Zeynep Ahunbay led me through the massive cathedral's cavernous nave and shadowy arcades, pointing out its fading splendors. Under the great dome, filtered amber light revealed vaulted arches, galleries and semi-domes, refracted from exquisite mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus as well as long-vanished patriarchs, emperors and saints. Yet the overall impression was one of dingy neglect and piecemeal repair. I gazed up at patches of moisture and peeling paint; bricked-up windows; marble panels, their incised surfaces obscured under layers of grime; and walls covered in mustard-colored paint applied by restorers after golden mosaics had fallen away. The depressing effect was magnified by a tower of cast-iron scaffolding that cluttered the nave, testament to a lagging, intermittent campaign to stabilize the beleaguered monument.
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"For months at a time, you don't see anybody working," said Ahunbay, a professor of architecture at Istanbul Technical University. She had directed a partial restoration of the building's exterior in the late 1990s and is regarded by conservators as its guardian angel. "One year there is a budget, the next year there is none," she said with a sigh. "We need a permanent restoration staff, conservators for the mosaics, frescoes and masonry, and we need to have them continuously at work."
Greeting her with a deferential salute, a workman beckoned us to accompany him through a massive wooden door, half hidden in shadow beneath an overhead gallery. Following the beam of his flashlight, we made our way across a pitch-dark antechamber and up a steep cobblestone ramp littered with fallen masonry and plaster. The incline may have been built to enable the sixth-century builders to cart construction materials to the second-story gallery. "There are problems here too," said Ahunbay, pointing to jagged cracks in the brick vaulting overhead.
Visible for miles across the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, with its giant buttresses and soaring minarets, symbolizes a cultural collision of epic proportions. (The name translates from the Greek as "Sacred Wisdom.") The structure stands not only as a magnificent architectural treasure but also as a complex accretion of myth, symbol and history. The landmark entwines the legacies of medieval Christianity, the Ottoman Empire, resurgent Islam and modern secular Turkey in a kind of Gordian knot, confounding preservationists who want to save it from decay and restore its former glory.
In addition to the obvious challenges—leaks, cracks and neglect—an invisible menace may pose an even greater danger. Istanbul sits squarely atop a geologic fault line. "There most definitely are seismic threats to Hagia Sophia, and they are great," says Stephen J. Kelley, a Chicago-based architect and engineer who consults on Byzantine churches in Turkey, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. "One tremor and the whole thing could come falling down."
"Conservationists are very concerned about Hagia Sophia," says John Stubbs, a vice president of the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which contributed $500,000 and raised another half million in matching funds for urgent repairs during the last decade."It's an unbelievably complex structure. There's the roof, the stonework, marble, mosaics, paintings. We don't even know all that's in play in there. But we do know that it requires ongoing, vigilant attention. Hagia Sophia is an utterly unique building—a key monument in the history of architecture and a key symbol of the city of Constantinople right through to our time."
Constantinople, as Istanbul was known for centuries, owed its importance to the Emperor Constantine, who made it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in A.D. 330. Although an earlier basilica of the same name once stood on the site, today's Hagia Sophia was a creation of the Emperor Justinian, who rose from humble origins to become the greatest of the early rulers of the empire that historians would call Byzantium. During his 38-year reign, from 527 to 565, Justinian labored to bring harmony to the disputatious factions of the Eastern Orthodox Church; organized Roman law into a code that would influence European legal systems down to the present; and set his armies on the march, enlarging the empire until it reached from the Black Sea to Spain. He also erected hundreds of new churches, libraries and public edifices throughout the empire. Hagia Sophia, completed in 537, was his crowning architectural achievement. Until the 15th century, no building incorporated a floor space so vast under one roof. Four acres of golden glass cubes—millions of them—studded the interior to form a glittering canopy overhead, each one set at a subtly different angle to reflect the flicker of candles and oil lamps that illuminated nocturnal ceremonies. Forty thousand pounds of silver encrusted the sanctuary. Columns of purple porphyry and green marble were crowned by capitals so intricately carved that they seemed as fragile as lace. Blocks of marble, imported from as far away as Egypt and Italy, were cut into decorative panels that covered the walls, making the church's entire vast interior appear to swirl and dissolve before one's eyes. And then there is the astonishing dome, curving 110 feet from east to west, soaring 180 feet above the marble floor. The sixth-century historian Procopius marveled that it "does not appear to rest upon a solid foundation, but to cover the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain."
Magnificent as it was, Hagia Sophia contained none of its splendid figurative mosaics at first. Justinian may have acceded to the wishes of his wife, Theodora (who reputedly began her career as an entertainer and prostitute), and others who opposed the veneration of human images—later to become known as "iconoclasts." By the ninth century, those who worshiped such images, the "iconodules," gained ascendancy, commissioning artists to make up for lost time. Medieval pilgrims were awed by the mosaics, ranging from depictions of stylized angels to emperors and empresses, as well as a representation of an all-seeing Christ looming from the dome. Many of these images are lost; those few that remain are unique, says art historian Natalia Teteriatnikov, former curator at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., where a center for Byzantine studies is housed. "They cover almost the entire history of Byzantium, from 537 through the restoration of the icons and on up to imperial portraits from the late 14th century. No other Byzantine monument covers such a span of time."
For more than 900 years, Hagia Sophia was the most important building in the Eastern Christian world: the seat of the Orthodox patriarch, counterpart to Roman Catholicism's pope, as well as the central church of the Byzantine emperors, whose palace stood nearby. "Hagia Sophia summed up everything that was the Orthodox religion," says Roger Crowley, author of 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. "For Greeks, it symbolized the center of their world. Its very structure was a microcosm of heaven, a metaphor for the divine mysteries of Orthodox Christianity." Pilgrims came from across the Eastern Christian world to view its icons, believed to work miracles, and an unmatched collection of sacred relics. Within the cathedral's holdings were artifacts alleged to include pieces of the True Cross; the lance that pierced Christ's side; the ram's horns with which Joshua blew down the walls of Jericho; the olive branch carried by the dove to Noah's ark after the Flood; Christ's tunic; the crown of thorns; and Christ's own blood. "Hagia Sophia," says Crowley, "was the mother church—it symbolized the everlastingness of Constantinople and the Empire."
In the 11th century, the Byzantines suffered the first in a series of devastating defeats at the hands of Turkish armies, who surged westward across Anatolia, steadily whittling away at the empire. The realm was further weakened in 1204 when western European crusaders en route to the Holy Land, overtaken by greed, captured and looted Constantinople. The city never fully recovered.