A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia

In Istanbul, secularists and fundamentalists clash over restoring the nearly 1,500 year-old structure

The basillica and its storied mosaics constitute a matchless and threatened treasure. Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank calls it a "sacred mountain of a building, vast and elemental." (Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Corbis)
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Hagia Sophia, of course, is in no danger of being knocked down in the middle of the night. It is almost universally regarded as the nation's "Taj Mahal," as one conservator put it. But the monument's fate remains hostage to the roiling political and religious currents of present-day Turkey. "The building has always been treated in a symbolic way—by Christians, Muslims, and by Ataturk and his secular followers," says Ousterhout. "Each group looks at Hagia Sophia and sees a totally different building." Under Turkish laws dating from the 1930s, public prayer is prohibited in the museum. Nevertheless, religious extremists are bent on reclaiming it for their respective faiths, while other Turks remain equally determined to retain it as a national symbol of a proud—and secular—civilization.

Hagia Sophia has also become a potent symbol for Greeks and Greek-Americans. In June 2007, Chris Spirou, president of the Free Agia Sophia Council of America, a U.S.-based advocacy group whose Web site features photographs depicting the building with its minarets erased, testified in Washington, D. C. at hearings sponsored by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that the one-time cathedral had been "taken prisoner" by the Turks; he called for it to be restored as the "Holy House of Prayer for all Christians of the world and the Basilica of Orthodoxy that it was before the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks." Spirou then asserted, in terms usually reserved for the world's outlaw regimes, that "Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest testimony to the ruthlessness, the insensitivity and the barbaric behavior of rulers and conquerors towards human beings and their rights." Such rhetoric fuels anxiety among some Turkish Muslims that Western concern for Hagia Sophia reflects a hidden plan to restore it to Christianity.

At the same time, Turkish Islamists demand the reconsecration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, a position once espoused by Turkey's current prime minister, 54-year-old Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, as a rising politician in the 1990s, asserted that "Ayasofya should be opened to Muslim prayers." (Erdogan frightened secularists even more at the time by declaring his support for introduction of Islamic law, announcing that "For us, democracy is a means to an end.") Erdogan went on to become mayor of Istanbul and to win election as prime minister in 2003. The effect of increased religiosity is evident in the streets of Istanbul, where women wearing head scarfs and ankle-length dresses are far more common than they were only a few years ago.

As prime minister, Erdogan, re-elected with a large majority in July 2007, shed his earlier rhetoric and has pursued a moderate and conciliatory course, rejecting political Islam, reaffirming Turkey's desire to join the European Union and maintaining—however tenuously—a military alliance with the United States. "Erdogan-type Islamists are resolved not to challenge through word or deed the basic premises of the secular democratic state that Turkey wants to institutionalize," says Metin Heper, a political scientist at Bilkent University in Ankara. Although Erdogan has not publicly repudiated his stance on reopening Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayer, he has scrupulously enforced existing law against it.

To more ideological Islamists, Hagia Sophia proclaims Islam's promise of ultimate triumph over Christianity. In November 2006, a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Hagia Sophia prompted an outpouring of sectarian rage. The pope intended this as a gesture of goodwill, having previously antagonized Muslims by a speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor's characterization of Islam as a violent religion. But tens of thousands of protesters, who believed that he was arriving to stake a Christian claim to Hagia Sophia, jammed surrounding streets and squares in the days before his arrival, beating drums and chanting "Constantinople is forever Islamic" and "Let the chains break and Ayasofya open." Hundreds of women wearing head coverings brandished a petition that they claimed contained one million signatures demanding the reconversion of Hagia Sophia. Thirty-nine male protesters were arrested by police for staging a pray-in inside the museum. When the pope finally arrived at Hagia Sophia, traveling along streets lined with police and riding in an armored car rather than his open popemobile, he refrained from even making the sign of the cross. In the museum's guest book, he inscribed only the cautiously ecumenical phrase, "God should illuminate us and help us find the path of love and peace." (There still has been no real rapprochement between the Vatican and Turkish Islam.)

For secular Turks, also, Hagia Sophia retains power as a symbol of Turkish nationalism and Ataturk's embattled cultural legacy. Many are dismayed by the possibility of Islamic radicals taking over the building. "Taking Ayasofya back into a mosque is totally out of the question!" says Istar Gozaydin, a secularist scholar and expert on political Islam. "It is a symbol of our secular republic. It is not just a mosque, but part of the world's heritage."

As a symbol, its future would seem to be caught in an ideological no man's land, where any change in status quo threatens to upset the delicate balance of mistrust. "Hagia Sophia is a pawn in the game of intrigue between the secular and religious parties," says Ousterhout. "There's an alarmist response on both sides. They always assume the worst of each other. Secularists fear that religious groups are part of a conspiracy funded from Saudi Arabia, while religious people fear that the secularists want to take their mosques away from them." The situation is exacerbated by bitter battles over the larger role of Islam in political life and the right of women who wear Islamic head scarfs to attend schools and universities. "Neither side is willing to negotiate," says Ousterhout. "There's a visceral mistrust on both sides. Meanwhile, scholars fear offending either group, getting in trouble and losing their jobs. All this makes it harder and harder to work on Byzantine sites." Several attempts to finance large-scale restoration with funds from abroad have been stymied by suspicion of foreigners, a problem that has been made worse by the war in Iraq, fiercely opposed by a large majority of Turks.

Astonishingly—although many scholars have studied Hagia Sophia over the years—the building has never been completely documented. New discoveries may yet be made. In the 1990s, during emergency repairs on the dome, workers uncovered graffiti that had been scrawled by tenth-century repairmen, imploring God for protection as they worked from scaffolds 150 feet above the floor. "Kyrie, voithi to sou doulo, Gregorio," ran a typical one—"Lord, help your servant, Gregorius." Says Ousterhout, "You can imagine how scared they might have been up there."

Daunting work must be done for Hagia Sophia to survive for future centuries. "This is the premier monument of Byzantine civilization," says Ousterhout. "Old buildings like Hagia Sophia are ignored until there's an emergency. They're put back together and then forgotten about until the next emergency. Meanwhile, there is a continual deterioration."

Huge sections of ceiling are peeling and flaking, stained by water seepage and discolored by age and uneven exposure to light. Acres of stucco must be replaced. Windows must be repaired, new glass installed, warped frames replaced. Hundreds of marble panels, now grime-encrusted, must be cleaned. Irreplaceable mosaics must somehow be restored and protected.


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