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Restoring the Hagia Sophia

Quadrant by quadrant, proceeding counterclockwise for a decade, artisans on 180-foot scaffolds have been resurfacing the domed ceiling at Hagia Sophia. Its mosaics of saints, in millions of glass tesserae fused with gold, have been applied and reapplied countless times over the past 1,500 years. Emperor Justinian practically emptied his treasury erecting the basilica in the 530's and rebuilding it after a string of earthquakes; it suffered damage from quakes every few centuries for the next millennium. During repairs, Justinian's successors added mosaic images of their own favorite saintsoverhead. The Ottomans, who converted the site to a mosque in 1453, built its signature minarets and whitewashed the nave, trimming it instead with gilt-inscribed verses from the Koran.

The mosaics were uncovered when Hagia Sophia became a museum in the 1930's. The current project, funded in part by the Turkish government, is one phase of a multi-decade overhaul, from the façades to the lead roof. On their rounds, crews have discovered some ancient graffiti: Byzantine workers would scratch prayers into the uppermost window frames. They pleaded mostly for help from above—assistance, perhaps, in keeping their balance aloft. 90-212/522-1750.

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