Thomas Whittemore and fellow members of the Egypt Exploration Society have spent the winter conducting excavations at this lonely site, a barren desert promontory on the eastern bank of the Nile, not too far from Abu Tisht in what is now Egypt’s Sohag Governorate. Here a series of Medjay and New Kingdom cemeteries, long buried beneath the silt, gravel, and fine sands of the Upper Egyptian wastelands, were gradually giving up their secrets, yielding everything from potsherds and sandals to axe heads and amulets, and all thanks to the strenuous efforts of the American Whittemore and his British colleague Gerald Avery Wainwright. It must have beggared belief, amidst the desolation of the Egyptian desert, that only a few months had passed since Whittemore had been in war-torn France working with the Red Cross, an experience that had given him an acrid taste of the horrors of the Great War. “Just returned from France for supplies,” he had wired home. “Acres of wounded. Unimaginable suffering. Operations without ether.” And though Whittemore had left the Western Front for the dig at Balabish, his thoughts remained back in Europe, for he was at heart only an amateur archaeologist. His true passion was philanthropy, and as soon as the cemetery excavation project seemed to be winding up, the American scholar was on his way back to France to join the Army Medical Service.
Thomas Whittemore was a consummate dilettante; indeed his life had all the makings of a Bildungsroman in the vein of Henry James or Edith Wharton. Born into a prominent Boston family, Whittemore attended Tufts and Harvard before traveling to Paris, his architectural studies at the Sorbonne only the pretext for the undertaking of a Grand Tour across the length and breadth of Europe, from Italy over to Russia, and from Germany down to Bulgaria. It was his time in the Balkans that sparked his lifelong obsession with all things Byzantine. The Orthodox world — the “Byzantine Commonwealth,” as Dmitri Obolensky later called it — exerted a magnetic force upon the young American academic, who, shortly after returning from Balabish to France to assist in relief efforts, quickly changed tack yet again, as was his wont, making his way back to Bulgaria and then on to Russia. There Whittemore began his work on behalf of the Committee of Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna for the Temporary Relief of Victims of War, an organization founded to alleviate the plight of Russian expatriates in the Balkans and Asia Minor.
After the February Revolution of 1917, Whittemore was obliged to decamp once more, with Petrograd no longer being remotely safe. Now Constantinople beckoned, and Whittemore would treat the metropolis on the Bosporus as a new base from which he could continue assisting Russian refugees, all the while lending a logistical hand to Bulgarian archaeologists investigating sites like Messemvria Basilica, the Red Church in Peruštica, and the Bělovo Basilica. For Whittemore, saving lives and preserving cultural patrimony were simply two faces of the same humanitarian coin. It was appropriate, then, that in the year 1927 Whittemore both received the French Légion d’honneur for his efforts on behalf of Russian émigrés and also made his triumphant return to academia, teaching a course on Byzantine art at New York University. The itinerant scholar managed to last almost three years in Greenwich Village, attaining the rank of Assistant Professor. But Whittemore could not stay away from Istanbul for long, and so back he went, albeit this time with an even greater sense of purpose.
It is the evening of June 12, and Thomas Whittemore has invited eight of his friends to the Tokatlıyan Hotel for a sumptuous dinner. These days the Tokatlıyan is perhaps best known for its appearances in Agatha Christie’s Parker Pyne Investigates and Murder on the Orient Express, but its long and storied history includes stays by Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker, its cruel vandalization during the Armenian Genocide, and an infamous incident in which the journalist and politician Ali Kemal (Boris Johnson’s great-grandfather) was abducted from the Tokatlıyan barbershop and lynched during the Turkish War of Independence. It was at this legendary hotel on the Grande Rue de Pera, and on this momentous eventide, that Whittemore truly began to make history, proposing as he did the establishment of the Byzantine Institute of America. The scheme was well-received, and the Institute soon had an executive office in Boston, a library in Paris, and a field office in Istanbul (though it is now housed within the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.).
Secular Turkey is being systematically dismantled, and it was only a matter of time before the Hagia Sophia found itself in the crosshairs, the status of the former basilica having long been weaponized.
The renowned Byzantinist Sir Steven Runciman, in his capacity as press attaché at the British Legation in Sofia, and then as Professor of Byzantine Art and History at Istanbul University, would frequently cross paths with Whittemore over the years. Runciman waspishly dismissed his counterpart as “that old American fraud” even while enjoying his “rather eccentric company.” To Runciman, Whittemore was “a man whom professional archaeologists and scholars dismissed as a pretentious amateur,” and who “had a gift for making himself appear to be a charlatan,” but no one could deny Whittemore’s “persuasive powers,” which “enabled him to raise funds … from rich American ladies, whom he handled with superb artifice.” Whittemore’s powers of persuasion, it turned out, were by no means limited to dunning wealthy dowagers for charitable contributions.
After a stint back in Egypt on Byzantine Institute business, documenting the frescoes at the Coptic monasteries of Saints Anthony and Paul, Whittemore achieved his greatest coup yet, managing to convince the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to allow fieldworkers to remove the layers upon layers of plaster and whitewash that had covered the mosaics of the great Church of Hagia Sophia since the days of Sultan Mehmed II. Whittemore’s request was altogether brazen — the church had been converted to a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and as of 1931 was still serving as an active place of Muslim worship — but the American scholar’s honeyed tongue was employed to good effect. There was even something of a precedent, for in 1847 the Sultan Abdülmecid had allowed the Italian brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati to briefly uncover and sketch the mosaics before immediately covering them back up “out of respect for Muslim religious customs prohibiting the representation of humans.” It did not hurt that Atatürk was looking to modernize Turkey, sever the link between religion and state, and regularize relations with Greece and the West, so Whittemore’s request was received sympathetically. “Santa Sophia was a mosque the day that I talked to him,” Whittemore later boasted, but “the next morning, when I went to the mosque, there was a sign on the door written in Ataturk’s own hand. It said: ‘The museum is closed for repairs.’ ”
The Hagia Sophia was soon a hive of archaeological activity, as gleaming depictions of Christ Pantocrator, Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita, Emperor John II Komnenos, and a great many others emerged from the formerly bare walls of the structure. When one mosaic was uncovered in April 1932, Whittemore excitedly wrote to the Institute’s secretary, Seth Gano, informing him that excavators had “uncovered the first great cross in the lunette series [and that] the cross is of gorgeous red and emerald green enamel with jeweled extremities in which silver mosaics are introduced.” Even the most minor composition here could inspire awe, and even the most minute tessera could evoke an entire aesthetic universe, for each tile was laced with delicate filigrees of gold leaf and then positioned at an angle (typically between 15 and 30 degrees) optimized to reflect sunlight and candlelight. But the most astounding of all these mosaics must surely have been that of the Deësis, a 13th-century composition so remarkable in its sensitivity and humanism that it is widely accepted as having prefigured the entirety of Renaissance painting. A personal favorite of mine, however, remains the depiction of gamboling peacocks on the holy water font, a scene set beneath the wonderfully creative Greek palindrome Nipson anomēmata mē monan opsin, or “Wash your sins, not just your face.”
Sir Steven Runciman, in a fit of pique unbefitting of a scholar of his standing, took to calling Whittemore “the mosaic-cleaner of St Sophia,” but the uncomfortable fact was that the English Byzantinist, though a magnificent prose stylist and gifted popularizer, never produced anything comparable to Whittemore’s feat in revealing the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia. Thanks to the founder of the Byzantine Institute, we can understand the basilica not just as a physical structure, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total or universal work of art that radiates majesty from the inside out, as well as a locus sacratus of world-historical importance. The architectural historian Mirjana Lozanovska has observed that “the image conveyed by Hagia Sofia is that of an expansion of space from the inside outwards; so much so that the whole structure from the outside appears as if it is about to burst. The exterior is a shell that accommodates the creative effects of the interior, an outcome of all its centrifugal and centripetal forces,” thereby acting “as a medium of devotion between self and another which lies beyond the self. In this sense, the architecture of Hagia Sophia brings into being a transcendence that mediates between individuals, nature and the universe.” The envoys of Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev certainly agreed, for they reported having gone “into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.” Vladimir Sviatoslavich was convinced, and in 988 the Kievan Rus’ were Christianized, in no small part due to the sheer splendor of the Church of Holy Wisdom.
There were those in Istanbul who objected to Whittemore’s restoration of the Hagia Sophia on religious grounds, but, as Charles King wrote in Midnight at the Pera Palace,
Secular Turks rallied in response. Halil Bey, the parliamentarian and museum curator, rose to Whittemore’s defense and stressed the scholarly and artistic nature of the enterprise. Yunus Nadi likewise hailed Whittemore’s work as the victor of science over religion. The original decision to plaster over the mosaics under Sultan Abdülmecid I, he wrote in Cumhuriyet, had been an expression of brutal religious conservatism. Now, at last, the artistic glories of the city were being freed from their religious veils and revealed to their secular custodians.
By 1934, the Turkish Council of Ministers had declared the site a museum, the same year that the Byzantine Institute was officially issued a charter from the State of Massachusetts. Had Whittemore and his institute accomplished nothing else beyond the Hagia Sophia restoration, the project would still have to be considered a resounding success. As Whittemore concluded, the Hagia Sophia “is the universe of buildings. It is what the world needs most and has lost.” And he had given it back.
It is July 2, and the Danıştay, or Turkish Council of State, the highest administrative court in the Republic of Turkey, has been convened to consider whether the 1934 cabinet decree converting the Great Mosque of Ayasofya into a museum ought to be reversed. The meeting, we are told, lasted only 17 minutes, after which the court ruled that “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promptly signed a decree turning the site back into a place of Muslim worship, a move greeted in the Turkish parliament with a standing ovation by members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Reaction abroad was naturally less enthusiastic. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously warned that the museum served “humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith, traditions and cultures,” and after the decision stated that “we are disappointed with the decision of the Turkish government. I have nothing further to add.” The Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, characterized the decision as an “open provocation to the civilised world,” while the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew deemed the move “unacceptable”; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for its part, declared July 24, the planned first day for Muslim prayers to be held at Ayasofya, to be “day of mourning and of manifest grief.”
Turkey’s official response to each and every one of these criticisms has been terse, but on some level coherent: “Hagia Sophia is the property of Turkey.” Thomas Madden, writing in First Things, has argued that the Hagia Sophia should “no more be a mosque than the Parthenon should be restored to the worship of Athena,” but the fact of the matter is that polling indicates that 73 percent of Turks want Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque, whereas I imagine that there are vanishingly few Athenians looking to erect altars, burn offal, and leave votive offerings on the grounds of the Acropolis. The Islamization of Turkey under Erdoğan continues apace, with headscarves returning to the public square, with a new mosque being erected on the west side of Taksim Square (while the nearby opera house is demolished), and with a marked shift in the country’s foreign policy heightening tensions throughout the region. Secular Turkey is being systematically dismantled, and it was only a matter of time before the Hagia Sophia found itself in the crosshairs, the status of the former basilica having long been weaponized. Back in 2015, the Turkish Muslim official Mefail Hızlı warned that Pope Francis’ references to the Armenian genocide “will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be re-opened for [Muslim] worship.” (It must be kept in mind, at the same time, that according to polling conducted by Metropoll, some 55 percent of respondents said that “the main reason for announcing the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be to distract from debates on Turkey’s economic crisis and to boost the government’s hand ahead of a snap election.”)
Ultimately, Turkey possesses the Hagia Sophia by right of conquest and may do with it what it will, Russia and Greece having both squandered several opportunities to return the city to the Orthodox and European fold. Whether or not Erdoğan would be willing to apply that logic to, say, Israel vis-à-vis Jerusalem is another story altogether. Indeed his speech announcing the conversion of the museum was generously interlarded with revanchism, including a call to resuscitate the world of Islam that once stretched from “Bukhara to Andalusia” and an assurance that “the resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque.” This Islamist rhetoric is a new twist on a long-standing tradition of ethnocentric atavism quite common in Turkish politics. After all, Atatürk may have jettisoned Islamism, but he replaced it with an equally strident sense of Türklük, or “Turkishness.” Under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, “insulting Turkishness” is a criminal offense, one that can be committed by, for example, merely mentioning the historical fact that is the Armenian genocide, something writers and journalists like Orhan Pamuk, Hrant Dink, and others have found out the hard way.
Turkish ethno-nationalism can reach extravagantly absurd proportions, such as when, in the 1930s, Turkish linguists propounded the so-called “sun language theory,” according to which all human languages are traced, somehow, back to a primal proto-Turkic language. More recently the travel writer William Dalrymple, during a visit to the Shrine of Saint George in Büyükada, noted how fervently Muslim Turks were praying in what was ostensibly a Christian chapel:
“The Muslims also believe in St George,” explained a young Greek student I met waiting by the jetty a half an hour later. “They hear St George is working miracles so they come here and ask him for babies. Maybe they don’t know he is Greek.” “They probably think he is Turkish,” said her friend. “Probably,” said the first girl. “They think everything is Turkish. I’ve heard boys say Haghia Sophia and the Hippodrome were built by the Seljuk Turks.” “They don’t know history,” agreed the second girl. “One day some boy asked my sister, ‘Why do you Greeks come here? All you do is make trouble.’ She said, ‘We didn’t come: you did.’’” “They even think Homer was one of them,” sighed the first girl. “They say he was a Turk and that his real name was Omar.”
It is even worse when Westerners play along, as was the case when National Geographic, in a resource library page on Istanbul that had to be deleted after widespread Greek outcry, bizarrely referred to how “the Greeks and Romans were forced out by the indigenous Ottoman Turks.” In any event, it seems that we will be lucky if, after a few more years of Erdoğan/AKP rule, the Byzantine origins of the Hagia Sophia retain any purchase on the Turkish historical imagination, and we can only lament that the humane vision advanced by Thomas Whittemore, in which the radiance of the Church of Holy Wisdom might be a beacon to all — regardless of faith, and even in a professedly secular and majority Muslim nation — did not manage to last a century.
It is December 27, and Emperor Justinian I and Patriarch Menas have arrived at the newly completed Hagia Sophia to celebrate the basilica’s consecration. The church, designed to replace its Theodosian predecessor, which had gone up in flames during the Nika Revolt, took almost six years and 10,000 laborers to build. Paola Cesaretti noted that “the legends about the construction of the basilica tell of hidden treasures, messenger angels, and arks overflowing with gold dropping from Heaven,” though the “rigorous fiscal policy” of John the Cappadocian did not hurt, given that “the amount of money that went into the construction of the church might have sufficed to support two million families for a whole year.” The result was, as we all know, a tour de force. The poet Paulus Silentiarius, in his 563 Descr. S. Sophiae, rhapsodized about “the glitter of cut mosaic,” the “thin slabs of marble,” the “discs of porphyry glittering with a beauty that charms the heart,” while the “roof is compacted of gilded tesserae from which a glittering stream of golden rays pours abundantly and strikes men’s eyes with irresistible force. It is as if one were gazing at the midday sun in spring, when he gilds each mountaintop.”
Justinian, upon entering the basilica for the first time, gave thanks to God but could not help but add the famous words, “Solomon, I have defeated you.” He understood then what Thomas Whittemore understood 14 centuries later, that the Hagia Sophia was “the universe of buildings,” providing “what the world needs most.” Thanks to Justinian and his geometrician-architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, the world was afforded the opportunity to witness divine transcendence made manifest in gold, marble, porphyry, and stucco. When Mehmed the Conqueror entered the Hagia Sophia in 1453, it was said that he remained silent, only later uttering the lines from a Persian poem:
The spider is a watchman in the palace of Khosrow.
The owl plays its watch music in the fort of Afrâsijâb.
At the moment of his greatest triumph, the Ottoman sultan realized that he was no more than an interloper, and that no military conquest could match the “irresistible force” with which the Church of Holy Wisdom strikes the viewer.
Thomas Whittemore helped reveal to us the gilded tesserae that after a millennium and a half still shine as brightly as the “midday sun in spring.” As of July 24, 2020, those mosaics will be covered once again during Muslim prayers. But will Erdoğan’s tatty curtains really suffice? As we have seen, practically every observer of the Hagia Sophia has remarked upon the unearthly glow that emanates from within the structure; Procopius, in De aedeficiis, was among the first to observe how its interior “space is not illuminated by the sun from the outside, but that the radiance is generated within, so great an abundance of light bathes this shrine all around.” It is comforting to think that this is just the sort of incandescence that can never be dimmed, not by invasion, not by crusades or holy wars, not by earthquakes, not by neglect, not even by the depredations of our own hideous age.