For an issue that fell on Christmas Day, 1950, LIFE reported from Turkey, and with good reason. There, in a Muslim country, a team of westerners were bringing historic and long-covered Christian mosaics back into view in the architectural marvel known as the Hagia Sophia. The restoration was a big job. The team had already been at it for 15 years when LIFE showed up, and the work continues today, even as the Hagia Sophia is visited by more than three million people every year.
The walls of the Haglia Sophia tell a story that goes beyond the compelling Christian iconography. It’s also the story of the history of a country where the cultural currents of West and East have long bumped up against each other.
Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to also call himself a Christian, established the city of Constantinople in 324 A.D., and rulers of what was known as the Byzantine Empire erected great churches decorated with elaborately constructed mosaics. No church was more impressive than the Hagia Sophia, which was built in 537 A.D. for centuries reigned as the largest house of worship on Earth.
When Turks took over Constantinople in 1453, they remade the church into a mosque, and in the process plastered over many of the mosaics with Christian themes. The building and its artworks sustained further damage over the centuries because of earthquakes, vandalism and simple neglect. Look closely at the image at the top of the story, and you’ll see how many tiles are missing from the original. Others in the story below are in worse shape.
In 1931 the Turkish government decided to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum, and in ’35 they enlisted a team of westerners, led by the archaeologist Thomas Whittemore, born in Cambridge, Ma., to uncover and restore the original artwork.
Whittemore, above, was the founder the Byzantine Institute of America. The aim of the group, which first formed in 1930, was to study and preserve the great works of art from that era. In the photo on the left, he sits in front of mosaics depicting the journey to Egypt and the taking of the census. Wittemore died of a heart attack in 1950, in between the time that he was photographed and the LIFE story ran, but members of his team carried on the restoration work that you can see them engaged in below.
The mosaics were composed of tiny tessellae, with 52,000 pieces in a square yard, placed in slow-setting plaster. The tessellae could be marble, colored stone, or glass fused with silver or gold leaf. The bottom two images show just how much of the original tile was washed away. While clearly much has been lost from the original, what remains has its own eerie power, standing as a testament to endurance.
Today the Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist destination. While some of the original mosaics remain damaged, the interior gleams magnificently, and dazzles with its architecture as well as its history.