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Who Was Thomas Whittemore?

Today we owe a great deal to Thomas Whittemore and his affiliates for their efforts to understand, protect, and preserve sites of the utmost historic significance. Read through the narrative sections to the left to gain a better understanding of his multifaceted life.

Thomas Whittemore is perhaps best remembered for founding the Byzantine Institute, an organization that specialized in the study, restoration, and conservation of Byzantine art and architecture, in 1930. Overseeing the Institute’s fieldwork projects and publication efforts until his sudden death in 1950, Whittemore made a name for himself among Byzantinists and art historians alike when he initiated an unprecedented restoration and conservation project at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, in December 1931. How an English professor and amateur archaeologist from the United States convinced the Turkish government to permit an international team of fieldworkers to restore and conserve the building’s priceless mosaics—to convert what was at the time a mosque into a worksite and subsequently a museum—remains something of a mystery.

So, how did Whittemore make his way to Turkey? How did he, moreover, manage to create and sustain a complex organization like the Byzantine Institute in the midst of the Great Depression, a time in which introversion was the way of the West? Why, for that matter, did he turn his eyes toward Byzantium?

Early Life and Academia

Born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, on January 2, 1871, Thomas Whittemore was the only child of real estate and insurance broker Joseph Whittemore and his wife, Elizabeth St. Clair Whittemore. He was named after his grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Whittemore, who had been a prominent Universalist minister and a co-founder of Tufts College in Boston. Young Thomas, it seems, was born with ties to academia.

Whittemore began his studies at Tufts in 1889 and he quickly attained success in the academic and extracurricular realms. In addition to serving as a member and later the president of the Mathetican Society (Tufts’s prestigious debating club) and the Tufts Publishing Association, Whittemore was editor-in-chief of the Tuftonian literary magazine and was also involved with the school’s tennis and baseball associations.Holger Klein, "Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore: Erken Dönem, 1871–1916” [The elusive Mr. Whittemore: The early years, 1871–1916], in The Kariye Camii Reconsidered, ed. by Holger Klein, Robert Ousterhout, and Brigitte Pitarakis (Istanbul, 2011), 468. See also Maura Kenny, Anne Sauer, and Zachary E.Crowley, Athletic Rosters of Tufts University (Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University, 2003), In 1894, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was quickly hired by his alma mater.Photograph of Whittemore, 1894, See also Alaric Bertrand Start, ed., History of Tufts College, 1854–1896 (Medford, MA: Tufts College, 1896), 57. While steadily ascending the ranks in the Tufts English Department, Whittemore enrolled in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.See Whittemore's graduate student transcript (UAV 161.272.5) from the Harvard University Archives, and Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 469. It is likely here that he first devoted himself to the study of the Fine Arts, for he began to introduce courses surveying the art, history, and culture of ancient civilizations into the Tufts curriculum in the early 1900s.Anne Sauer et al., Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History, 2000 (Digital Collection and Archives, Tufts University, 2000), See also Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 470.

Although Whittemore never obtained a graduate degree from Harvard, his fascination with antiquity only grew. He made several trips overseas, taking a leave of absence from Tufts in 1908 and studying architecture at the Sorbonne in Paris.Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 472. He also visited such diverse locales as England, Italy, Russia, Bulgaria, and Germany.Letter from Louise Imogen Guiney to George Norton Northrop, October 17, 1908, in Letters of Louise Imogen Guiney, ed. Grace Guiney (New York, 1926), 2:280. See also Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 473. It is possible that he made his way to Turkey during this period. Many scholars believe that it was at this stage of Whittemore’s life that Byzantine enthusiast Matthew S. Prichard, who was at the time an affiliate of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, sparked the English professor’s interest in Byzantium.Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 475.

In 1908, Whittemore was invited to teach a course on ancient Egypt and Greece as part of a summer program at Columbia University.Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 472. In the spring of 1910, he became a docent in the Egyptian Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 474. Whittemore also tried his hand at lecturing on antiquity in non-university settings, which ultimately developed into a long tradition of speaking engagements intended for the general public.

Young Thomas Whittemore
Young Thomas Whittemore

After being named the American Representative for the British-run Egypt Exploration Society (EES; formerly known as the Egypt Exploration Fund) in early 1911, Whittemore, the amateur archaeologist, traveled to Egypt in order to assist with ongoing excavations.Dwight Lathrop Elmendorf, “Egyptian Exploration Work: Why It Needs to Be Hastened because of the Great Nile Dam,” New York Observer, March 9, 1911. While he resigned from his post at Tufts in the following year, he remained an academic at heart. For instance, in publishing a plethora of articles relaying the excavators’ discoveries to archaeologists and lay readers alike,Thomas Whittemore, “Stone Vases of the Bisharin,” Man 12 (January 1912), 124–25. See also Letter to Marie M. Buckman, reprinted in “Older Than Egypt’s Dynasty: Ruins Found of People Who Lived Long Before the Pharoahs,” Washington Post, April 4, 1912. Whittemore effectively preserved his connection to the scholarly realm. In 1921, Whittemore was named a “Special Collaborator in the Bureau of Education” (an organization that was administered by the Department of the Interior) and was tasked with studying foreign educational systems while conducting relief work and architectural studies overseas (particularly in Russia and Bulgaria). Additionally, he continued his public lecture circuit throughout the decade, regularly appearing at luncheons and benefits sponsored by members of the American elite so as to educate his compatriots about ongoing relief efforts in war-torn Europe.“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 3, no. 1 (January 1916), 58.

Whittemore made his official return to academia in 1927 when New York University invited him to teach a course on Byzantine art.C. S. Sherril to Thomas Whittemore, letter dated January 31, 1927, Bibliothèque Byzantine, Fonds Thomas Whittemore. Quickly promoted to the rank of Assistant Professor, he remained at the University through 1930, the year he founded the Byzantine Institute.

Thomas Whittemore at the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Abydos
Thomas Whittemore at the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Abydos


While Whittemore was lecturing at Tufts, he developed a fascination for antiquity and convinced the institution’s administration to permit him to teach courses surveying the history, culture, art, and architecture of ancient civilizations. This was also the period when he began to dabble in the realm of archaeology. A man with the right connections, he was appointed as an American representative at excavations undertaken by the British-run Egypt Exploration Society (EES; formerly known as the Egypt Exploration Fund).Elmendorf, “Egyptian Exploration Work,” New York Observer, March 9, 1911.

In 1912, Whittemore resigned from his post at Tufts so as to commit himself more fully to his archaeological pursuits. He participated in the EES excavations at Abydos from 1911 through the season of 1913-1914, which were directed by Edouard Naville. Whittemore helped to unearth such treasures as the Osireion behind the Temple of Seti I and the Ibis Cemetery.Thomas Whittemore, “The Ibis Cemetery at Abydos: 1914,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1, no. 4 (October 1914), 248–49. Fully acceding to his role as the Society’s American representative in the 1914-1915 season, Whittemore worked with British representative Gerald Avery Wainwright to coordinate independent, American-financed excavation projects at Sawama and Balabish near Abydos.“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 2, no. 2 (April 1915), 115. Artifacts uncovered at these sites were subsequently transferred to museums in the United States, an arrangement that demonstrates the extent to which American archaeological interests had grown over the span of a few short years. However, the onset of World War I interrupted Whittemore’s and the Society’s archaeological endeavors, bringing excavations to a complete halt in November of 1915. No longer receiving subscriptions due to the conflict-laden international climate,Klein, "Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 479. See also Robert Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850–1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (Chicago, 2004), 165. the EES was unable to resume work until after the war.Gerald Averay Wainwright, Balabish (London, 1920).

The EES recommenced its work in Egypt at Amarna in the 1920-1921 season. Whittemore, however, was preoccupied with ongoing relief initiatives in Russia and Bulgaria. Thus, he did not participate in the renewed excavation projects until 1923, at which time he joined F.G. Newton’s camp at Amarna for brief, somewhat sporadic, stints. Upon Newton’s sudden death in December of 1924, Whittemore escalated his involvement with the Society once more, assuming the role of acting field director until Henri Frankfort succeeded him in the following season.“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11, no. 1/2 (April 1925), 107–9. See also H. Frankfort, “Preliminary Report of the Expedition to Abydos 1925–6,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12, no. 3/4 (October 1926), 157–65. In the following years, Whittemore lessened his direct involvement with fieldwork projects - being present only for short periods at EES excavation sites through the 1926-1927 season - and it appears that he focused the bulk of his attention on preparing articles for scholarly publication.H. Frankfort, “Preliminary Report on the Excavations at Tell el-‘Amarnah, 1926–7,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 13, no. 3/4 (November 1927), 209–18.

First class Bulgarian train ticket purchased by Whittemore, November 18, 1915
First class Bulgarian train ticket purchased by Whittemore, November 18, 1915

Although Whittemore largely committed himself to relief work in Europe during and for several years following the World War I, he did not entirely abandon his archaeological studies. In contrast, he broadened his sights, considering other locations through the lens of an archaeologist. For instance, having made brief visits to Bulgaria in 1912 and in 1914, for reasons both academic and political, Whittemore provided key financial and administrative support for an archaeological survey undertaken by Ivan Velkoff and André Grabar at the Messemvria Basilica in the fall of 1920. It is possible that Whittemore played a role in the 1921 excavation at the Red Church in Perustica, Bulgaria, as well, for the project’s overseer, Sergěj Pokrovskij,A. Frolow, “L’Église Rouge de Peruštica,” The Bulletin of the Byzantine Institute 1 (1946), 16–42. would later direct the Whittemore-affiliated study of the Belovo Basilica in 1924.André Grabar and William Emerson, “The Basilica of Bělovo,” The Bulletin of the Byzantine Institute 1 (1946), 43–59. Unfortunately, much remains unknown about Whittemore’s whereabouts during this period, and there exists no detailed account of the professor’s role in these Bulgarian initiatives.

Humanitarian Work

While working with the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the early 1910s, Whittemore traveled extensively throughout Europe, witnessing firsthand the destruction and upheaval that followed the outbreak of World War I in July 1914. In Paris, he joined the Red Cross just months after the fighting began. Whittemore, distressed by the deplorable scene that surrounded him, wired home a pithy, but nonetheless powerful, account of conditions in French army hospitals: “Just returned from France for supplies. Acres of wounded. Unimaginable suffering. Operations without ether.”“War Surgeons Work Without Anesthetics: Thomas Whittemore of Boston Wires of Operations Without Ether,” Boston Journal, November 5, 1914. See also “Acres of Wounded Men: Local Man Cables That Operations Are Performed Without Anesthetics,” Boston Daily Globe, November 5, 1914. Appearing in The Boston Journal, Whittemore’s cablegram was for Americans an implicit call to action. This, however, was only the beginning for Whittemore himself; deeply impacted by all that he had seen, he had much bigger plans.

Leaving his post with the EES after having overseen excavations at Balabish in the winter of 1915,“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1, no. 2 (April 1914), 145 and Edouard Naville, “The Tomb of Osiris. Work of the Egypt Exploration Fund. An Unsuspected Building,” The Times, March 6, 1914. Whittemore devoted himself entirely to relief work throughout the remainder of the war. Serving first with the Army Medical Service in France,“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 2, no. 1 (January 1915), 39–40. he subsequently made his way to Bulgaria.“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 3, no. 1 (January 1916), 58. In November 1915, Whittemore arrived in Russia and joined the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna’s Petrograd-based relief efforts, and he completed a tour of the nation before departing for the United States in February 1916. Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 478–79.

Once at home, Whittemore worked under the auspices of the newly-created Committee for the Relief of Refugees in Russia in order to generate publicity for the cause. He followed this brief domestic campaign with another voyage to Russia in 1917, arriving in volatile Petrograd in time for the February Revolution. Whittemore sailed to America late in the summer of the same year, after securing the necessary exit documentation from the Russian government.Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore,” 478–79. However, his activities in the interim remain unclear. Upon landing in the United States, he resumed his drive to increase public awareness of the situation in Europe, this time extending his reach to audiences on both coasts. Employing the fundraising expertise he had gained during his time with the EES, Whittemore appealed to wealthy, civic-minded patrons for donations of money and supplies.“Thomas Whittemore Tells of Russian Relief Work,” Boston Daily Globe, October 12, 1917. See also “Whittemore Believes Czar Deplored War—Lecturer Tells S. F. Center Russ Nobility Welcomed Revolution,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 1917. He set sail for Russia again in the summer of 1918 and managed to reach the tumult-plagued nation by the early fall. However, the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy forced Whittemore to return home once again, where he resumed his domestic lecture circuit and released a number of publications documenting the rapidly-evolving social and political climates in the East.Thomas Whittemore, trans., “The Russian,” Atlantic Monthly 123, no. 1 (January 1919), 1–12. See also Mme. X, “Talks of Russia,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 26, 1919.

Ever resourceful and possessed of an iron will, Whittemore coupled his fundraising efforts at home with relief expeditions to refugee enclaves in the East. Traveling through Turkey in an attempt to reach Petrograd in 1919, Whittemore began to focus his efforts on assisting the Russians seeking shelter in Turkish cities.Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 167. In particular, he devoted himself to securing educations for gifted refugee youths at European and Near Eastern universities. Whittemore passed several months at home before returning to Turkey in the spring of 1920.“Patriotic Ball and Supper Dance Given at Lakewood,” New York Tribune, February 29, 1920. See also “Fortnightly Club Lecture Tonight for Russian Relief Fund,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 2, 1920. Then, using Constantinople (Istanbul) as a base of operations, he periodically made his way to Russia and Bulgaria in order to oversee relief projects there.Thomas Whittemore to Isabella Stewart Gardner, letter, July 6, 1920, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Quoted in Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 170.

Group portrait with Thomas Whittemore (left) and George D. Pratt (right), Mount Athos, Greece, May 1923
Group portrait with Thomas Whittemore (left) and George D. Pratt (right), Mount Athos, Greece, May 1923

As a supporter of scholastic opportunities for promising young refugees, Whittemore joined forces with the United States Bureau of Education in 1921. The government organization, which declared Whittemore a “Special Collaborator” and requested that he be issued a diplomatic passport, assigned him the task of studying educational systems in foreign nations. In May 1923, he accompanied scholars from The American School of Classical Studies at Athens on a cruise through the Greek isles at the invitation of his friend, George D. Pratt, a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. For Whittemore, though, this was a business trip. On May 26th, he and Pratt traveled to several monasteries in Mount Athos, Greece, in order to deliver food and supplies to Russian and Bulgarian monks who were struggling financially after the Russian Revolution.Letter, June 8, 1923, Files of the Friendship Fund, Charles R. Crane Papers, Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, NY. Quoted in Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 166.

In November 1923, Whittemore made his way back to Amarna, Egypt, in order to resume his work with the Egypt Exploration Society. Simultaneously decreasing his relief efforts in the East, his activities assumed an academic bent once more. Still, Whittemore’s humanitarian achievements were not easily forgotten. In May 1927, the French government admitted him to the Legion of Honor in recognition of his work in Russia.“Did Much Work for Russian Fugitives: Thomas Whittemore Given High Honor by France,” Boston Daily Globe, May 1, 1927. Whittemore’s career as a relief worker shaped his legacy in a much deeper way. Visiting such marvels as the Hagia Sophia during his various trips to Turkey, he found himself held captive by the wonders of the East. It was likely this prolonged period of repeated immersion that reawakened the professor-archaeologist that had lain dormant within Whittemore throughout World War I—that helped to inspire the Byzantine Institute’s conception and its most famous undertaking: the restoration and conservation of the prized mosaics that line the interior of the Hagia Sophia.

Byzantium and Beyond

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.Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 172–73. 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,” New York Times, March 2, 1931. 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, Hagia Sophia, 155. In the process, Whittemore would further secure for himself and the Institute a place in historical memory.

Red Sea Monasteries, Egypt from Dumbarton Oaks Videos on Vimeo.

Thomas Whittemore in Context

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.