Byzantium and Beyond

Thomas Whittemore - academic, archaeologist, and humanitarian - cemented his ties to the East when he founded the Byzantine Institute in 1930. For Whittemore, however, this was not the capstone of a varied career, but rather a new beginning.


For more, see Moving Images Collection: Red Sea Monasteries.

The Byzantine Institute Takes Shape, 1929-1931

On June 12, 1929, Thomas Whittemore hosted a dinner for several of his friends at a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey. It is thought that the framework for the Byzantine Institute was established at this gathering.Robert Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (Chicago, 2004), p. 172-173. Whittemore had long been concerned for the welfare of noteworthy sites in nations plagued by political instability, such as Russia and Bulgaria. He likely began to devise plans for the Byzantine Institute during the height of his relief efforts earlier in the decade.

Interestingly, the Byzantine Institute did not immediately set sail for Byzantium after becoming fully operational in 1930. Rather, during its formative period, the organization first moved operations to Egypt—to a region intimately tied to Whittemore’s early career as an amateur archaeologist with the Egypt Exploration Society. Working along the Red Sea from 1930 to early 1931, Whittemore and the Byzantine Institute conducted studies of wall paintings at the Coptic Monasteries of Saints Anthony and Paul,“Coptic Monasteries Yield Much New Data,” The New York Times (March 2, 1931), 8. Photographs from the expedition are also published in: “New Light on Byzantine Art: Early Egyptian Monasteries and their Wall-Paintings Dating from the 12th to the 15th Centuries – A Period Hitherto Unrepresented by Such Examples,” The Illustrated London News (July 4, 1931). Also, click the link to see the film for the Red Sea Monasteries. documenting their efforts through a series of photographs and a motion picture film that would prove quite useful in generating publicity and funds to further the Institute’s mission. Meanwhile, Whittemore was also in the midst of negotiations with the Turkish government concerning the restoration and conservation of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Permission was finally obtained in December 1931.Nelson 2004, p. 155. In the process, Whittemore would further secure for himself and the Institute a place in historical memory.

Thomas Whittemore in Context, Before and Beyond

Thomas Whittemore donned many hats throughout his life—both literally and figuratively. However, his varied careers were not distinct, but interconnected. His experiences as an academic, amateur archaeologist, and humanitarian seemingly melded into a single (albeit indefinable) occupation. Thus, coupled with his status as a member of the Boston elite and his undeniable cosmopolitan flair, Whittemore’s early personal and professional activities endowed him with the multifaceted perspective and the diverse skill set that enabled him to found the Byzantine Institute in 1930 and to ensure that it would thrive in the coming decades.


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