Uncovered mosaics at famed Hagia Sophia have art historians anxious to fully restore this national gem

Story and photos by Anthony Savvides

ISTANBUL, Turkey – It began in 1993 – a massive effort to stabilize and restore an architectural gem dating back to the 6th century. But today, a year after the Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared the project finished, there remains concern that work on the Hagia Sophia Museum is still not complete.

“Now, the restoration process has ended, maybe [due to] money problems. There may be some political agendas, too,” said Aslihan Erkman, a professor of art history at Istanbul Technical University who believes that the efforts should have continued.

A recent discovery in the apse, uncovered during the most recent restoration of Hagia Sophia. The angel was found by restoration workers in the summer of 2009.

Before the latest restoration efforts began, a mission to Turkey by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, noted falling plaster, dirty marble facings, decorative paintings damaged by moisture and ill-maintained lead roofing. Progress was clearly made, but not enough, according to some observers.

In 2008, two years before work stopped on the space, Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architecture at Istanbul Technical University, talked of her frustration with the process.

“For months at a time, you don’t see anybody working,” Ahunbay told Smithsonian Magazine in 2008. “One year there is a budget, the next year there is none. We need a permanent restoration staff, conservators for the mosaics, frescoes and masonry, and we need to have them continuously at work.”

That’s one view of the project. Others watching during the nearly two decades of work – and after the scaffolding came down – talked of the somewhat complicated history of the space. Visible for miles across the city, the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of Istanbul’s history as well as its cultural and religious clashes.

The extravagant buttresses, grand dome and four brick minarets, towering toward the sky, have been a prominent feature of the city’s skyline since the 6th century, when it was completed in 537. This historic, grandiose landmark intertwines the legacies of medieval Christianity and Islam, and those of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sophia served as the religious heart and core of the empire. After the Ottoman conquest of the former Byzantine capital, the building was turned into a mosque, which it remained until the early 20th century. In 1931, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, closed Hagia Sophia and secularized it.

The Deesis mosaic, which is located on the mezzanine level of Hagia Sophia. It is one of the most well and fully preserved mosaics in the museum. In the depcition is Christ at the center, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist at either side, bowing their heads.

On Feb. 1, 1935, it reopened as a museum to be enjoyed by Christians and Muslims alike. The Ministry focused its work largely on stabilizing the landmark in anticipation of an earthquake. Istanbul is built atop the North Anatolian Fault on the boundary between the African and Eurasian plates. That has caused several deadly earthquakes throughout the city’s history, and another strong earthquake is expected at some point over the next 20 years.

“Turkey is a seismically active zone. We need to stay concerned about the long-term stability of the Hagia Sophia,” said Stephen J. Kelley, a Chicago-based architect and engineer who gives consultations to Byzantine churches in Turkey, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. “However, seismic strengthening of buildings is intrusive, and whatever measures are recommended need to be carefully considered to assure that no damage is done. Though the building has stood now for almost 700 years without a major mishap in an area of the world where major earthquakes occur about every century, this would give no indication of how this mammoth edifice would react in the next earthquake.  So its seismic strengthening is a primary consideration.”

As work continued to strengthen the building, several previously unseen mosaics were discovered beneath the white plaster and metal mask that had covered them since the reign of the Ottoman Empire. These mosaics were from the Byzantine era, when the building was a church.

That pleased Henrik Engelschiom, 49, a Norwegian tourist who recently returned to Istanbul 20 years after his first visit. “There shouldn’t be any resistance to [go back to] Byzantine culture. It was Christian before it was a mosque,” said Engelschiom.

One of the mosaics, visible after the scaffolding came down, revealed a seraphim angel on one of the four corners of the main dome. This was discovered late in 2009.

“It is the first time that the angel is being revealed,” Ahmet Emre Bilgili, head of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, told the Associated Press at the time, adding that the mosaic angel had been covered with metal and plaster. “It is very well preserved.”

Some tourists, many of whom participate in religious pilgrimages to the city, hope that restoration efforts will continue in the near future. Some experts, however, are doubtful.

Bishop Savas Zembillas, the director of the Office of Church, Society and Culture at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said in a phone interview that he wishes the government would continue working to restore Hagia Sophia to its pre-mosque, Byzantine state. He believes it will not, though.

“This is an enormously expensive project; they put up 20 levels of scaffolds to reach up to the dome. The main purpose of the restoration process was to brace the building against seismic dangers,” said Bishop Zembillas. “I don’t foresee the Ministry of Culture saying, ‘we’re going to restore it to its former [Byzantine] state.’”

During a recent walk-through, it was clear that many passageways and walls within the Hagia Sophia are still covered in the white plaster and metal mask that was applied over the mosaics after the Ottoman conquest of the city. Should another restoration occur, many believe, and hope, that further mosaic icons will be found hidden beneath.

“[The mosaics] bring us closer to our cultural heritage,” said Bishop Zembillas. “Mosaics began on floors; they functioned like a Turkish or Persian rug would now. They were moved onto the walls to say that our Lord deserves nothing but the best, something that would last. They bring us into closer contact with the past that was cut off from us.”

While many tourists and Christians all over the world are hopeful, the Ministry’s efforts seem to be less concerned with artistic restoration of the majestic structure to its Byzantine glory, uncovering the mosaics, say many observers.

“All the restoration seems to be over, now,” said Erkham, the art history professor. “They removed all of the scaffolds. Hagia Sophia is very important and we don’t want to lose it. [But] the restoration is far from over.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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