The walls of the architectural marvel known as the Haglia Sophia tell a story that goes beyond the compelling Christian iconography. It’s also the story of the history of a country where the cultural currents of West and East have long bumped up against each other.
Constantine, the first Roman Emperor who also called himself a Christian, established the city of Constantinople in 324 A.D., and rulers of what was known as the Byzantine Empire built great churches decorated with elaborately constructed mosaics. No church was more impressive than the Haghia Sophia, which was built in 537 A.D. for centuries reigned as the largest house of worship on Earth.
When Turks took over Constantinople in 1453, they remade the church into a mosque, and in the process plastered over many of the mosaics with Christian themes. The building and its artworks sustained further damage over the centuries because of earthquakes, vandalism and simple neglect. Look closely at the image at the top of the story, and you’ll see how many tiles are missing from the original. Others in the story below look worse.
In 1931 the Turkish government decided to turn the Haghia Sophia into a museum, and in ’35 they turned to a team of westerners, led by a Cambridge, Ma.-born Thomas Wittemore, to uncover and restore the original artwork. In 1950 LIFE magazine documented what Wittemore’s team was doing to revive these ancient wonders.
Wittemore founded the Byzantine Institute of America in 1930. The aim of the group was to study and preserve the great works of art from that era. Above right, he is shown in front of mosaics depicting the journey to Egypt and the taking of the census. Wittemore died of a heart attack in 1950, in between the time that he was photographed and the story ran, but members of his team carried on the work that you can see them doing below.
The mosaics were composed of tiny pieces called tessellae, with 52,000 pieces in a square yard, placed in slow-setting plaster. The tessellae could be marble, colored stone, or glass fused with silver or gold leaf. The bottom two images show just how much of the original tile was washed away. While clearly much has been lost, what remains gains another kind of power through its eerie endurance.
Today the Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited by more than three million tourists a year. While some of the original mosaics remain damages, the interior gleams magnificently, and remains a remarkable for its architecture as well as its history.