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Textiles and Hagia Sophia Restorations

Posted On October 29, 2020 | 09:02 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Ilgin Nas catalogues comprehensive research on Hagia Sophia restorations

Ilgin Nas, a Master of Theological Studies student at Harvard Divinity School, was a 2019–2020 humanities fellow. Her research report, “Exploring the Humanities (Hands-On) through Hagia Sophia” detailed the process of cataloguing the papers of Robert L. Van Nice.


Q&A with Ilgin Nas

How did you collaborate on programming at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum and at Dumbarton Oaks?

In fall 2019 The Textile Museum put on the exhibit Woven Interiors: Furnishing Medieval Egypt, and Dumbarton Oaks held a sister exhibit called Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion. The Textile Museum exhibition featured textiles that were used for interior decoration, while the Dumbarton Oaks show consisted of pieces for personal adornment; the two exhibits combined gave an idea of how textiles were used in general in Byzantine Egypt. I served as a link between the two museums, especially in the process of organizing The Textile Museum’s annual colloquium for 2019, which focused on Byzantine textiles.

The colloquium was a collaborative effort, with scholars from both museums speaking on textiles of the period in general and on the pieces displayed in the two shows. Almost all the colloquium speakers had been to the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archive (ICFA) to look for information on Byzantine textiles, so it was interesting that these people were already connected to both museums for their research.


What did you learn about Dumbarton Oaks’ role in the Hagia Sophia restorations? 

The Hagia Sophia was a Byzantine church that was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took over Istanbul. There were some repairs during the Ottoman era, and another major repair in 1847 by the Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati. When the Ottoman era ended and the Turkish republic was founded in the early 1900s, the president of the new republic undertook another restoration effort. 

The newly founded Turkey didn’t have the resources to carry out the restoration, so they contacted the Byzantine Institute, which was a group of Western scholars and researchers. The Byzantine Institute took over the restoration, and when it terminated its administrative and fieldwork operations in 1962, Dumbarton Oaks took over the restoration project. The first Turkish president, Mustafa Atatürk, invested in the Westernization of Turkey, and an awareness of historical heritage and preservation of historical monuments was part of that. Atatürk’s signature is different in his two letters related to the restoration, showing the gradual transition from Arabic to Latin script during this time. 

Since Dumbarton Oaks oversaw much of the project, we have a lot of documents on the restoration itself, as well as the research done prior to the hands-on restoration, including the Byzantine Institute documents and the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. I researched the ICFA’s holdings in comparison to those of other archives and came to the conclusion that Dumbarton Oaks definitely has more documents than any other archive in the world on the restoration. For example, while the Turkish government archive contains plenty of Hagia Sophia-related documents from the Ottoman era, they lack such documents from the Republic era. Any additional documents of importance from other archives I found were already in the ICFA.


Why are the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers so important and useful?

Van Nice was an architect who conducted a large-scale study of Hagia Sophia under the sponsorship of Dumbarton Oaks between 1957 and 1985. Before undertaking the hands-on restoration project, he investigated every single item or material in the building. For example, he conducted in-depth research on various kinds of wood before deciding what to use for the restoration. In fact, the Van Nice collection of the ICFA contains multiple boxes of detailed research on various metals, wood, and glass.

There’s a lot to learn from him about the process of researching. Finding information today is much easier, as access to knowledge is facilitated by the internet. The amount of work Van Nice put into his research is really impressive, and we can learn from that kind of meticulous, patient, slow study. He didn’t take anything for granted: he examined a research question, found the expert on the topic, and sent a letter to them to find the most correct answer. 

The archive also has many of his observations about the hands-on work; he recorded every single step of the restoration process. When you go through his on-site notes, you get into his mind—all his thinking is on paper. It’s definitely different to look at Hagia Sophia now and put yourself in the position of a person in the mid-twentieth century starting the restoration from scratch, so if researchers want to have that kind of direct experience, the documents are a great primary source.


Interviewed and edited by Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellows Julia Ostmann (2018–2020) and May Wang. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.