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Divine Restoration

The Zeyrek Camii – rescuing a Byzantine masterpiece

By the mid-1990s the Zeyrek Camii was in a state of alarming decrepitude. Now that the Byzantine masterpiece has been rescued, what lessons have been learnt? For Robert Ousterhout, who was closely involved in the restoration, the old ways are always the best. Photographs by Jürgen Frank

  • The fabulous view looking east from the Zeyrek's newly leaded roof, which took five years to restore. Reversing the damage done by the 1966 restorations, which used rigid, crack-prone concrete instead of lead, was the hardest part of the recent work. In the 16th century the Zeyrek was such a landmark that the great Ottoman architect Sinan wanted his tomb to have a view of it. He is buried next to the majestic Süleymaniye Mosque, visible on the skyline.

If, as the saying goes, God is in the detail, then historic preservation is a divine occupation. It follows that the best practitioners approach their work with a missionary zeal. As with any religion, there is the right way, or no way at all. Compromise and haste, usually products of a treacherous conspiracy involving politicians and contractors, are the cardinal sins of historic preservation, which can threaten the very soul of the monument in question. Working on the restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul over the past decade has made me a convert.

I have spent much of the past five years on the roof of the Zeyrek Camii. It was a mess, but the view was fabulous. To the east, the panorama spans the Aqueduct of Valens to the Süleymaniye Camii, to the Golden Horn and Galata. To the west, the view is dominated by the Fatih Camii and the Selimiye Camii. Closer at hand are the remains of a dilapidated neighbourhood of wooden houses and the foundations of an Ottoman konak now converted into an upscale restaurant. It is easy to get lost in the view and forget that beneath one’s feet was one of the most significant and threatened monuments in the city’s history.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 36

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Issue 36, 2006 A Beauty on the Bosphorus
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 36
  • Heaven on a Plate

    This modern Turkish favourite is a descendant of şeker gurabiye, the biscuit served at 16th-century Ottoman feasts

  • New Light on Old Glories at the V&A

    For three years, the main Islamic Middle East gallery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was closed. It reopened in 2006 with spectacular effect. Here we present some key aspects of a stunning permanent collection that can now be seen, literally, in an entirely new light. Commentary by its curator, Tim Stanley. Gallery photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

  • Crimea

    The Crimean War of 1853–56 which ended 150 years ago this year [2006] now seems very remote. Why were Great Britain and France, in alliance with Ottoman Turkey, fighting Russia in the Black Sea? Norman Stone investigates the causes and reviews an exhibition of Crimean War memorabilia at the Sadberk Hanim Museum.

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Issue 36, 2006 A Beauty on the Bosphorus
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