Byzantine Institute / Dumbarton Oaks / Thomas Whittemore

“Earthquakes and war they have survived…”

Thomas Whittemore was an impressive person. The previous blog posts “The Leading Protagonist: Thomas Whittemore” and “Setting the Stage: Background on the Byzantine Institute” describe his grand project with the Byzantine Institute to restore, preserve, and document Byzantine monuments and how skilled he was in collecting funds for both humanitarian work and the restoration of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Letters between Thomas Whittemore and Robert and Mildred Bliss during World War II document their fear that Hagia Sophia would be a potential target of destruction. They feared that Germany might also confiscate the cultural property of the Turkish people and the scientific rights of the Byzantine Institute. The letters also illustrate how important it was to record, in greatest detail, all the uncovered mosaics in Hagia Sophia through life-size tracings and drawings. Fortunately, none of their concerns became a reality!

The correspondence below documents that the Turkish government entrusted the country’s Byzantine buildings in the care of the Byzantine Institute, while Thomas Whittemore wholeheartedly embraced the task to rescue the historic monuments in Turkey for future generations. The letter, written 68 years ago today, also illustrates Whittemore’s exemplary passion for preserving the Byzantine monuments right after the devastating events of World War II. Thanks to Whittemore’s and the Byzantine Institute’s efforts, the Turkish Government, including İsmet İnönü, acknowledged the great value of their ancestor’s monuments for the Turkish culture and the arts and humanities in general.



“June 15, 1945

My dear Mildred and Robert –

There never was anything like the flood of Sunday night, since Noah’s, and but for your ark of kindness to bring me to the dry land of morning I might now be floating in the Potomac. Thank you for those delectable linen sheets.

As you know, I breakfasted with Friend and gave him all the photographs on the figure. The Egyptians are growing impatient and I must quiet them before long.

What solution have you to suggest for my problem of salvaging the remains of the Lesser Byzantine Churches in Istanbul? Far and wide I see nothing more urgent to be done in the interest of the preservation of Byzantine monuments than to save these churches. From the Basilica of St. John of the Studion of the Vth century to the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols in the XIIIth, a thousand years of Byzantine architecture, sculpture, mosaic painting, frescoes, inscriptions, and incontrovertible history are on the brink of demolition. The delay even of one year will be too late to save some of these buildings. In two or three domes have cracked and are in danger of falling, in others where windows have no glass the openings are conductors of every storm to the perishing interiors, in others still, walls are insecure and their foundation in peril. Some buildings are befouled by pigeons and disfigured by the fires of squatters.These are the churches recorded with such care by Van Millingen, although some that existed in his time are already in unrecognizeable ruin. Earthquakes and war they have survived, are we to let the remainder perish by our neglect? These churches include St. John of the Studion with its remarkable cistern, the site of the most famous monastic community of the Byzantine Empire and the citadel of defense of the veneration of the ikons. S.S. Serge and Bacchus, Justinian’s first church in the capital, with no parallel in architecture throughout the world save in S. Vitali in Ravenna; S. Irene in its foundations the “Ecclesia Antiqua” of the city; the beautiful church of S. Mary Diaconissa; the Church of S. Savior Pantepoptos founded or restored by the mother of Alexis Comnenos; the Church of S. Saviour Pantocrator with its unusual marbles and mosaic domes. The church of St. Andrew, the sepulcher of the holy Patriarch Arsenius. The double church of S. Mary Panacrantos; the Church of S. Mary Pammakaristos with its dome and still to be uncovered mosaic walls. The majestic Church of S. Theodosia, dedicated to the memory of Theodosia for her bold defiance of the Isaurian Leo. The Church of S. Mary of the Mongols, the only church in Constantinople to preserve throughout the Turkish occupation the orthodox rite; the Church of S. Savour in the Chora, known worldwide for its mosaics and frescoes.

What greater call has a noble institution like Dumbarton Oaks, committed to the preservation and study of Byzantine art, than the call of these churches for preservation from further injury and decay in an extension of their existence for another half millenium.

The Turkish Government has placed these buildings in the care of the Byzantine Institute for conservation. Two English structural engineers of the Istanbul Engineering Works, permanently in Istanbul and assistants during the last ten years, with their staff of Turkish laborers on the spot, are ready to begin the work in August 1945. I suggest taking the churches in the sequence of their imperative need of repairs.

It will be safe to begin work without fear of being compromised by an unfinished undertaking if I am assured this autumn of $15,000.00 for the current year. The cost of the entire project is forecast at about thirty thousand dollars.

Ever yours devoted –



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