So far, the recent reconversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque has resulted in no significant physical damage to the building. It seems that the only visual change is the bluish duck-green carpet, but of course even that changes the atmosphere completely. Before the recent repurposing, the building already possessed elements of its mosque period that lasted for about five centuries, such as the mihrab, the chandeliers and the giant Islamic scripts.
To me, the true beauty of the building lied in its hybrid existence, baring layers upon layers of historical periods, each engraving its mark in the history of Istanbul, all culminating to a masterly monument in the body of Hagia Sophia.
When watching the first mass prayer live broadcasted on TV, I constantly found myself looking at the angels on the pendentives carrying one of the most divine domes ever built in history, especially the hexapterygon, the six-winged angel on the north-east side.
The angel was discovered by Fossati brothers while working on the building in mid-nineteenth century, then architects in charge of the restoration under the order of Sultan Abdulmecid I. The Fossatis revealed the mosaics hidden under a layer of thin plaster, restored and recovered so as to protect from deterioration, only to be revealed again in later restorations. The angels are like guardians of the building to me, if they are veiled, their spiritual power, together with that the Islamic scripts hung on four pillars, will be gone.
Hagia Sophia has a long and complicated history, presenting a very complicating case for historians and restorers with its long history both as a church and a mosque, and even this dual existence has its own complexities with multiple periods; it possesses accumulated layers of different periods, equally important and significant for their time. I like to draw comparisons between historical monuments and cuisines, and I find that amusing, and inevitable as my original profession before food writing is architectural conservation of historic monuments.
Years ago, on the occasion of the 4th International Byzantium symposium held by Anamed in Istanbul, I wrote these words:
“Claiming the nationality of certain foods is an inevitable act of patriotism, especially so if the countries in the debate were one part of one entity in their history. That is the case of Greece and Turkey, where the ongoing battle over ownership of baklava, yogurt and a countless number of dishes is crowned by calling Turkish coffee and Turkish delight as Greek coffee and Greek delight. The reality is that both parties have the right to call them their own, as both Turkey and Greece are heirs to the Ottoman heritage and thus to the culinary practices of Ottoman geography. Years of living side-by-side, using the same agricultural lands, cooking with the same ingredients and sharing the same tastes for centuries assure the existence of similar cuisines in both countries. Of course the Ottomans also inherited a lot from the Byzantines, but things get a bit complicated when claiming identity related to Byzantine culture. Greeks naturally jump into this obvious link, while Turks remain reluctant to see themselves in this kinship, as the Byzantines had been their enemy, the one to be conquered, in a way, the other!”
I also actually curated the menu for the gala dinner of the Byzantine symposium, not recreating historic dishes, but instead trying to find the Byzantine within us, naming the menu ‘Byzantine Breeze’. I traced remnants of Byzantine tastes in Istanbul, to my surprise the Byzantine culinary legacy was still very much alive, the tastes were everywhere, on every corner. The conquered ‘other’ of five centuries ago, was still with us, on our table. Hagia Sophia is pretty much like that, akin to Istanbul cuisine, the legacy of its layered history of multiple periods cannot be separated from one another; otherwise its taste balance will be lost.
Coming back to protecting the building, the ultimate threat to the building might be a possible major earthquake, a sooner or later expected disaster. Otherwise Hagia Sophia will endure winds of change and stand strong as a monument, regardless of its use. But when we consider its use, it must be noted that whatever the content of its function, the monument should not be open to the visit without any control.
I honestly fear that the with the re-conquest psyche of crowds swarming to the building can do physical harm, not to mention to the total loss of the ‘Holy Wisdom’ atmosphere the monument. Today, the selfie-centric masses (a strange paradoxical mix of accidental tourists, Islamists, and the curious), the spiritual identity that a Sultanate mosque must bear is not there at all.
We managed to safeguard this unique monument, a worship space of almost 1,500 years for almost one third of its life; I hope that the ‘Site Management Plan’ required for UNESCO listed monuments will be implemented with the care and the precision such a world monument requires. What we need to talk more is the day-to-day management of Hagia Sophia, and how to preserve both its physical and spiritual values, respectful of its entire history since 537, so that it remains totally true to its name, the ‘Holy Wisdom’.
Cork of the week: Are all angels innocent? Of course, they all are. But then, isn’t devil categorically an angel? That is true as well. It depends whether you are a believer or not, but we sometimes wish we had an angel nearby. Well, I have a suggestion to make your day angelic with a rosé wine. A delightful marriage of a red and a white grape, 50 percent early harvest Syrah and 50 percent late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, pressed, macerated and fermented together surlie, this ‘Innocent Angel’ is a happy coupling of both grapes, carrying the citrusy, grassy freshness of Sauvignon Blanc and the merry berry fruitiness of Syrah. The first sip will fly you directly to an idle summer afternoon in Provence. One pretty detail, the bottle has a pink-lined glass stopper instead of a cork; glass corks are getting pretty fashionable in Europe, but this is the first of its kind in Turkey. The label features a venomous snake coiled around an apple, reminiscent of the first sin of mankind. That reminds me that we all have both angelic and devilish sides within us, warning that the angelic connotation may not be as innocent as it seems, but the content promises you heaven anyway. So raise your glass to the innocent holy angels of wisdom!