Our Lady Of Wisdom

by Sara Clarke

Photo by Sara Clarke.

A couple days ago I asked the question, “Is preservation always the right thing to do?”

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia — or Ayasofya, as it’s known in modern Turkish — is a prime example of that dilemma.

On the one hand, it’s possibly the most beautiful building ever. It was built by the emperor Justinian in 537 AD, so it’s obviously of historical interest. As a church it was converted from the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople to a Roman Catholic cathedral from 1204 to 1261, and then in 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror chose to preserve it as a mosque. So it’s also a holy place for people of various religions. There is no question that Hagia Sofia is worthy of historical preservation.

I’m going to ask that question anyway.

What if Ayasofya had been allowed to fester as Istanbul city life crept away from the old Byzantine center?

Photo by Sara Clarke.

What if Mehmet hadn’t been interested? (Which is a whole other architectural question, really, since the archetypal mosque structure used worldwide can be traced to Hagia Sofia, but let’s leave that for now.)

Photo by Sara Clarke.

What if Ataturk and the other founding fathers of the modern Turkish state had been a little more Soviet in their approach to religion and had closed it down rather than turning it into a museum?

Photo by Sara Clarke

What if they’d been a little more American in their approach and had let it stand as a mosque until attendance dropped and the building sank into disrepair, only to be turned into a shopping mall when Istanbul’s fortunes improved?

I guess the question I’m asking here is, how does the act of historic preservation affect — or maybe the right word is reflect — the march of history itself? What would Istanbul be in 2012 without Hagia Sofia, or with a Hagia Sofia that is still the mosque of Ayasofya, or the Mall Of Enlightenment, or a derelict site explored by intrepid travel photographers?

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