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Times have changed. Turkey aspires to join the European Union. The time has come to restore Hagia Sophia’s spirituality as a place of Christian worship. Turkey has to remember that old wisdom that says, “Do not do to others what you don’t wish them to do unto you”. Justice must prevail so that religious integrity might be restored. Turkey has to face up to its history and address this vital issue.
In 1847, a progressive sultan, Abdülmecid I(r. 1839-61), commissioned the Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati to restore the structure of Hagia Sophia, then Ayasofya Camii. When Fossati and his team began work on Hagia Sophia in 1847, after more than a century of neglect, they found the building in a dilapidated state with a leaking roof and “clouds of pigeons” despoiling the interior. They repaired cracks in the domes and vaults, and placed an iron chain around its base to contain its outward thrust. However they removed four flying buttresses that seemed to serve no purpose. They replaced the leaking lead covering of the roofs and carried out a complete cleaning inside and out. As the deteriorated plaster was chipped off walls and vaults, decorative Byzantine mosaics, shimmering with gold, were revealed. The sultan, astonished by their beauty, ordered Fossati and his team to uncover all the mosaics. When those in the galleries were uncovered and repaired, Fossati beseeched Abdülmecid to relax the rigid principles that demanded their obliteration. “They are beautiful,” Abdülmecid said. “Hide them because our religion forbids them. Hide them well, but do not destroy them: For who knows what might happen.”
Sultan Abdülmecid was intent on modernizing his kingdom and strengthening its ties with Western Europe at a moment when the great gulf between Turkey and Europe was beginning to narrow, a process that continues in our day. For him Hagia Sophia was part of a policy of progressive reform. Abdülmecid, whose reign had started with the proclamation of the Tanzimat, the most important milestone in the Westernisation of the Ottoman state and culture, encouraged uncovering the mosaics for repair and criticized his predecessors for having obscured these beautiful ornaments. He took advantage of the hajj (pilgrimage) to send the most fanatical imams of the (then) mosque to Mecca, before he undertook the restoration.