A Tale Of Two Cities: Notre Dame Cathedral and Hagia Sophia

In the past week or so there have been major announcements that will affect two of the world’s most famous and most popular tourist attractions. One announces the plans to rebuild Notre Dame in Paris and the second to re-convert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque.

First the good news about Notre Dame. After a devastating fire that nearly destroyed the cathedral in April of 2019, there were several discussions about restoring the building. Several suggestions include wild new components that would have significantly altered the buildings appearance and some that might have been welcome enhancements.

But French President Emmanuel Macron has declared that the cathedral will be rebuilt exactly as it was…well as of the 19th Century after the restoration completed by Viollet-le-Duc. That would include the spire that we are all familiar with that replaced the aging and deteriorated spire that Viollet-le-Duc replaced during his work on the cathedral.

This on the face of it is good news…but I am wondering what President Macron means by: “the “redesign” will look exactly the same as the original Gothic design.”

Will the roof be reconstructed of wood? Something that isn’t as readily available as it was in the 13th Century. There is no reason that the roof and upper portions can’t be re-created in modern materials to resemble the original materials. After all, the cathedral at Chartres which also suffered damage to its roof by fire and it was replaced with an iron roof without changing its appearance dramatically.

And I would hope that a substitute is found for the lead that was used extensively throughout the roof and spire. After the fire there was serious concern about the amount of lead that was distributed throughout the area by the fire and smoke itself as well as the efforts of the fire fighters. There certainly must be other materials that will serve without compromising the feel and look of Notre Dame.

This fire took on a personal aspect as I was planning a vacation in Paris for May and June of 2019. I had climbed the tower in the past but in January during semester break but was looking forward to doing it again and seeing a lush and green Paris from this bird’s eye view. Instead I was greeted by this (some of the scaffolds in this photo were left from the work teams who may have started the fire):

© 2019 Ed Heinzelman
© 2019 Ed Heinzelman

President Macron’s plan is to have the work completed in time for the 2024 Olympics that are being hosted by Paris. I look forward to visiting it shortly after that.

And now I am just showing off a bit: here is what the under roof and over cathedral space currently looks like at Chartres:

© 2019 Ed Heinzelman

So let’s move on to Istanbul! The Hagia Sophia has a long history as a place of worship. Built originally as a Roman Catholic basilica by the Roman Emperor Justinian I as the centerpiece of Christendom in Constantinople, it later served the Eastern Orthodox Church, and finally became an Islamic Mosque when the city fell to the Ottoman Empire. But in 1934 it re-opened as a museum in the modern secular nation of Turkey.

Now, during its original conversion to a mosque a large number of the Christian mosaics were covered with plaster. Most followers of Islam do not believe that man should create images of living things. But during the conversion to a museum, the surviving mosaics were cleaned and restored and Hagia Sophia showed off the best artistic practices of the Christian and Islamic eras in the region.

But now in 2020, there has been a renewed movement toward nationalism in Turkey as in other nations, and after some controversial legal maneuvering, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared the Hagia Sophia will once again serve as a mosque. This decision has roiled the Catholic and Orthodox worlds as well as UNESCO which has named Hagia Sophia as a world heritage site. President Erdogan has assured the world that the site will be open to visitors from around the world but not during prayers.

Erdogan, who said the first Muslim prayers would begin in Hagia Sofia on July 24, has insisted the building will be open to all, including non-Muslims.

“We will preserve Hagia Sophia’s status as a cultural heritage the same as our ancestors did.”

“There is no obstacle from a religious perspective to Hagia Sophia Mosque being open to visitors outside prayer times,”

President Erdogan isn’t totally insensitive to the issues he is causing but:

“I want to stress that Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque from a museum, not from a church”

So, the site should be open most of the time…but I don’t know exactly what ‘outside’ of prayers will mean in the future. And this may be an example of cutting off one’s nose…as 3.8 million people visit Hagia Sophia each year. That has to be a sizable revenue source for Turkey and if this change discourages tourists….it may be a very expensive decision indeed.

But my biggest concern is the mosaics and other non-Islamic imagery that remains and that was restored when the old version of the mosque became a museum. Currently this is the plan:

Diyanet (Istanbul’s religious authority) said in a statement on Tuesday that the Christian icons in Hagia Sophia were “not an obstacle to the validity of the prayers”.

“The icons should be curtained off and unlit through appropriate means during prayer times,” it said.

That’s today. Last month we didn’t anticipate this renowned museum becoming a mosque. Will the icons and mosaics at some point become a liability and religious leaders or worshipers demand their removal or worse yet destruction? I am not feeling comfortable with this change in status for Hagia Sophia. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Hagia Sophia via UNESCO

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