Scientists: ‘How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?’ 

Scientists: ‘How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?’ 

When I first found myself in Sultanahmet Square in mid 90s as a visitor from London, I had difficulty in finding my orientation. I could not locate north from south, east from west. I could not differentiate between all those old structures, around the ancient Hippodrome.

What was which, their date, their religion, their public function, which was a mosque, a converted church, a public building, a ministry, a private house, a library, a public bath turned into a museum?  It took me some time to learn how to look at each one from a different point of view, trying to imagine their historical context, the people who lived in the period of their prime, their turbulent times, their peaceful times. The one structure I could not put into a specific time or space framework was Hagia Sophia.

To me it looked as if it always stood there at that corner of the old Hippodrome, a huge building with successive upward curves culminating on that unbelievable dome, but at the same time with its feet firmly on the ground. It always gave me the impression that nothing could make that building shake, not the strongest earthquake or the nastiest corrosion in its foundations. After moving to Istanbul, Hagia Sophia became a sort of reference point for me, a reference to the city, to its history, to its geography.

I had the illusion that nothing would be cruel enough to disturb its inner balance which kept it alive for fifteen hundred years or so. But my illusionary certainty came to an abrupt stop one day when a sophisticated tour guide who was walking foreign visitors through the shaded arches of Hagia Sophia, he told me that all his professional life, he wondered how fragile the building is. “It is out of pure luck, that it is still standing, “he told me, explaining how shaky and brittle is the subsoil of the historic peninsula, how much continuous repair and support work has to be done in keeping such a huge structure standing on virtually a “moving sandy ground”.

The seismic nature of Istanbul which sent us a terrible signal in August 1999 was also a terrible signal for the historical peninsula of Istanbul where Hagia Sophia is the oldest historical building. The message is that even the most valuable, unique relic of human civilization can be destroyed forever in a matter of seconds. It is a matter beyond politics or religion or even a human decision.

So, presuming that the widespread speculation is correct that Turkish Council of State decided yesterday that Hagia Sophia should stay as a museum, although we should wait to see the full text of the decision which will be published in 15 days, it may be a chance for us to look again at the open letter that was signed by thousands of scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman culture from all over the world who took a position about the fate of this unique monument. “In our opinion, the central question is not, “Should Hagia Sophia be a museum or a mosque?” The central question is rather, “How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?”

In other words, we draw a distinction between function and stewardship. We are concerned that the ongoing dispute over function hinders the development of a management strategy commensurate to the scale of the challenges: preservation of the historical fabric and continued visibility of the works of art of all periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; responsible management of mass tourism; and protection against the threat of earthquake….

Hagia Sophia is too beautiful a monument and too precious a historical document to serve as a pawn in regional politics. Successive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish governments have protected it against the ravages of time and thus maintained its significance not only for themselves, but also for future generations, including all of us.

It is a matter of vital concern to us as scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture that the current Turkish government continue this tradition of responsible stewardship.” I fully assign to this position. It is for the benefit of all parties concerned

Ariana Ferentinou, Hagia Sophia Museum, Turkey, Byzantine Empire,