Church, Mosque, Museum

The Byzantine Institute and Preserving the Fethiye and Kariye Camii in Istanbul
contribution by Jessica Cebra
[1] Fethiye Camii, Istanbul, 1957: South wall of the main vaulted space showing rounded arch added in the Ottoman period. Photo by the Byzantine Institute (MSBZ004-H57.915)

The numerous architectural reconstructions and renovations in Istanbul today often raise several questions in regards to historic preservation. And while previous essays featured on stambouline have primarily focused on Ottoman monuments, many Byzantine sites have suffered similar fates of so-called “preservation” or “renewal,” most recently the Zeyrek Camii (Pantocrator Monastery) and the Tekfur Sarayi (Palace of Porfyrogennitos) in the Fatih neighborhood. Both monuments have undergone costly restorations, sacrificing historical accuracy in favor of commercial development and promoting cultural narratives tailored for the current government’s political agenda. Preservation of architectural heritage is inevitably challenging when a building has possessed various identities and has served many functions and communities over time. Depending on which life of a building one wishes to revive, a building can be altered, renovated, or restored many different ways. Though many of the recent reconstructions are favorable over utter demolition, they clearly lack the acknowledgement and use of resources and scholarship that are available to accomplish more historically accurate preservation. The suppression or destruction of certain cultural characteristics and the emphasis and preservation of others has been part of an ongoing reclamation of history between modern Greek and neo-Ottomanist narratives in the heritage preservation landscape of Istanbul.

[2] Byzantine Institute Staff and Thomas
Whittemore restoring the mosaics at Hagia
Sophia, 1936. Photo by the Byzantine Institute

We can look back to the early Republican years of Turkey for somewhat similar examples of this push-and-pull dynamic, when Atatürk balanced Western influence and nationalist urges to commence sweeping societal changes, including the secularization of mosques that had originally been constructed as Byzantine churches, such as Hagia Sophia, Kariye Camii, Fethiye Camii [Fig. 1], and Imrahor Camii. These buildings were deemed national monuments and became museums, though the structures first required consolidation and repair, with the decorative mosaics and wall paintings within in need of uncovering, cleaning, and preservation after centuries of being concealed. This work would be undertaken by the Byzantine Institute, a US organization founded by the enigmatic aesthete turned humanitarian and preservationist Thomas Whittemore [Fig. 2]. Though, unlike many of the current projects taking place today that alter and replace, the Byzantine Institute was grounded in scholarship and specialized craftsmanship, and was careful to bring buildings and artworks to a historically accurate condition, to the best of their ability, while comprehensively documenting their condition before any changes commenced. The wealth of documentation and research produced by the Byzantine Institute allows the many lives of centuries old architecture to be exposed.

[3] Fethiye Camii, 1948: Fieldworker exposing 
a fragment of mosaic from beneath the white 
plasterPhoto by the Byzantine Institute 
“His mind, he once confided to a friend, was always in Istanbul,” Charles King writes about Whittemore in his Midnight at the Pera Palace [p. 273], a portrait of Istanbul between the wars. Whittemore, from Massachusetts, traveled widely and dabbled in a variety of interests before finding his calling in aiding refugees escaping the Bolsheviks during the First World War, and became a central figure of the relief effort in Istanbul, arranging housing and education for exiled families and their children. He established schools with the support of the Committee for the Education of Russian Youth in Exile where he encountered students that he would later employ at the Byzantine Institute. Whittemore also engaged with artists who had to leave the Russian Institute in Constantinople (RAIK) when it shut down in 1914. The RAIK artists primarily painted replicas of Byzantine art for display abroad to raise public awareness and to produce copies for preservation purposes. Whittemore was convinced of the importance of these artworks, and, with his incredible ability to convince others and to gain their patronage, he established the Byzantine Institute in 1929/1930 to preserve Byzantine art and architecture. After enough funds were raised and negotiations made with Turkey’s Council of Ministers, Whittemore was authorized to preserve the remains of Byzantine churches in Istanbul, beginning with Hagia Sophia [see Fig. 2]. While there is photographic evidence that Whittemore had met with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there is no clear understanding of the extent of the president's involvement with granting the permissions to the Byzantine Institute.
[4] Fethiye Camii: Arch between south arm and
southeast bay of the Parakklesion, south soffit.
A Mosaic of Saint Blasius can be seen partially
uncovered. Photo by the Byzantine Institute 
The Byzantine Institute operated between a Boston office, their Paris library, and Istanbul fieldwork sites. One of their most notable and well-known accomplishments was the mosaic preservation at Hagia Sophia in the 1930s-1950s. After Whittemore’s passing in 1950, the Byzantine Institute’s fieldwork projects continued under the direction and supervision of Dumbarton Oaks staff in Washington, DC, and expanded to other areas of Turkey as well as Cyprus, Macedonia and Syria. In addition to the meticulous work of their fieldworkers and conservators, the Byzantine Institute was prolific in their documentation. Field notebooks, drawings, tracings, films and countless photographs fill the organizations archive at Dumbarton Oaks. The photographs are especially unique and invaluable because they not only document the Byzantine art and architecture that was being preserved, but also capture the processes and techniques of a relatively new realm of conservation, that of Byzantine mosaics [Figs. 3 & 4]. These photographs also stand as proof of the diligence that the Institute exercised in capturing the buildings and spaces as they were found, documenting the Ottoman architectural additions and alterations, plastered-over walls, and mosque furnishings and decorations.

[5] Exterior view from southwest, Fethiye Camii; Left, before restoration, 1937 (PHBZ010-ICFA.NA.0148); Right, after restoration, 1938 (PHBZ010-ICFA.NA.0252). Photos by Nicholas V. Artamonoff.

[6] Exterior view from east, Fethiye Camii, 1948:
Byzantine-era south chapel (parekklesion) apse
to the left, Ottoman-era apse to the right. by
the Byzantine Institute (MSBZ004-FC-2008-4)
The Fethiye Camii (Monastery of Theotokos Pammakaristos) is one of the Comnenian era, or 11th-12th-century, structures that the Byzantine Institute focused on between 1949-1963. The building had undergone a previous renovation in 1937-1938 [Fig.5], but was in much need of internal structural restoration to bring it more closely to its original Byzantine design, which was greatly modified from the 16th-18th centuries after the Ottomans converted it into a mosque in 1586. Though the main church structure was to remain a functioning mosque with the Ottoman-era apse kept intact [Fig.6], the parekklesion, or south chapel, which had exceptional remains of 14th-century mosaic decoration, was to become a museum.

[7] Plan of the Fethiye Camii, illustrating
the alterations made over time including
the Ottoman additions. After Hawkins
and Mango, 1964.
Throughout the Byzantine era, alterations of architecture were quite normal, as buildings would be changed according to their surroundings and uses, the ambitions of their patrons, and the needs of constituents. The plan of the Fethiye Camii [Fig.7] illustrates the various phases of construction over time, including the later Ottoman additions and changes. For example, the original triple arcades surrounding the square nave in the main church were all replaced with large pointed arches, and rounded arches elsewhere in the 16th century. During the process, columns were removed to make the space feel as open and expansive as possible.

As it stands now, the mosque interior in the main prayer space doesn't look much different from a series of photographs taken in 1957, when the walls had been uncovered and photographed [Fig. 8, see Fig. 1]. They were quickly plastered back over in 1960. 

[8] Fethiye Camii, 1957: Left, mihrab in the Ottoman apse of the main church structure, looking southeast (MSBZ004-H57.897); right, main vaulted space, looking west from apse (MSBZ004-H57.904). Photo by the Byzantine Institute. 

[9] Fethiye Camii: Parekklesion, interior looking
north, before restoration. Photo b
y the Byzantine 
Institute (MSBZ004-F-55-61-1)
Since then, carpet has been laid down, the mihrab has been tiled over, and colored glass glazes the windows, but the walls remain painted white with modest decoration and the minbar sits awkwardly between the nave and the parekklesion. The most extensive changes made by the Byzantine Institute were in the parekklesion, where the Ottoman stone arches were reverted back to their smaller brick ones [Figs. 9 & 10] to better complement the reinstalled columns and uncovered mosaic decoration in the space.

[10] Fethiye Camii: Parekklesion, interior looking north; Left, during restoration (MSBZ004-H63-259); Right, after restoration (MSBZ004-FC-55-63-5). Photo by the Byzantine Institute.
“There was probably no better preservative...than Muslim conquest,” writes King [p. 270], referring to the interior decorations of Byzantine churches, which during the later Ottoman period were often plastered and whitewashed over to conceal figural representations while the buildings were being used as mosques. King's statement does not mean to negate the highly destructive invasions throughout the early Ottoman period, but points to the fact that many of these artworks had previously suffered varying degrees of damage through the iconoclastic years, as well as from looting and earthquakes; and though the Ottomans dealt with the decorative programs in a low-cost and efficient manner by covering them up, in one sense they were protecting the decorations by keeping them physically concealed and visually out of sight. 

[11] Kariye Camii, Istanbul, 1937: Nave, view towards apse before mosque was secularized (PHBZ010-ICFA.NA.0133). Photo by Nicholas V. Artamonoff.
In addition to the Fethiye Camii, the Byzantine Institute worked simultaneously at the 12th-14th-century structure Kariye Camii (Christ of the Chora church) from 1947 until 1958. The Chora is an interesting case because the mosaic decoration was never fully covered in the Ottoman period. The building was converted to a mosque sometime between 1495-1511 [Fig.11], but travel accounts by visitors describe the mosaics being visible well into the 18th century -the landmark was known as the “Mosaic Museum”- and were only partially concealed thereafter. On the other hand, the wall paintings in the parekklesion were completely covered with whitewash – a new preservation challenge for the Byzantine Institute staff [Fig.12]. That is, calcium crystals that had formed in humid environmental conditions and other organic growths from the lyme in the paint added more layers to be carefully removed from the painting surfaces.

[12] Kariye Camii: Left, parekklesion, view towards east, 1951 (MSBZ004-K604-51-158); Right,  fieldworker Constantine Tsaousis conserving a section of wall painting on the south wall, 1957 (MSBZ004-K604-57-154). Photo by the Byzantine Institute. 

Fieldwork was temporarily halted after September 6, 1955 due to the riots and violence in Istanbul against the Greek community, instigated by rumors that a Turkish consulate in Greece was set aflame. Fieldwork staff corresponded with Dumbarton Oaks Director John Thacher and described the horrific events:
I’ve just returned this morning from an inspection of the places where we are working after a terrible night in which all Greek and other minority shops were destroyed, many Greek houses terribly damaged and their goods thrown out into the streets, many Greek churches burned… I was terribly relieved to see that Kariye had not suffered and that Pammakaristos was also spared. I have asked the director of Ayasofya to send another guard to sleep at Kariye tonight.
[13] Kariye Camii, ca. 1950s: Fieldworkers replacing
wall reinforcements (MSBZ004-BF.S.1991.0246).
Photo by Carroll Wales.
Some of the fieldworkers and their families were victims of the riots, and the project budgets received additional funding to take care of the personal damages incurred. Despite the atmosphere of tension at the time, the diverse group of fieldworkers maintained comradery and a peaceful workplace. Wales elaborated on their working arrangement in his oral history. Fieldworkers who identified as Greek Orthodox would work on mosaics and paintings that depicted iconographic scenes and figures, and those who identified as Muslims and therefore may not have been fully comfortable working on Christian representational art would fulfill other tasks relating to the architecture, such as repairs to the roofing, floors, minaret, and other structural reinforcements [Figs.13-15]. Yet everyone would come together during breaks to sit outside and play multiple games of tavla.

[14] Front facade of the Kariye Camii, ca. 1950s: The minaret is under repair (MSBZ004-BF.S.1991.0243). Photo by Carroll Wales.
[15] Kariye Camii, 1958: Fieldworker bringing the dome
 or minaret finial back to its original brilliant shine, one
of the final touches before the museum opened
(MSBZ004-H58.143). Photo by the Byzantine Institute.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople naturally took interest in the revival of the Chora, but made a diplomatic decision to not visit the building while the work was taking place. He wanted to avoid any socio-political tensions or suspicions that might be raised by the restoration of Christian iconography in a former mosque. Instead, Wales and his assistant Constantine Tsaousis would pay visits to the Patriarch to report on the progress of work. The fieldwork director Paul Underwood wrote extensive project reports both to keep Turkish officials informed and for publication purposes. While Whittemore did not live to see the outcome of the Kariye Camii conservation, he was the driving force that allowed the gem of the Chora and its distinguished mosaic and wall painting decoration to remain uncovered and accessible to visitors from all over the world. An exhibition of the fieldwork took place in 2007 at the Pera Museum, and in its exhibition catalog Natalia Teteriatnikov mused [p. 37]: 
It was no coincidence that Thomas Whittemore, the founder and director of the Byzantine Institute, was also director of the Committee for the Education of Russian Youth in Exile. Being in Europe during World War I and in Russia from 1914 to 1918 and on later occasions, Whittemore witnessed human tragedy as well as the destruction of monuments. The unique position of the United States after World War I combined with Whittemore’s experience in Russian relief work, his archaeological activities, and his international contacts and influential friends were the factors that facilitated the development of the Byzantine Institute of America.
The Kariye Camii and Fethiye Camii are still museums today under the jurisdiction of the Hagia Sophia Museum. The buildings and their decorations are still at risk due to the urban environmental conditions caused by an ever-expanding city, and the ravages of time. The photographs made by the Byzantine Institute document additional sites and artworks that are no longer accessible or no longer exist. The Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks continues to make these images available online. The photographs of Fethiye Camii, Hagia Sophia, and other sites have already been made available here. The images of Kariye Camii will soon be added, and all of these photographs will eventually be viewable through Harvard's HOLLIS Images online database.

JESSICA CEBRA is departmental assistant in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.

Citation: "Church, Mosque, Museum: The Byzantine Institute and Preserving the Fethiye and Kariye Camii in Istanbul," Jessica Cebra, Stambouline (September 10, 2017).

Primary Sources:
Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
-MS.BZ.004 The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s 
-PH.BZ.010 Nicholas V. Artamonoff Photographs of Istanbul and Turkey, 1935-1945 

Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.
-Oral history interview with Carroll F. Wales, 1992 November 10-1993 February 11

More Reading:
Belting, Hans, Cyril A. Mango, and Doula Mouriki. The Mosaics and Frescoes of St. Mary Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) at Istanbul. Dumbarton Oaks Studies 15. Locust Valley, N.Y: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1978.

Holger A. Klein, Robert G. Ousterhout, Brigitte Pitarakis. Kariye: From Theodore Metochites to Thomas Whittemore: One monument, Two Monumental Personalities. Istanbul: Pera Müzesi, 2007.

King, Charles. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Mango, Cyril, and Ernest J. W. Hawkins. "Report on Field Work in Istanbul and Cyprus, 1962-1963." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 18 (1964): 319-40.


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