studios in Rethymnon, there is a clear view across the rooftops to the minaret of the Valide Sultana Mosque, a reminder of the Ottoman past of this small city and a reminder too of the once-strong presence of Muslims in Crete.

But there is no call to prayer from the minaret this Friday or from any of the minarets that remain in Rethymnon, for the only Muslims in the city today are visitors or tourists.

Rethymnon once had a large Muslim population, and even in 1900, three years after the island had become an autonomous state in 1897, the census returns show the town had a population of 5,409 Muslims and 2,845 Christians.

Perhaps the most famous Muslim from Rethymnon was the Valide Sultana or Queen Mother Emetullah Rabia Gulnus Sultan, who was born a Christian in the town, the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest.

Emetullah Rabia Gulnus Sultan (1642-1715) was the wife of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV and Valide Sultan to their sons Mustafa II and Ahmed III (1695-1715). She was born Evmania Voria in 1642 in Rethymnon, and grew up here when it was still part of the Venetian empire.

When Rethymnon fell to the Turks, she was taken captive and in 1646 she was sent as a slave to Constantinople. There she was given a Turkish and Muslim education in the harem department of Topkapi, where she soon caught the eye of Sultan Mehmed IV.

Although there are no Turkish Muslims living in Rethymnon today, the town still has many Turkish antiquities, including fountains, Ottoman balconies, and the substantial remains of eight mosques – seven in the town and an eighth mosque on the Fortezza – are reminders of two and a half centuries of Turkish occupation.

These eight mosques in Rethymnon are:

● the Kucuk Haci Ibrahim Aga Mosque (the Loggia);
● the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque (originally Saint Barbara’s Church);
● the Nerantze Mosque (Church of Santa Maria);
● the Ibrahim Mosque (the Church of Santa Sophia);
● the Angebut Ahmed Pasha Mosque (the Church of Our Lady of the Angels);
● the Veli Pasha Mosque (Church of Saint Onophrio);
● the Porta Grande or Valide Sultana Mosque;
● the Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque (the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas) on the Fortezza.

A ninth mosque once stood on the corner of Koronaíou Street and Riga Feraíou Street, but this was badly damaged by bombing in 1941 during World War II and was demolished.

Five of these former mosques can still be visited today: the Loggia, the Nerantzes Mosque, the Ibrahim Mosque, the Angebut Ahmed Pasha Mosque and the Veli Pasha Mosque. The first is used as a museum shop, the second as music conservatory, the third has recently been refurbished stylishly, and hosts concerts and exhibitions, the fourth is open as the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, while the fifth has been rescued and restored in recent years and houses the Rethymnon Paleontological Museum.

1, The Kucuk Haci Ibrahim Aga Mosque (the Loggia):

The Loggia was the Kucuk Haci Ibrahim Aga Mosque during the Turkish era (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Around the corner from Tsouderon Street, the Loggia of Rethymnon, on the corner of Arkadiou Street and Paleologou Street, was built in the 16th century and was designed by the famous Venetian architect Michel Sanmicheli. This was the principal building in the social and business life of Venetian Rethymnon and the meeting place for the city nobles to discuss politics and economics.

The Loggia has a square layout and arches on three sides. The south wall is not vaulted, but the other three vaulted walls have three semi-circular arches, the central arch in each wall providing an entrance to the building. Originally, it was open to the air. But a timber roof was added later.

During the Turkish era, the loggia became a mosque, dedicated by Kucuk Haci Ibrahim Aga in 1656. A minaret was built on the north side of the mosque, and an inscription was placed on the fountain at the foot of the minaret that included a prayer: “May this corner of Paradise be amply blessed by God and may its founder be deemed worthy of a place in Paradise.”

After the Turks left, the mosque closed, the minaret fell into ruins, and the remains of the minaret were demolished in 1930.

For 40 years, the Loggia housed Rethymnon’s archaeological museum. Restoration work was carried out in the mid-1990s, the archaeological museum was moved to a building beside the Fortezza and since then the Loggia has housed the Archaeological Museum shop, selling archaeological art copies and reproductions.

2, The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque (Church of Saint Barbara):

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque at the corner of Arkadíou Street and Viktoras Ougo Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the other end of Arkadíou Street, at the corner of Viktoras Ougo (Victor Hugo) Street, the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque, with its domes and part of its ruined minaret stands close to Plateia Iróon or Heroes’ Square, once a chaotic traffic roundabout but now a pleasant paved square that marks the east end of the old town.

The former mosque was built on the site of a Venetian-era monastery dedicated to Saint Barbara, and was named after an Ottoman admiral and statesman who commanded the Ottoman naval forces at the capture of Rethymnon in 1645.

The mausoleum of the founder of the mosque was partly destroyed during building work some years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After the Turks captured Rethymnon, Saint Barbara’s Monastery was turned into a mosque. The central building has a typical square floor plan with a mihrab pointing towards Mecca. Beside the mosque and the stump of the minaret is a domed, three-vault mausoleum that may have been the tomb of the founder of the mosque, but it was partly destroyed during building work on Viktoras Ougo Street many years ago.

The mosque complex includes a vaulted fountain – with a tasteless modern metal tap and cement basin – a courtyard and decorated columns that once stood over Turkish graves.

The mosque is named after Kara Musa Pasha, who was born in Vikoča near Foča, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sultan Ibrahim I named him as the Grand Vizier in 1647 after the execution his predecessor. But Kara Musa Pasha was then at sea, taking part in the Ottoman war to capture Crete. The sultan also appointed him the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, but the imperial seal for his promotion was still on its way to him when he died on 21 September 1647 in front of the castle of Iraklion.

Former Turkish gravestones in the grounds of the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque and its grounds now house the Inspectorate of Byzantine Antiquities.

3, The Nerantze Mosque (Church of Santa Maria):

The Nerantze Mosque or Gazi Hussein Mosque with its domes and minaret (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Around another corner from my hotel, the Nerantze Mosque or Gazi Hussein Mosque, is on the corner of Ethnikis Antistaseos and Vernardou streets, and faces onto what was once the grand Venetian piazza of the old city.

In Venetian times, this was the Church of Santa Maria, and in the style of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, it faced a large open piazza that included a clock tower, fountains and public buildings.

The former church doorway in the Nerantze Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Santa Maria was originally built in the Venetian period as the church of an Augustinian Priory. Only the east and north side of the original building survive.

The east side has round windows, while the elaborate entrance on the north side, which provides a glimpse of the original splendour of the church, has two tall narrow windows, similar to those in the nearby Saint Francis Church, and a monumental doorway whose design may have been inspired by Roman triumphal arches. The wide entrance is flanked by a pair of columns with Corinthian capitals.

Inside the Nerantze Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Inside the church, the floor plan is square. During the Turkish era, the original peaked and tiled Venetian roof was replaced by three small domes.

The Corpus Christi Chapel, beside the Nerantze Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

To the west of the church, the Corpus Christi Chapel, with a Renaissance doorway, was built at the expense of the sisters Anna and Maria Muazzo.

When the town fell to the Turks in 1657, the church was converted into a mosque by Gazi Huseyin Pasha, and three domes were added to the building although it retained its original elaborate entrance. At the same time, the Chapel of Corpus Christi to the west of the church was turned into a library and a madrassa or Islamic religious school.

The mosque became the largest in Rethymnon, and in 1890, shortly before Crete became an autonomous state, work began there on building the tallest minaret in Rethymnon. The minaret was designed by a local engineer, Geórgios Daskalákis, complete with two balconies for the call to prayer.

The Turkish elders wanted to build the tallest minaret in the east. Daskalákis spent three months travelling through Turkey before submitting three different designs. At times, the Quran was read simultaneously from each balcony.

After the Turks left Crete, the mosque was reconsecrated as a church in 1925 with a dedication to Saint Nicholas. However, it was seldom if ever used as a church, and for many years housed a Music School. Now known as the Odeio, it is used for lectures, concerts and theatre performances, and is open to the public. I first visited climbed he minaret in 1988 for panoramic views across Rethymnon. But the minaret has been closed for restoration in recent years and is cladded in scaffolding.

The single-dome building beside the Nerantze Mosque may have been the mausoleum of an important Turkish official (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A nearby small building with an unusual dome was probably the mausoleum of an important Turkish official.

4, The Ibrahim Mosque (Church of Santa Sophia):

The Church of Santa Sophia or the Ibrahim Mosque was recently rescued from oblivion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The building on the corner at the western end of Koronaíou Street, on the corner with Smyrnis Street and opposite two Turkish fountains, once had a shop-front so modest that it was difficult to imagine that the premises inside had been a mosque and before that an Orthodox Church.

It may be that every major Greek city had a church dedicated to Aghia Sophia, the Holy Spirit as the Holy Wisdom of God. The best known, perhaps, are in Constantinople and Thessaloniki. This too was once a church of splendour, built by a skilled team of builders. Inside, this is a twin-aisled building, with two pointed vaults resting on a semi-circular arch.

After Rethymnon was captured by the Turks, the church was converted into a mosque by a Janissary, Yahya Ibrahim (John Abraham), and the mosque once had a minaret.

The windows were designed to allow passers-by to glimpse people inside at prayer. The south aisle belonged to the Qadiri Sufi order, whose rites included joining hands and dancing in a circle until they fell in exhaustion.

For many years this was a humble carpenter’s workshop, but it has been restored and renovated in recent years, and has returned to using the name Aghia Sophia Church. It has been closed all this week, but last month (June 2012) the former church and mosque hosted a Celtic and Orchestral Harp Concert by Eleni Tsaousaki and an exhibition of original maps and prints of Rethymnon, Crete and the region.

5, The Angebut Ahmed Pasha Mosque (Church of Our Lady of the Angels):

The Church of Our Lady of the Angels was the Angebut Ahmed Pasha Mosque for over 200 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Two of the main streets of the old town of Rethymnon are Nikifórou Foká Street and Arampatzoglou (Thessaloníkis) Street. In the closing days of Venetian rule, a three-aisled church was built by the Dominican friars on the corner where these streets meet and it was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.

The Christians of Rethymnon continued to use the church in the immediate aftermath of the Turkish conquest of Crete. Then one day, the Ottoman conqueror, Huseyin Pasha, rode through the streets and became enraged when he came across the congregation spilling out of the church.

He ordered that the church should be converted into a mosque and renamed, although the parishioners were given the use of a neighbouring, smaller church. The new mosque was named after Huseyin Pasha’s successor, Angebut Ahmed Pasha, and built with the support of a special edict from the Sultan.

A minaret was built beside the former north aisle, but the top soon fell to the ground and the minaret was known to later generations as Koutsotroúlis, “the Old Stump.”

After two and a half centuries as a mosque, local Christians took advantage of the declining fortunes of the town’s Muslims, and on the night of 3 and 4 April 1917 they staged the miraculous “discovery” of an icon of the Virgin Mary on the steps of the minaret.

The shrine of the icon inside the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The mosque was turned back into a church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels – to distinguish it from the cathedral, “Great Saint Mary’s.” A shrine of the icon was set up in the restored church and a new belfry was added in 1920. Sadly, the original Renaissance doorway was demolished at the same time.

6, The Veli Pasha Mosque (Church of Saint Onophrio):

The Veli Pasha Mosque or Mastaba Mosque ... its gardens were once described as “an earthly paradise in the desert of Arabia” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Veli Pasha Mosque or Mastaba Mosque is on Hatzimihali Yianari Street, a little south of the former long-distance bus station, in a bustling part of the suburbs of Rethymnon. It is said the mosque was built on top of the Venetian Church of Saint Onophrio. The remains of the Turkish monastery that surrounded it can still be seen, and the mosque also housed a madrasah.

The mosque has some structurally unique features, including its nine small domes and a Tuscan-style doorway with a frieze with a vine carved in relief. The mosque has a square floor plan and an arched antechamber. The short, stumpy minaret, which was built in 1789, is the oldest in Rethymnon. It has two string courses, a circular gallery and a truncated, pyramidal roof.

The surviving cells of the tekke at the Veli Pasha Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The mosque had a Sufi tekke or monastery beside it and a line of 12 cells survives. They once shared a common entrance and have been rescued and restored in recent years.

The monastery garden was once planted with trees and flowers so abundant that a Turkish writer in the late 17th century described it as “an earthly paradise in the desert of Arabia.” Following recent restoration work, the grounds have been turned into a botanic garden with endemic Cretan plants, trees and bushes.

The mosque, which has been renovated over many years, now houses the Rethymnon Paleontological Museum, sponsored by the Goulandris Museum of Natural History in Athens. The exhibits include representations of dwarf Cretan elephants, dwarf hippopotamuses and polymorphous deer, the first inhabitants of Crete.

7, The Porta Grande or Valide Sultana Mosque:

The minaret of the Valide Sultana Mosque is all that is visible to the public (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Porta Grande or Valide Sultana Mosque on Tombázi Street, which I can see from the balcony behind my hotel rooms, stands near the Guora Gate, the main gate into the Venetian city, built by Jacopo Guoro, the Governor or Rettore of Rethymnon in 1566-1588.

The mosque was built in 1670 next to the Great Gate and was later named after the Valide Sultana Kosem, the mother of the Sultan Ibrahim Han. Kösem Sultan (1589-1651), also known as Mâh-Peyker Sultan, was one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history, and the favourite consort and wife of Sultan Ahmed I (1603–1617). She influenced the course of the Ottoman empire through Sultan Ahmed, then through her sons Murad IV (1623–1640) and Ibrahim I (‘the Mad’, 1640–48) and finally through her grandson Mehmed IV (1648–1687). She was Valide Sultana or Queen Mother from 1623 to 1651, when Murad IV, Ibrahim I and Mehmed IV reigned as sultans. She was official regent twice and was one of only two women to have been regents of the Ottoman Empire.

Kösem was of Greek birth, born Anastasia, the daughter of a priest on the island of Tinos. After her capture, he name was changed to to Mahpeyker (“Moon-Shaped”). She sent to Constantinople and at the age of 15 she was sold into the harem of Sultan Ahmed I, who changed her name to Kösem.

The Porta Grande or Guora Gate was the main gate into the Venetian walled city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The mosque named after her is crowned with two large domes. Inside, the niche with the mihrab pointing towards Mecca is contained within a Renaissance door that was probably moved here from a Venetian building. It is flanked by two columns resting on upturned Corinthian capitals from another doorway. The semicircular arch has an Arabic inscription: “Reveal to all that which is within here, from this pulpit.”

The minaret was built in 1878 and has an inscription in Arabic extolling the virtues of the builder and craftsmen. The mosque belongs to the Archaeological Services and was used for several years for storage. Unfortunately, it is still not open to the public, and the minaret is all that is visible to the curious visitor.

8, The Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque (the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas):

The dome of the Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque dominates the Fortezza, but only a stump remains of the former minaret (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Above the old town, the Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque stands in the middle of the Venetian Fortezza, next to the former residence of the Venetian Rettore or Governor. This mosque was originally the Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, built in the 1580s. A small chapel near the mosque was dedicated to Agios Theodoros Trichinas in 1899, and a modern church dedicated to Saint Catherine was built beside the mosque.

When Rethymnon was captured by the Turks in 1646, the cathedral on the Fortezza was converted into an Ottoman mosque by the Sultan Ibrahim Han and was given his name.

This is a well-constructed, solid square building with an impressive dome that is 11 metres in diameter. Inside, the mihrab or prayer niche in the centre of the south-eastern wall faces towards Mecca. It is two metres high, with embossed decorations in the shape of stalactites and cylindrical rosettes, with a simple Quranic text in Arabic script at the top.

The interior of the mosque is an eloquent statement of majestic simplicity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The inside of the dome has continuous concentric circles of natural, squared stones in white, yellow, light brown and dark brown colours, diminishing in size as they approach the keystone of the roof so that the whole interior is designed to give a glimpse of the omnipotence of God.

On the west side, by the main entrance, the stump of the minaret and a few steps are all that remain of a once tall minaret from which the call to prayer could be heard five times a day across the whole city.

For many years, the mosque was closed to the public except for some musical exhibitions. But it was restored in recent years at a cost of almost €186,000 and it is possible once more to appreciate the simple majesty of part of Rethymnon’s Islamic and architectural heritage.

The corner of Koronaíou Street and Riga Feraíou Street, where another mosque stood until World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)


Anonymous said...

I will be visiting Crete in March. I'm particularly interested in the Islamic past of Greece, having recently visited Thessaloniki. A really fascinating piece, which I'll be using as my 'guidebook' when I get to visit. Many thanks.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you. I hope you enjoy Rethymnon.