Assistants / Hagia Sophia / Research / Robert College / Robert Van Nice

Behind the Scenes

Since we began work on the Van Nice Collection last summer, we have been lucky enough to be able to get in touch with many of Van Nice’s former assistants.  It has been a great opportunity for us to learn more about the project, and also to correspond with some incredibly thoughtful, interesting people.

Yavuz, for instance, was an assistant of Van Nice’s, and has recently been kind enough to send us some of his memories from working at Hagia Sophia. Yavuz started working for Van Nice in the summer of 1954, as an engineering student at Robert College in Istanbul.  He continued to work for Van Nice during the summers of 1955, 57, and again in 1963. The prestigious Robert College provided almost all of Van Nice’s assistants during the decades he worked at Hagia Sophia, and from the warm recommendation letters he wrote for many of his assistants, we can assume that the school’s training didn’t dissapoint. In fact, Van Nice stayed in touch with a few of his assistants, including Yavuz, for the rest of his life.

Besides being incredibly precise and tedious, the work that Van Nice and his team did at Hagia Sophia was often physically challenging, and even dangerous at times.  Yavuz found that a whole range of skills was needed to complete even relatively straightforward measurement tasks: “There were instances when others had to work in dark areas.  My job was to bring light to these people, by using long extension cords, flood lights etc.  Our steel measurement tapes used to break at times.  I fixed these broken tapes using small rivets of my invention…Precision was necessary.  If I hadn’t done this, buying new tapes would be expensive.” Small details like this are essential to sharpening our picture of what the work at Hagia Sophia was actually like, and what it took to produce the published plates.

From Left: Assistants Yavuz, Mahmut, Bulent, Atilla, and Kaya at Hagia Sophia, date unknown.

Yavuz was also responsible for some of the photographs taken at Hagia Sophia, and we have many copies of photographs taken by him in the Van Nice Collection.  Even taking photos of one section of a building could take up to three assistants. In 1963, Yavuz and two helpers were photographing the dome, a process which took many days, and required them to work at night. “I was on the ground level looking up to my subject  some 180 feet above, with a telephoto lens.  One helper was at the dome aiming the flash upward attached to a long pole.  Another helper was with me guiding the electric power line for the flash from the ground to the dome.”

They also had to be wary of other tourists or officials who might disapprove of their work, especially after dark. “There is an interesting story here,” Yavuz told us.  “One day one of the building guards told me that some people outside were wondering what it was about flash after flash shining through the dome windows.  The guard told them, ‘It’s Americans working inside!’  Then it was ok!  There is no way we would be allowed that today.  Those were different times.” The difficulties of working on a building with such strong public and private ties, and the necessity of being connected with the right people are themes that have come up in our research again and again.

From Left: Helpers Nihat, Izzet, Armagan, Robert Van Nice, and Yavuz out to dinner with a paper model of a minaret made by the assistants as a present to their boss, 1963.

At the end of the note that he sent to us, Yavuz hit on something that we have wondered aloud to each other many times: “I wonder how it would have been if we all had laptops and laser equipment during those years as well as Computer Aided Design software (CAD). In recent years I have thought about making a three dimensional model of St. Sophia to view on a computer screen….Maybe this will be a big project later for whomever!!” he said.  It is amazing to think about how differently the project would have progressed if Van Nice and his team had access to the software and digital tools that we have today. But, the painstaking, on-site work clearly had some advantages, too. Besides the level of familiarity and expertise that Van Nice gained by doing everything by hand, physically crawling around and exploring the building also led to the discovery of previously forgotten spaces, as well as a mosaic thought to be lost.

Between all of the material in the Van Nice Collection and from their own testimonies, the former assistants have become very vivid characters, and now, friends, for all of us here at the ICFA.  It has been such an unexpected pleasure to learn more about their lives and the work they did to help realize Van Nice’s goals.

(P.S., speaking of computer models of Hagia Sophia–we were pretty amused and impressed by this virtual tour of the building from the video game “Assassins.” To what extent it lives up to Van Nice’s standards of accuracy, though, we can’t say…)


One thought on “Behind the Scenes

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

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