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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"There is no long-term plan to conserve the mosaics that still survive," says art historian Teteriatnikov, who adds that a more coordinated effort is needed to protect the structure from earthquakes. "Hagia Sophia is uniquely vulnerable," says architectural engineer Stephen Kelley, "because, in an earthquake, unless a building acts as a single tightly connected unit, its parts will work against each other." The structure, he adds, comprises "additions and alterations with many natural breaks in the construction. We just don't know how stable [it] is."

"At this point, we don't even know how much consolidation and restoration the building needs, much less how much it would cost," says Verkin Arioba, founder of the Historical Heritage Protection Foundation of Turkey, which has called for an international campaign to save the monument. "How do we approach it? How should the work be prioritized? First we need to assess how much damage has been done to the building. Then we'll at least know what must be done."

Meanwhile, Hagia Sophia continues its slow slide toward decay. "We have to rediscover Hagia Sophia," said Zeynep Ahunbay, as we left the gloom of the antechamber and re-entered the nave. I watched a trapped dove swoop down through ancient vaults and colonnades, then up again toward the canopy of shimmering gold mosaic, its wings beating urgently, like the lost soul of bygone Byzantines. "It is a huge and complicated building," she said. "It has to be studied the way you study old embroidery, stitch by stitch."

Writer Fergus M. Bordewich frequently covers history and culture.
Photographer Lynsey Addario is based in Istanbul.


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