Last Ottoman Retouch to Hagia Sophia'
Written by Ahmet Apaydın

In the mid-1800’s, the need for the restoration of Hagia Sophia emerged. Sultan Abdulmecid decided in favor of Fossati.

When Gaspare Trajano Fossati was born in 1809 in the Italian-speaking region of Southern Switzerland, his only distincive quality was being a part of a lineage that included countless painters and architects for generations. After finishing his education on architecture in Milan, young Fossati did not lose time to travel to Rome and Venice, following the footsteps of his ancestors. For several years he spent in Rome and Venice, Fossati had the chance to study and depict historical buildings in these cities. The most fertile source of income for the architects and artists of the era was Russia. In fact, Fossati’s uncle was working in Russia. In cities under the Czar’s administration, a Neo-Rennaisance style altered with a touch of Russian influence was in fashion and demand for Italian artists, who were the finest in this style, was increasing. Keeping up with this trend, Fossati decided to go to Russia.

Just then, a fire in Beyoğlu would change Fossati’s destiny. The wooden Russian embassy building located in Pera and overlooking the Bosphorus, in the region between Galata Mawlawi House and Galatasaray, was amongst the buildings destroyed in the fire. Russia wanted to build a new, impressive embassy building in the same location. Fossati, who arrived in Russia in 1833, must have stood out for the constructions he was involved in, because he was assigned by the Czar for the construction of the new embassy building. Having obtaining a Russian passport, Fossati would set foot in Istanbul in May, 1837, thus changing his fortune and turning himself into a figure who would be remembered even several centuries later.

Arriving in Istanbul, the young architect did not lose time and went to Beyoğlu to start the operations. But it would take two years for the Czar to give the permit required for construction. During the construction of the embassy building, which would take about ten years, Fossati’s fortunes would begin to change; he would start receiving new contracts. First of these series of contracts was the construction of a church in Beyoğlu. But his most significant contract was the construction of a giant structure which would not survive to this day, perishing in a fire in 1933. It was commissioned to Fossati as Darülfünun, the first university building, but the structure was never used for its intended purpose. In this period, Fossati also received several other official and civilian contracts. But the offer that would set him apart from other architects of the era would come in 1846, directly from Sultan Abdulmecid himself; restoration of Hagia Sophia…

When the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, the ancient city was already exhausted. Things had been tumultous in Byzantium for years and the city had no strenght left to sustain itself. The Ottomans’ first project was to turn the 916-year-old boy Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Starting from the Conqueror’s reign, occasional repair works they carried out helped to prolong the building’s life; especially the support buttresses built by Mimar Sinan. When Sultan Abdulmecid’s reign began, a long time had passed since the last comprehensive repairs were made on Hagia Sophia. The Sultan did not want to entrust this important work in the hands of the Balyan family, who had been the contractors and architects for official construction projects for years, so he decided on Fossati.

Eight hundred workers were employed in the construction, which took about three years. New supports were built for the structure and interior and exterior ornaments were modified. Giant scaffolds were set up for the renovation of interior decorations. Two unfortunate workers were deceased, falling down the scaffold. Eight huge plates inscribed by Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi were suspended from the main columns. During the restoration, new elements were also added to the structure. For instance, the cased Sultan’s Loge on the left of the altar was built during the restoration. The first madrasah of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia Madrasah which was situated in the garden çeof Hagia Sophia since the Conqueror’s reign was also renovated. A timing room (for providing prayer time to public) that still exists today was built by the side of the garden gate.

The restoration, which was the last restoration effort of the Ottoman Empire, was completed in 1849. The mosque was opened to worship on 13 July 1849, the first Friday of the month of Ramadan, with a magnificient ceremony. To commemorate the finalization of restoration, a limited number of medals cast of various metals were prepared to be distributed to the prominent figures of the era who participated in the ceremony. The two medals to be presented to the Sultan and his mother were made of gold, 99 medals to be given to government officials were made of silver and 199 of them were made of bronze. The medals, which had Sultan Abdulmecid’s tughra on one side, and a relief of Hagia Sophia designed by the architect Fossati above the inscription in Ottoman, “Tarih-i Tamir-i Ayasofya 1265” (Restoration Date of Hagia Sophia 1849), on the other, were ordered from Paris; but they couldn’t be brought to the opening ceremony on time.

The Ottomans had not destroyed the mosaics of various depictions on the walls of Hagia Sophia made during the Byzantine era; they had just covered them with a thin layer of plaster. During the restoration, when these plaster layers were removed, the old mosaics came to light. Without delay, Fossati produced illustrations of these mosaics which were to be covered again after the restoration. His goal was to collect these mosaic patterns in a big book. He could have asked the Czar for the six thousand roubles needed to print the book. But for the several pictures he was shown, the Czar rewarded Fossati with only a small ring.

Fossatti then prepared a new album which included depictions of scenes from the interior and exterior of Hagia Sophia. Sultan Abdulmecid liked the album and provided the financial support needed. When the book, named by Fossati as ‘Aya Sofia Constantinople’, was printed as lithograph in 1852 in London, it had Sultan Abdulmecid’s tughra on it. The book, in the form of an album, was comprised of 25 plates and these pictures were also the herald of Fossati’s talent as an artist.

About the author'

Ahmet Apaydın

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