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Facelift for medieval mosque

It might not be fully restored, as befits a monument with such a history behind it, but at least a start has been made. One of the most important buildings in Thessaloniki, the Hamza Bey Camii, otherwise known as Alkazar, at the crossroads of Egnatia and Venizelou streets, stood derelict for a long time, bearing all the signs of damp and neglect. But the 15th century mosque is finally to get state attention in the form of restoration works, following a decision by the Central Archaeological Council at a January 11 meeting. The general state of dilapidation, to the point of collapse in some sections, and the peculiarities of the project mean the work will be done in stages. The building, listed for preservation by a presidential decree dated May 25, 1926, has belonged to the Red Cross since it was donated to the agency in 1977 by its then-owner Omiros Pizanis. The operation to save it will begin from its facade, which has been damaged by uses unsuitable to the nature of the building, botched building interventions, earthquakes, the lack of maintenance and simple age. Buttresses to shore up the building, put into place after the earthquake in 1978, are still there today, without there having been any works to stabilize and restore the old mosque. Billboards and broken windows, together with a succession of alterations in order to house numerous stores, contribute to the building’s general air of dereliction. Inside, the building has gone to rack and ruin, with its former lessees leaving behind rubbish. Only two stores remain. A revamp of the interior will be the next step in restoring Alkazar, a monument that has become a subject at scientific meetings abroad. Problems abound: Because the monument belonged to the Red Cross, of the two remaining lessees, a former cinema owner is asking for the auditorium by right of usufruct, as was carefully pointed out to the Central Archaeological Council (KAS). For its part, the Culture Ministry is responsible for preserving the building – although it is not the owner – due to the law on archaeological sites. The decision by KAS to undertake restoration work was unanimous. Though the need to restore the building has been clear for some years now, sporadic attempts by the Ninth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities (EBA), since 1983, have always met with stumbling blocks. Hence the urgent need for an immediate start to the project. From 1994 to 2003, cracks in the building were closely monitored by engineers, but despite assurances that there was no cause for alarm, documents speak of parts that are near collapse. History The location of the building is no accident. As Haralambos Bakirtzis, of the EBA, pointed out, «It lies on one of the central arterial routes in the city and next to the caravansary (an inn, usually with a large courtyard, that accommodated trading caravans).» It was built in the 15th century, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. According to the inscription which has been preserved, and which was brought to the attention of KAS by Maria Fountoukou (of the directorate for the restoration of Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments), it was constructed between 1467 and 1468 and is regarded as one of the most important examples of provincial Ottoman architecture. The original mosque had a dome 14.15 by 14.20 meters, and was 17 meters high. At the end of the 16th century, this was altered with the addition of two, rectangular areas on the southern and northern sides, while the western side gained a stoa, with an irregular, trapezoid facade describing a large atrium. The imposing building, 30 by 40 meters across, lies diagonal to the Via Egnatia. In 1620, repairs were carried out on damage caused by an earthquake, while in 1917, it was damaged again by the great fire that swept Thessaloniki. The minarets were demolished, together with others in the city, in 1925, while the atrium was turned into the Alkazar cinema at the beginning of the 20th century. The central place of worship and other areas housed stores.