Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice / William Emerson

Leaving Hagia Sophia: Istanbul before World War II

Written by Beth Bayley, Byzantine Archives Assistant

All the talk about the Monuments Men and the role that Dumbarton Oaks played in World War II (as illustrated in our blog post about Harvard’s American Defense Group) got ICFA staff thinking about what else might be in our archives from that era. The following is another perspective on the period leading up to World War II, courtesy of the Robert Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers.


Betty and Robert Van Nice in Isfahan, Iran, in 1936, a few months before coming to Istanbul. Detail from an image from the Myron Bement Smith Collection, Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.

Beginning in 1937, Robert Van Nice was in Istanbul conducting a survey of Hagia Sophia for William Emerson, and the two of them wrote frequent letters to each other. Nearly all of their correspondence was about the work, with Van Nice reporting on the progress of his measurements and drawings, but gradually, the global situation became more and more of a topic. As Van Nice and Emerson wrote back and forth from 1938 to 1941, international communication systems were undergoing changes out of wartime necessity. Telegrams were sent in code, and letters went through censors, sometimes taking a long time to arrive at their destinations.

Robert Van Nice’s letters to William Emerson show that Van Nice’s view of world events was colored by his job and his location. Receiving the news in Turkey rather than in America meant Van Nice may have been physically closer to the conflict, but perhaps psychologically farther away. On December 12, 1939, he wrote that “…were it not for newspapers and radios, we would be unaware of the war.”

On June 11, 1939, Van Nice reported to Emerson on his travels to Istanbul. It can be eerie to read the description of the Europe that Van Nice saw, knowing that Kristallnacht (or Night of Broken Glass) had happened eight months earlier. Germany had been occupying Czechoslovakia since March, and would invade Poland in September, but Van Nice traveled through a very different Europe:

“The entire return trip to Istanbul was quite uneventful. Except in Switzerland and Italy, the weather was ideal. It would require a more astute political observer than I am to see in the peaceful countrysides we passed the grounds for the dire predictions we listened to in America. Crossing borders seemed, if anything, simpler than ever and Paris appeared its usual gay self on the surface… Political uncertainty seems destined to continue indefinitely, but we are prepared to be isolated for whatever length of time world conditions dictate with much freer consciences for having fulfilled the obligation. Turkey’s alliance with Britain means we will be in friendly territory under any eventuality and can probably continue working regardless of world events.”

The gay Paris that Van Nice observed was invaded a year later, on June 14, 1940. As Turkey prepared for potential conflict, Van Nice’s concern over Hagia Sophia began to grow. He was most concerned with what could potentially happen to the building, and his personal responsibility to get as much surveying done as possible, just in case. He wrote to Emerson on August 22, 1939:

“Today were held the initial passive resistance demonstrations to train civilians for air-raid protection. While planes flew over the city the streets were cleared of pedestrians who were herded into designated shelters, and anti-aircraft guns (one of which is set up among the ruins of the former Palace of Justice beside St. Sophia) fired several rounds. As Tahsin Bay would say, “It gives one to think.” One suffers pause to think what a single bomb could do to St. Sophia – the fourteen century old crown of Istanbul, which stands dangerously near the first target of aerial attack, the port… The procuring of gas masks, recommended by the American Consul, for instance, will make an odd item on the expense account.”

Speaking of recommendations from the American Consul, below is the undated  “Addenda to Air Raid Precautions Booklet” found among Van Nice’s correspondence, stating that the “suggested medical supplies” were for more than individual families, but would be used to help others in the community in case of emergency.


“Addenda to Air Raid Precautions Booklet” from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Despite the growing uncertainty, Van Nice really did not want to leave. In fact, it seemed even more important to him to get as much done as possible. Although he eventually had to help build a bomb shelter, assist with fire-fighting precautions, and black out the house, his mind always remained with Hagia Sophia. On September 18, 1939, Van Nice wrote:

“My own strong conviction is that I should continue to work here as long as anything can be accomplished with a reasonable degree of efficiency. Whether we could stay only a week or for four months remains in the lap of the gods, but the reasons for staying seem incontrovertible. It is painfully obvious that a terrific rain of high explosives in the vicinity of the church, excluding direct hits, would injure the foundations and perhaps cause the collapse of the structure, of which recorded knowledge is regrettably incomplete. Our opportunity for studying it, both in length of time and in freedom of movement, is the most favorable ever granted. To leave the church any sooner than necessary in the period of greatest danger seems almost a betrayal of trust. As the possible doom of the building approaches, the value of every added hour in it is multiplied beyond measure… we have no assurance that St. Sophia can survive what may be in store. Therefore I am anxious to stay with the work until there is a decisive reason for leaving.”

Many Americans were already leaving, however. As a window into the atmosphere in which Van Nice was working, below is a letter from the American Consulate General to all Americans in Turkey, encouraging them to begin making plans if they intend to leave the country:


Letter “to all Americans in Turkey” from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

There were bright moments amid the uncertainty and stress. Van Nice was in Turkey with his wife Betty, and oddly enough, the war brought an opportunity for her, in a time when opportunities for women were rather different than today. The war marked the beginning of Betty Van Nice’s teaching career, which she would continue for the next several decades. On January 29, 1940, Van Nice wrote to Emerson that “Betty has been asked to teach the small children of professors at the College, to fill the place of an elderly woman brought from America for the job, who was so nervously undone by the war scare that she had to be shipped home.” A few months later, on May 28, 1940, Van Nice noted that “Betty’s teaching will be over in two weeks’ time. It is forbidden for women to leave the United States and the prospect of getting a new teacher is very small. As she has done a good job, the parents have asked if she would consider teaching for the coming year…”

In the same letter, Van Nice reported on other updates to their situation, including the fact that they had to move closer to the rest of the American community:

“… the Consul has advised all women with small children to leave here while normal travel routes remain open. All accommodations on American boats are reserved until July 18. It is not certain that the war will come this direction, depending on the outcome of the European struggle, but precautions are being taken. We ourselves are moving from our present address to Robert College. The professors are remaining, of course, but all but four of the women have left. As the contract on our apartment ran out, and as the Consul wishes so far as possible to get the Americans together, we are going to move to the College at least for its vacation season… Have no concern about our safety, for the back door, through Iraq and India will probably remain open indefinitely. There is an American line from Bombay direct to San Francisco…”

Meanwhile, William Emerson, the recipient of all these letters from Van Nice, was in the United States. As he closely followed the progress of the Nazis across Europe, Emerson grew more and more concerned for the Van Nices’ safety in Istanbul. Turkey and Britain had an alliance, but circumstances could change, and nobody knew that better than Emerson, who still held a vivid memory of the time he spent in France during the World War I. Emerson was also concerned for the fate of the rest of the world, and to better be of service, he chaired the New England division of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Emerson became heavily involved in raising money and awareness for the cause of assisting Britain, struggling against the isolationist view held by other groups.

Emerson wrote to Van Nice on May 16, 1940, mainly about the aspects of the survey that he wished Van Nice to concentrate on, such as the cisterns. But a handwritten postscript on Van Nice’s copy of this letter betrays Emerson’s other preoccupations, as he says, “The world seems to be crumbling about us.”


May 16, 1940 letter from William Emerson to Robert Van Nice, from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

And the world was crumbling. On July 30, 1940, Van Nice wrote to Emerson that “Ordinary mail has stopped completely… All Americans have been advised to keep sufficient foreign currency on hand to enable them to get to a neutral country in case they are obliged to leave here…”

But it would be another year before the Van Nices left. Their passage was complicated not only by the necessity to find available space on a boat, but to ensure that Van Nice could bring the architectural drawings, representing years’ worth of work, back with him. Emerson helped with travel arrangements, and communicated with the young couple’s anxious parents in Oregon as to their whereabouts. A series of rapid telegrams and delayed letters ensued, concluding with Van Nice’s letter to Emerson on June 1, 1941, as he waited to board the boat that would take him home:

“Today ends our second week of expectant waiting in Jerusalem for some way of continuing the homeward journey. We are in a group of nearly a hundred Americans temporarily held up until passage can be arranged.

The departure from Istanbul was more sudden than I either expected or desired. As I cabled you, Betty had gone on to Beirut with other American women. I intended joining her after the 24th of May. On May 6th a telegram from the President of the University of Beirut advised that husbands should join their wives within that week. Reason could not be stated, but it was interpreted to mean that the frontiers would soon close…

The feverish activity of those two days and a half is still a bit blurred in my mind…

… I decided to keep everything with me. So far, this has proved the best solution. My drawings, photographs, and notes have been sealed by the British censorship and I anticipate no further difficulties. The only drawback is that I cannot open anything to work on it while waiting or during the long sea trips ahead.

On her arrival in Beirut Betty arranged passage on the Dutch boat sailing from Basra, but before I left Turkey Iraq was already a battlefield and within a few days north Syrian airports, occupied by Germans, were being bombed. We had to push on for Palestine as soon as permission could be obtained. The frontier is now closed.

… I keep thinking of how much I could have accomplished with one more week, one more day, or even one hour more at the church…”

Below is the letter that accompanied Van Nice’s sealed notes, drawings, and photographs of Hagia Sophia. These materials, so precious to Van Nice, are now part of the Robert Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers in ICFA.


Letter describing Van Nice’s Hagia Sophia material, from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

The Van Nices arrived in New York in August 1941, and the U.S. officially entered the war a few months later, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December. For an overview of Van Nice’s wartime activities with the Office of Strategic Services, please see the blog post “The Architect Turned Spy.”

Up Next, Part 2: The Hagia Sophia Homecoming


2 thoughts on “Leaving Hagia Sophia: Istanbul before World War II

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

  2. Pingback: The Hagia Sophia Lives Online | DO/Conversations

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