Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice / William Emerson

Hagia Sophia Homecoming: Returning to Istanbul after World War II

Written by Beth Bayley, former Byzantine Archives Assistant (2012-2014)

The Van Nices returned to Istanbul in June of 1946, a year after the European theater of World War II had ended. Robert Van Nice had spent the war years both in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on drawings, and then in London, England, and Bern, Switzerland, working for the Office of Strategic Services. But he wasn’t working the entire time; there was also a growing family to attend to. Where only Bob and Betty had left Turkey in 1941, now there were four Van Nices, with the births of Bob, Jr. in 1942 and Molly in 1945. In this letter to William Emerson from June 1st, Robert Van Nice describes the conditions of their return trip to Istanbul on the ship, Aksu:

“The only possible beds were in the forecastle. We thought often that night of Mrs. Emerson’s remark that traveling anywhere with children was like going Third in Bulgaria. We were Third Class with children – Betty in a dormitory for fourteen women with no portals open and I was with the children in a larger dormitory for men. Fortunately the sea was mirror-like and we survived quite well. The following night in Smyrna we were able to change to a first class cabin and had two restful nights before arriving here Sunday noon…”

View of Istanbul from the Bosphorus. BF.S.1996.0422

Approaching Istanbul. From the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers (BF.S.1996.0422), Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Sea voyages, however pleasant or unpleasant, must always come to an end. Van Nice continues on to describe his homecoming to his beloved Hagia Sophia:

“Though I had a hundred details to attend to in the city, I could not forego a brief visit at St. Sophia the first day, and I found everything exactly as I had left the building. TW [Thomas Whittemore] was there, Green was at work, Kluge is quite unchanged despite the five years since I last saw him. Suleyman, my alter ego, has been working in a bank for three years and I shall miss him greatly. But the dank odor of the building, the cavernous echoes, and even the tracks of the stone marten were so familiar I found difficulty in believing exactly five years and ten days had elapsed since my departure in 1941.”


Robert Van Nice and Suleyman, ca. late 1930s, from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Van Nice settled in for the next few years of work, spending summers in Istanbul working on the survey, and winters in Boston or, beginning in 1949, at Dumbarton Oaks working on drawings. Meanwhile, the post-war world returned to its new normal.

We can get one perspective on that new normal with a look through the correspondence, which provides us with a cheery postscript on the situation in America after the war. William Emerson often spent summers in the island community of Vinalhaven, Maine, and either wrote his summer letters out longhand, or had his secretary, Miss Hodge, write to Van Nice directly. While Emerson was in Maine, Miss Hodge wrote to Van Nice on June 19, 1947:

“Being Mr. Emerson’s secretary I have had the pleasure of reading your interesting letters and certainly have enjoyed them. They clearly show that fact can be as interesting as fiction… Life in the United States is gradually returning to normal, sugar rationing was lifted last week, the last of the restrictions, and one can buy all the nylons one can afford. I even saw that Howard Johnson’s was now serving their 28 different flavors of ice cream.”

Thinking about nylons and ice cream brings the story to a human scale. In the five years that Van Nice had been away from Hagia Sophia, the world had suffered through a horrific war that devastated millions of lives. These few years had utterly changed the world, but not the building, which survived despite all of Van Nice’s fears of bombs and damage. Five years is nothing – the equivalent of a few minutes – in the vast lifetime of Hagia Sophia itself, constructed in 537. But so much can happen in five years of a human life.

In 1955, Van Nice said that “I often think that the great story is not going to come from the facts I struggle to set down but from its monumental indifference to what men have done to it and said about it, not to mention earthquakes, storms, conversions, wars, and, more recently as part of a long succession of similar events, savage riots.” A witness to thousands of sunrises, to millions of births and deaths, and building remains, always its own perfect self.


Market, Istanbul. From the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers (BF.S.1999.0002), Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.



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