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Saving a Fabled Sanctuary Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Sengül Aydingün and Mark Rose

Conservators struggle to restore Justinian's Great Church in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century church built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (Mark Rose)

From the top of the scaffolding in the immense dome, rising 185 feet above the marble floor, one sees the golden mosaics up close, and the beautiful nineteenth-century calligraphy spelling out a passage from the Koran, beginning: "The inherent light illuminates earth and sky." This is Hagia Sophia, for over nine centuries the principal church of the Byzantine Empire, and for nearly five centuries the principal Ottoman mosque. Gazing down to the floor and then up, the eye catches walls veneered with colored marble, massive monolithic columns of green and purple stone, and then the mosaics: angels, the Archangel Gabriel, and the infant Jesus on the lap of the Virgin Mary in the apse. Above all is the golden dome, which a sixth-century poet described as "formed of gilded tesserae set together, from which pour golden rays in an abundant stream striking men's eyes with irresistible force."

Hagia Sophia's mosaics were also admired by Sultan Abdülmecid in the nineteenth century. He gazed for a long time at the mosaics of Jesus and Mary, then commented, "They are all very beautiful, but for the time it is not appropriate to leave them visible. Clean them and cover them over again carefully, so that they may survive until they are revealed to view in the future." Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, the sultan's Swiss architects, completed the necessary structural repairs to the building, and by 1849 Hagia Sophia's exquisite mosaics were covered by fresh plaster painted with Gaspare's hybrid Ottoman-Byzantine motifs.

The sultan's order was in keeping with the sensibilities of his times, but times change. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic, signed an order making a museum of Hagia Sophia, which had served as a mosque for nearly five centuries. It was Atatürk's belief that the mosaics should be revealed, and the work was entrusted to Thomas Whittemore and the Byzantine Institute of America, which he directed. In a letter to his former teacher, Henri Matisse, Whittemore wrote, "My Dear Master, the fourth year of my work uncovering and cleaning the mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is now over. Peerless examples of Byzantine art have been preserved in this great church for a thousand years."

[image] Scaffolding can be seen here where the masonry is being inspected. (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE]

Today, conservators on the scaffolding are busily examining the tesserae, the small cubes making up the mosaic, each one cut from a layer of glass on which leaves of gold or silver were placed, covered by a thin piece of clear glass, then fused together in a kiln. They are checking each of the millions of tesserae, cleaning and consolidating them. This, the most recent of many efforts to restore and preserve Hagia Sophia, began in 1992. According to Seracettin Sahin, director of the Hagia Sophia Museum, the scaffolding will be moved to the dome's southeast quarter next year, and by the end of 2004, work there will be completed.

What are the prospects for Hagia Sophia as it approaches its first century as a museum open to all? The current work is encouraging, but it is far from comprehensive. Future restoration, no less essential than that of the dome, will have to face competing claims for funding, and priorities may shift with political and bureaucratic changes. William Emerson, dean of MIT's School of Architecture, and Robert Van Nice, who spent many years studying and documenting Hagia Sophia, wrote in the conclusion of their 1951 articles about it in ARCHAEOLOGY that "this unique architectural achievement of the sixth century may well, with careful and continuous maintenance, stand for another fourteen hundred years." Half a century later, those words still apply, both as a caution that the preservation of this monument must be an ongoing effort and as an optimistic prediction that, if it is cared for, it will not fall.

Sengül Aydingün, an art historian and archaeologist based in Istanbul, is a former curator at the Hagia Sophia Museum. Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY The authors wish to thank Seracettin Sahin, director of the Hagia Sophia Museum, for his generous assistance.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America