Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice / William Emerson

Wild Encounters

Today started with Box 42, which appeared to be from the files of William Emerson, the professor who sponsored Van Nice’s project in Istanbul before it was supported by Dumbarton Oaks.  Some clues were that the folders were labeled differently, all of the carbon copies of letters were from Emerson, and almost all of the correspondence from various people was addressed to Emerson. Again, why they were placed here, and unmarked as part of Emerson’s files is unclear, but at least they seem to be all together, and in chronological order.

The folders I’ve seen so far contain a lot of correspondence between Van Nice and William Emerson, most of it work related, although it is clear that the two were close personally. In one of my favorite letters so far, dated 1953, Van Nice complains about the abundance of wildlife that he has encountered in and around Hagia Sophia.  It reads, in part:

“The solitary confinement inextricably connected with my life at Hagia Sophia, now that the helpers have returned to school and I am left alone for the rest of the winter, may not be as complete as it seems, for I continue to have amusing encounters with several kinds of, if not all animals, at least living things…on another morning I found my work table smeared from one end to the other with blood, including my folders of notes and some drawings.  A huge, half-wild cat had selected the table as a first-aid station for a wounded foot. Just how a cat could inure its foot so severely in Hagia Sophia’s gallery remained a mystery—until, that is, further evidence of nocturnal crimes had later been observed. It took, incidentally, about two hours to salvage as best I could the damaged folders and clean up the general mess. Our soap is apparently considered an hors d’oeuvre by a family of rats…these depredations were, I felt, committed by rats, though the absence of normal indications led me to entertain the possibility that the marten had returned….”

Van Nice was apparently particularly enamored of an elusive stone marten who made his home at Hagia Sophia. (Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Van Nice’s encounters with animal life in Hagia Sophia  became well known enough among his correspondents and their circles that he was later asked later to write a short piece for the Massachusetts Audubon on the “wildlife” of Hagia-Sophia.  His reports on his colleagues are just as colorful as the fauna.  For example, in the same letter as cited above, he wrote:

“Dr. Shepard goes on his own monumental way. During the summer he diagnosed his own illness as gall bladder trouble, and though the surgeons of the city were vying with one another for the honor of operating, he selected one of his own young and unknown internes; he insisted on an anesthetic which permitted him to remain conscious until the gall bladder had been examined; when the suspected condition was found, he told the surgeon to take it out before being completely anaesthetized; and the following day he dissected his own bladder.”

Besides being generally amusing and interesting, letters like these paint a compelling picture of the conditions under which Van Nice was working.  He wrote that he genuinely felt that the critters with whom he shared Hagia Sophia were a blessing in some ways because they relieved the loneliness that characterized most of his time there while his student workers were in school. There are more letters detailing the exasperating personalities of the guards at Hagia Sophia, who constantly had to be tip-toed around and occasionally buttered up with American cigarettes, and Van Nice’s near constant irritation with being asked to show visitors around.  Poor Van Nice writes despairingly of having to give Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy a tour, resulting in press that only seemed to care about her visit and not about the important work that he and his team were doing!  After “casually” meeting the British Prime Minister at Hagia Sophia, Van Nice reports that he was subsequently barraged by visitors claiming to have been told by the Prime Minister to look Van Nice up for a tour.

His complaints sound wildly spoiled today—especially given the fact that the project was an expensive one and thrived on good relations with wealthy people and organizations.  However, given the whole picture–the long hours, the time lost to silly regulations and restrictions, workers who had to leave to replace brothers who had been called for military duty, the bloody desks, short summer seasons where university students were available for hire, and so on—it is understandable that Van Nice guarded his time very closely.  These kinds of anecdotes that pepper his letters add depth to an understanding of both the circumstances Van Nice found himself in, as well as his character and working methods.

8 thoughts on “Wild Encounters

  1. Pingback: A Large and Dangerous Kaleidoscope | The Robert L. Van Nice Collection

  2. Pingback: The Latest on the Critters of Hagia Sophia | The Robert L. Van Nice Collection

  3. Pingback: The Latest on the Critters of Hagia Sophia | Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives

  4. Pingback: Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia! | Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives

  5. Pingback: A Large and Dangerous Kaleidoscope | icfa

  6. Pingback: Hagia Sophia Homecoming: Returning to Istanbul after World War II | icfa

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