How Zeynep Ahunbay unveils the mysteries of Hagia Sophia

How Zeynep Ahunbay unveils the mysteries of Hagia Sophia

Joshua Bruce Allen
July 12, 2017

The many older parts of Istanbul are home to a number of historic buildings from the Byzantine
and Ottoman eras that require regular maintenance to keep
their magnificence. Thankfully, architects such as Professor Zeynep Ahunbay have spent their lifetimes overseeing the conservation and restoration of these buildings. Having been instrumental in the restoration of structures such as Hagia Sophia, Zeyrek Mosque, and the Theodosian Walls, Ahunbay this year received the Vehbi Koç Award for her contributions to Turkey’s cultural life.

Zeynep Ahunbay by Merve Göral

As Ahunbay told The Guide Istanbul, the work of a restoration architect is about more than drawing up plans. “For example, the city walls shouldn’t be understood as a wall. There are particular periods when they were made—the fifth century, the Middle Ages, and the Ottoman era. You have to read and understand all
of that before taking action,” she explains. “When you give the 
work to a contractor and don’t supervise it, they can treat it as 
just constructing a wall. That isn’t restoration. So the architects have to be constantly involved.” In 
terms of its historical value and the time spent working there, Hagia Sophia was Ahunbay’s most important project. The size of the sixth-century building presents unique challenges for restoration. “The first precaution taken in the 1990s was the stabilization and cleaning of the mosaics on the large dome. It’s very hard to reach of course, so they used a special scaffold. The dome is 55 meters up, and the scaffold was around 53-meters tall,
so you could touch the dome when standing on top. That was a great milestone because of
the difficulty of touching that space,” she says. Later, Ahunbay supervised the restoration of the dome’s lead covering, which was allowing water to seep through.

Hagia Sophia, photo by Merve Göral

Ongoing restoration efforts
 are removing cement that was added to the walls in the 1950s. “Some interesting marks have emerged from under the cement on the northern interior. Those marks have been mapped out for restoration that will begin soon,” she notes. According to Ahunbay, the building still has secrets to 
be uncovered such as mosaics hidden behind the remaining cement and potential artifacts buried in the area that was originally the church’s atrium. She also speculates that there could be tunnels connecting the Hagia Sophia’s underground cistern to the nearby Yerebatan Cistern.

Due to the vast number of historic buildings in Istanbul, Ahunbay stresses that the most imperiled must be saved before the worst happens. “For example, some towers and parts of the city walls are under threat and need urgent attention. This is a world heritage site that the whole world values and respects. Apart from that, there is civil architecture such as wooden houses that are in a ruined condition—if nothing is done, they’ll be lost completely.” Aside from the major projects, Ahunbay expresses pride about her restoration of Siyavuşpaşa Medresesi in Eminönü, which had been in a state of ruin for 100 years. This sixteenth-century religious college is now home to the Hilye-i Şerif and Prayer Beads Museum.

Hilye-i Şerif and Prayer Beads Museum

Encouraging tourists to go further than the classic sights
of Sultanahmet, Ahunbay has her own recommendations
for exploring Istanbul. “The shore of the Golden Horn is incredibly interesting, especially Fener, Balat, and Ayvansaray. Then there’s Eyüp, which not many tourists go to I suppose,
the villages along the Bosphorus, and Üsküdar. Every area has its own hidden history. If you know how to look at those places, you can read very beautiful things in them.” This eclectic taste extends to restaurants as well, with her top two being Konyalı, a traditional Turkish restaurant on the grounds of Topkapı Palace, and the Uyghur restaurants in Aksaray.