Interview with Robert G. Ousterhout: The Preservation and Reconversion of Kariye Camii

A church-museum exemplifying the greatest flowering of late Byzantine art becomes a mosque

Kariye Camii, mosaic of Christ, above the main entrance, photo by Robert G. Ousterhout.

Kariye Camii, from the east, photo by Robert G. Ousterhout.

Robert G. Ousterhout is Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of 21 books on the art and architecture of the Byzantine world and contributed to over 70 more. Dr. Ousterhout’s fieldwork has concentrated on Byzantine architecture, monumental art, and urbanism in Constantinople, Thrace, Cappadocia, and Jerusalem. His most recent decade of work in Cappadocia resulted in Visualizing Community: Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia, a critical reassessment of the story and historiography of Byzantine Cappadocia.  Since 2011 he has co-directed the “Cappadocia in Context” graduate seminar, an international summer field school for Koç University. A list of selected publications is appended below.[i] Dr. Ousterhout spoke to Kate Fitz Gibbon of Cultural Property News on September 15, 2020.  Dr. Ousterhout discussed the government of Turkey’s recent announcement of the re-conversion of the Kariye Camii, also known as the Chora Monastery, in Istanbul, the finest example of late Byzantine art, to a mosque. See also Dr. Ousterhout’s letter,Istanbul’s Last Church-Mosque-Museum.’


Q: Have you heard of any changes at Kariye Camii since this announcement?

RO: I have not. There is a very serious restoration campaign going on in the Kariye right now by a Turkish team from the central conservation laboratory. Half of the building is closed and filled with scaffolding. I was able to meet the conservators last March, and to examine the work that they were doing, and I have to say that what they were doing is really top-notch work. They are doing photometric documentation of everything before they intervene. I was really impressed. I’ve heard nothing since, although news photos show a wooden mimbar (pulpit) has been introduced, and carpeting is being brought in. The sad fact is, Turkey being the way it is, it is difficult to get even my good friends to respond at any length about what is going on now, so I do not know the state of the work at this point.

When I was there in March, no one expected this court decision to be acted upon. No one expected that the Kariye would be converted into a mosque again. This came as a real surprise, for a variety of reasons, even after Hagia Sofia. Hagia Sophia was predictable – this was definitely not predictable.

Q: Were the conservators aware that conversion was imminent?

Professor Robert G. Ousterhout September 15, 2020.

RO: We discussed it only very briefly, and their attitude, as that of those of my academic friends there was – they simply didn’t believe it was going to happen. They felt that this did not quite fit the profile of Hagia Sophia, as a building that would make sense to be re-opened as a mosque.

The building did actually function as a mosque, for several hundred years, but it was a small mosque, always, off the beaten track, and much of the building was closed. One of the reasons I kept this slide behind me is because it shows the naos or nave, the main part of the building, had been used as a mosque, and just over my shoulder you can see the mihrab, the prayer niche that redirects the interior toward Mecca. That mihrab was actually made of marbles that were spoliated from the building when it was converted into a mosque, probably in the early sixteenth century.

Q: What changes did the building experience in the process of transformation?

RO: The city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. This building is out by the walls of the city, so it was one of the first Christian sanctuaries that was plundered by the Ottomans as they came into the city. But the big prize was Hagia Sophia, and that was way down on the other end of the city, in a part of the historic peninsula. This is a building that, with the exception of a short period in the fourteenth century, is in the middle of nowhere. It was not close to the center of action. In the fourteenth century the main imperial residence was in this part of the city, which is why we see this period of development in the early fourteenth century, at the Kariye and other sites in the same area. It was an important area in the early fourteenth century, not before, and not after.

Kariye Camii, Birth of the Virgin Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Entire scene, photo 1952, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

In the Ottoman period, it was way, way, off the beaten track, and to a certain extent, that is why the building survived in such good condition. The building was converted to a mosque. The naos only seems to have been used as a mosque at first. Behind me you can see icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary which were covered up. There was also an icon over the main entrance of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, which was also covered up, and everything else seems to have been removed. We should expect a large image of the Virgin Mary in the apse (directly above my head), and a variety of scenes from the life of Christ decorating the walls of the church, but these were removed when it was converted to a mosque. We know that elsewhere in the building there is a big funeral chapel, to the side, that is filled with an incredible program of frescoes. This, we know, was only gradually covered. We have this text from the late sixteenth century – a German ambassador visits the site and describes it in detail. So, we know that the building was accessible at that time, and he notes only a few instances of the images which were close to the floor level that had been defaced at that time.

At some time in its history, the funeral chapel was also converted for mosque use, and was whitewashed. The figures in the frescoes were painted over and then a coat of whitewash went over the whole thing. That was removed in the 1950s during the Dumbarton Oaks Field Committee’s restoration campaign. I am old enough that when I began working on the building I could become friends with several of the people who had worked on that campaign in the 1950s, and get first-hand accounts of the work that was carried out at that time. It was incredibly exciting – to see these things uncovered for the first time must have been just incredible. They were really charmed by the whole thing. Istanbul is a modern megalopolis these days, but in the 1950s it was still wild and woolly, and a big adventure for everyone involved in the process.

Q:  What about the 1947 activities of the Byzantine Institute of America and the role of Dumbarton Oaks Field Committee in cleaning and restoring the Kariye Camii between 1947 and 1960?

RO: That restoration campaign, begun by the Byzantine Institute of America, which was a private organization, and then continued by Dumbarton Oaks, produced an incredible amount of documentation. The field work and photographic archives of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., are where the best documentation of the building is kept. The documentation that I have come across I have turned over to Dumbarton Oaks. They took an incredible set of photographs in the 1950s when everything was pristine, just cleaned, just uncovered.

Q: Where are those available?

Kariye Caii, Interior of the naos, looking east, photo by Robert G. Ousterhout.

RO: I know that Dumbarton Oaks has been in the process of making their field work archives available online. I don’t know how much of them is available online, but there is a lot of material there, more than the casual scholar would want, more than they could possibly ever digitize. It’s a wealth of documentation, which means that whatever happens we have a great account of the building.

Q: The ones I have seen were not in color.

RO: Yes, the best photographs were black and white. The 1950s was not a great era for color photography. A lot of their best color photographs have discolored, turned purple and pink. I have gone through some of them and tried to adjust the color, to get it back to something like the original. We also have a set of Kodachrome slides that they took at the same time that are actually pretty accurate in their color. So there is good documentation for the building and for the artwork in the building, and Dumbarton Oaks is the repository for it.

Q: Is the Turkish group that is doing documentation now doing sophisticated digital photography?

RO: What they are doing is scanning it, so that in effect a three-dimensional model of the building could be recreated if necessary. They are also scanning it before they do any interventions, so that the status of the mosaics or wall paintings will be documented before any intervention is done.

Q: How do you compare that to the real thing?

Kariye Camii, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – East half of scene, photo 1955, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

RO: There is a certain tactility that you experience when you see these things in person, whether or not you are allowed to touch them. We had a very funny experience several years ago when we organized an exhibit on the restoration of the building in the 1950s and looked at how the process of documentation was done then, and how it might be done differently now. What the Dumbarton Oaks team did was – they brought in an easel painter from England, who did full-scale, canvas copies of the wall paintings in the funeral chapel as they were uncovered. These are now on display around Dumbarton Oaks and they are pretty phenomenal. They were really the high point of our exhibit, but the one thing that really captured people’s attention was a plaster cast that they had done of one of the mosaics. They had captured the three-dimensionality of the mosaic tesserae, and then it was painted to imitate what the colors were. It just looked so good. My first instinct was to go pick at it, to see if those were real tesserae. Everyone, even the most cautious of conservators, when they saw this plaster replica, the first thing they wanted to do was to touch it. There is that element of tactility that really resonates in these works.

Q: If there were limitations to access to this building because of conversion – is there anywhere like it, any other church in Turkey comparable to this one, aesthetically?

RO: It’s an interesting period in Byzantine history. This is a monument of the highest class – its patron is the richest man in the Empire after the emperor, the most powerful man after the emperor, and the greatest intellectual of his age. He writes poetry. This is an age much different from our own. Politicians established their reputation on their intellectual training. When Theodore Metochites, the patron of the building, was in a rivalry at court with one of his colleagues, rather than slug it out or issue tweet insults, they wrote poems against each other. The whole thing was carried out in dodecasyllabic verse. Can you imagine anyone doing that today?

Q: When you write about the building in The Kariye Camii: An Introduction about Theodore Metochites, you say the art of the Chora parallels “his mannered and obsessive literary style.” And talk about how it would have been appreciated by aristocratic intellectuals.

Kariye Camii, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Daughters of the Hebrews (detail), photo 1955, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

RO: This is a building that was produced with great intelligence. This is not just some provincial church where they slap up a few images that correspond to what they were celebrating in the liturgy. This is a building that illiterate visitor can go in and say ‘oh, yes, that’s Jesus, that’s Mary, I recognize this scene as the Nativity,’ and so on, but somebody who was from the intellectual coterie of Theodore Metochites would go in and see it resonating in a very different way, almost like the unrolling of a grand epic poem. There is an intellectual quality to it that would appeal to the intellectual – also, as I say, it has snob appeal. For the intellectual, if you can understand it, that means that you are part of the elite. Whereas the illiterate monk who lives in the monastery or the peasant from the street is not going to get it, the intellectual elite is going to understand it, and that is going to reinforce our status in society.

It has a really important message that goes along with that. I and countless other scholars have spilt a lot of ink deciphering this program. It is a three-dimensional program – this is art in the round. The artist or the artisan responsible for the mosaics and the frescoes and the master-mason responsible for the architecture either worked in very close collaboration, or they were the same person. Certainly, whoever they were (we don’t know names), they worked in very close collaboration with Theodore Metochites. His input is stamped on that building in so many different ways. His name appears here and there, there are strange elements in scenes that could only be explained by his involvement and patronage. What that means is that this building was a trendsetter. It sets a trend with patrons of lesser intellectual status than Theodore Metochites, or artists of less artistic status than the masters of the Kariye.

Q: Where do you see examples in imitation?

RO: We see an imitation of this building that spreads across the Balkans. We can see it in places in Greece, in Thessaloniki or Mystras, very good reflections of the art of the Chora in many places in medieval Serbia – this goes as far as Romania, if you can imagine. It is an art that is picked up. But the period in which this building was constructed was the last flowering of the Byzantine Empire. Theodore Metochites was, as prime minister, a key political player, for several decades, as was the emperor, Andronicus II, for whom he was prime minister. The two devolved into incompetent old age together as the empire declined around them. They were both ousted in a palace coup in 1328, Theodore Metochites was sent into exile, Emperor Andronicus was sent to a monastery, and the Byzantine Empire descended into a period of civil war. There is a period of about twenty years, beginning at the end of the 1320s, enmeshed in civil war. Rather than perpetuating the last flowering of Byzantium, the civil war cuts it short. We do not continue to see the flowering in Byzantium, but it is exported along with Byzantine culture to Greece, to the Balkans, to Romania, and so on. We also see elements of it picked up in Italy. It is hard to imagine Duccio, for example, without a form of understanding of Byzantine art. Giotto was much more his own person, but thinking of Giotto in the Arena Chapel at the same time that Theodore Metochites and his artisans were at the Kariye is a wonderful point of contrast. One is the end of an epoch – the other is the beginning of the Renaissance.

Q: What has been lost and what survived since the Ottoman conquest?

Kariye Camii, outer narthex, looking south, photo by Robert G. Ousterhout.

RO: When the building was first converted to a mosque, very little happened. Gradually the naos lost most of its decoration. What little was left of the figural decoration was easily covered. The funeral chapel, as it was used as a mosque, was painted over. The narthexes, which have this incredible cycle of the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary seem never to have been completely covered. The mosaics in the vaults are darkened and gloomy and difficult to see, but they were never plastered over. Those lower down are covered, some of them with wooden doors so tourists can open and look at them. Because this is really off the beaten track, it never really gets the attention that Hagia Sophia got. It never holds that political position. It’s never an Imperial mosque, no one important is buried here during the Ottoman period. No important events happened here during the Ottoman period.

It is really a building that survived in isolation, and when it was decided in the mid 40s to convert it to a museum it was virtually abandoned and was falling down. It was really held up by buttresses on the exterior. As the Byzantine Institute began working on the mosaics, they realized that they had to do a serious program of stabilization in the building or the whole thing was going to collapse. As one of my colleagues of that generation said, they were only interested in the wallpaper and not the walls. A major program was undertaken which allowed enough excavation in and around the building to propose a relatively secure chronology for the history of this building through the Byzantine period. And because it was off the beaten track, and still was, even when I began to work there – I wrote my dissertation on the architecture of this building, which I defended in 1981 and published in 1986 – there was virtually no one there. I had the building more or less to myself. There was a small team of guards sent to care for the building as a museum, but most of the time it was just me there.

Q: That sounds ideal.

Kariye Camii, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Daughters of the Hebrews, photo 1958, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

RO: It is hard to imagine today because the building has really begun to attract attention. Still, however, until the recent conversion, a lot of tourists did not go there, simply because it is out of the center. It is very difficult to get there on public transportation – you need to take a taxi to get there or you need to go on an organized tour – and so in many ways it has resisted the mass tourism that took over Hagia Sophia. At the same time, it never attracted the political attention that Hagia Sofia did.

Q: What other churches have already been more quietly converted into mosques?

RO: In the beginning of the 2010s in Turkey, with the rising power of the AKP, Erdoğan’s party, we began to hear serious calls for the re-opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque. The strategy undertaken by one of Erdoğan’s henchman was, any building dedicated to Hagia Sophia, or that might have been dedicated to Hagia Sophia, needed to be returned to its position as a mosque. The thinking is that once a building has been converted to a mosque, it is a mosque forever. The idea that Atatürk and the Republic had for creating museums – museums as repositories of history for all mankind, meaning that all of their history is available there to be seen – that is very much a Western idea and very much against the notion that these places are or should be spaces for worship.

So, beginning in the 2010s, we began to see the conversion of churches that had formerly been converted into mosques across Turkey. The most infamous at that time was the Church of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond, in the Eastern Black Sea. This is a building that had been built in the thirteenth century, with the best wall-painting program of that era in the Byzantine Empire. It has functioned as a museum. It was carefully and lovingly restored by the University of Edinburgh and the Russell Trust, I think, in the 1940s and ‘50s. It is outside the center of town, and there really is not a neighborhood around it, and yet the call went out that it should be re-opened as a mosque. In order to preserve the paintings, what they did was, in effect, build a tent inside the building. It looks like a Byzantine church on the outside, but as soon as you go in you are inside a tent where there is no figural imagery visible. That was one solution.

The Hagia Sophia in İznik or Nicaea, another important building that had been converted into a museum, was re-opened as a mosque at about the same time. Another church that had been recently excavated and studied in Antalya on the south coast, was similarly converted into a mosque. There are now plans for a number of other buildings in Istanbul and nearby that currently function as churches to be re-opened as mosques, so it seems to be a pattern.

One can understand that if a building is called Hagia Sophia – that’s sort of a blatant response – the idea was that one good Hagia Sophia conversion deserves another. This led to the restoration of a number of buildings whose dedication may or may not have been to Hagia Sophia, and that had never served as mosques or that had served as mosques but had fallen into ruins. They are being rebuilt or renovated accordingly.

Q: Can you comment on the kind of thinking that justifies these conversions?

RO: I find it very disturbing because it’s really a way of thinking of the past as something that doesn’t belong to us. For the forging of its national identity Turkey doesn’t look very deep into its past. In fact it’s better for them, from many perspectives, if the past is left buried. This is particularly true of the Byzantine past, which strikes me as bizarre, but it fits in a certain way with Turkey’s shift of orientation to the East. Turkey has been badly treated by the European Union for a long time and finally Erdoğan basically decided that their real allegiance lies further to the East. Rather than attempt to be a poor cousin to Europe they are forming stronger bonds with the Turkic countries and Islamic countries. At the same time, this strange movement for the conversion of museums into mosques is part of a political campaign of distraction. This is throwing red meat to the base. There are so many other more critical issues in Turkey right now than just opening another mosque. The economy is collapsing, the lira seems to be in free fall, and this is a good distraction. This is something we’re accustomed to in this country now – a good distraction will take us away from what are really the important issues. Why worry about climate change or COVID when there are more salacious things that we might be worrying about instead?

Kariye Camii, Virgin Caressed by her Parents Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Anne and Joachim holding infant Mary, upper half, photo 1953, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Q: It has certainly been noticeable that when Erdoğan or his party is faced with a challenging election, these issues come back to the fore.

RO: Yes, it is appealing to the base in a way they can understand. In Turkey his base is not the urbane, educated class of Turks, it is poorly-educated, deeply religious people from the countryside. The AKP lost the election in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Izmir, in the major cities of Turkey. Erdoğan’s base is not in the city and it’s not the educated elite. So, opening a mosque, if you’re a good Muslim, what’s wrong with having another mosque? Why not?

Q: It concerns me that Erdoğan’s position can be compared to the situation in Egypt or China where the past has been redefined in ways that create a whole different narrative. You can claim the greatness of the past without having to deal with the fact that people in the past were different from you and had different ideas from yours. Religion is a wonderful coverall, and so is communism. It’s a way of whitewashing uncomfortable truths.

RO: This is exactly the point! UNESCO has a policy for tangible and intangible aspects of cultural heritage, and with buildings like Hagia Sophia, or the Kariye, if buildings have multiple narratives, if they mean something different to different religions, different ethnicities, different nationalities, and that’s all a product of their complex and often messy history. A fear of mine is that something will happen similar to what happened on the Acropolis in Athens, or to the Roman forum. That is, we pick a dominant narrative and we erase all others, so that rather than having that level of nuance that a building should have, we get one view and one view only. Who would know, visiting the Acropolis today, that the Parthenon used to be a Christian church and used to be a mosque? Who would know that one of the most important Renaissance neighborhoods in Italy lay on top of the Roman forum? It’s gone now! Mussolini decided that imperial Rome was the period that was to be preserved and everything else was scraped off. I do not want to see that happening in Turkey.

Q: Maybe my particular perspective doesn’t merit survival, but the objects do. The buildings do. Whatever we do that’s right has to be something to do with preservation, and with access.

Kariye Camii, Enthroned Christ and Donor Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Christ, bust, center of lunette, photo 1955, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

RO: My argument has always been that, when we deal with monuments it is a give and take proposition. Much of what art historians do is interpretation. We take from the monument. But if we’re taking from the monuments to found our reputation as scholars, we owe that monument something. From my perspective that something that we owe them is good documentation, conservation, and excavation if that’s called for. There’s something about preserving the monument – in some instances perhaps we’re never going to be able to preserve it – but at least we can document it and preserve its memory that way.

I work in Cappadocia, in central Turkey, where much of the landscape is very fragile, really no more than volcanic ash, and it is eroding right and left. There’s no way we can stop Mother Nature from eroding it, but the human interventions in the landscape there are really important. Either we stop what is a natural process to preserve them, or we do the kind of documentation that will preserve them in another way.

Since the conversion of the Kariye I was very gratified to have one of my former students contact me and say, now I really understand why you emphasize giving back to the monuments, why documentation and conservation are important, so we have a record. I don’t know how much of the building I will be able to see next year when I return to Istanbul, but I’m pretty sure it will be less than I was able to see on my last visit. Without that access, for me or for any other scholar wanting to know a building intimately, if we don’t have the documentation we simply don’t have anything.

Q: Can you give us additional direction for where things ought to go? What kind of cooperative work is possible between scholars to further your work?

RO: The possibilities of documentation have really taken off in the last decades. What one is able to do quickly, let’s say with mapping, with aerial photography, with drones, or with resistivity studies – these are things one can do that are noninvasive. In terms of doing quick documentation, one can even use a digital camera that creates good three-dimensional images with very little effort. It is really exciting what is possible now with documentation.

Now, it’s exciting good, and it’s exciting bad. It’s exciting good because something that I spent three summers doing in the nineties could now be done in a week or two. The arduous time in the field can be cut down considerably. I started out in art history, moved into architectural history, started doing archaeology, started doing conservation and I realized that in the excavations and in the conservation preservation projects, the thing we always had to do first was document. We had to understand what was there before we began any intervention.

That’s something we often forget – we say, oh there must be something here, let’s dig and see what we can find – but having that record of what was there is absolutely essential. Excavation and a lot of conservation projects are really a process of destruction. We don’t know all of what it is that we’re destroying. We need to make that very good record before we move on. For example, there are parts of the Kariye that I have never seen because they are no longer accessible. They are completely sealed off, and I have to rely on the very good documentation that was done in the 1950s to inform me about those parts of the buildings. If the team that was working there in the 1950s hadn’t done such good documentation I wouldn’t know about a lot of the building because it is simply inaccessible now.

I really encourage documentation as the first step. At the same time, because of the way we have documentation available to us now we often bypass our most important tools: our eyes and our brain. We need to look intensively at what we have to understand it. That means that we understand visually what we’re looking at, we understand three dimensionally what we’re looking at, we understand how documentation relates to an actual monument, and so on. The most important things I did when I was a grad student was, even when I inherited good architectural drawings, I would start at the beginning and do my own architectural drawings. They were never as exacting, but the process of actually doing the drawing myself forced me to look at the monument in a different way and to see relationships and connections that I might have missed otherwise. Teaching oneself how to look – how to visually understand a historic monument – has to work hand in hand with documentation. You can’t rely on one without the other.

Q: Would you have written the dissertation that you did if you had not spent a summer and more sitting in the building? Experiencing it personally – in order to understand what the building expresses, you become the vessel into which the building pours.

Kariye Camii, First Seven Steps of the Virgin Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Entire scene and partial view of surrounding scene, photo 1952, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

RO: Before I went for the first time to Istanbul, I agreed to write a dissertation about a building I had never seen, in a city I had never visited, in a country whose language I didn’t speak. It was really the academic equivalent of a blind date, but it turned out to be a pretty good date in the end.

At my first visit there, I could tell you every measurement. I knew that it was fifteen meters from the doorsill of the naos to the end of the apse, and things like that. Knowing all of that, and knowing hundreds of photographs of the building, still didn’t prepare me for the experience of it. Suddenly that day when I first got myself there things began to fall into place. There is really no alternative for the actual experience. That’s sort of sad in this day and age because the possibility of that direct experience is becoming more and more limited.

Q: Is that the bad that you mentioned?

RO: The bad is that a lot of people go in to do documentation and they never quite look at what it is that they are documenting. The good is that we still have our eyes, and we need to have a good set of eyes to understand what we are doing.

Q: One of the points that St John Simpson of the British Museum has raised is that archaeologists are increasingly relying on drone studies – aerial studies – and he said there’s a whole generation of young archaeologists he’s working with who have never been to the places that they are studying. It’s not their fault, it’s the geopolitical situation in the world, but as he expresses it, they are so focused on the data they don’t understand what you can learn by being there.

RO: One of the great limitations is the language barrier. You know to be a properly trained Byzantinist, I should have learned at least five more languages than I did when I was in school. I suspect that that aspect of it, as well as the introduction of technology, means a lot of projects will have to be collaborative as we move forward. Not one of us can know everything. Not one of us can know all ten languages we need to know for all the texts that we have to deal with. Not one of us can know deeply the visual aspects of a monument and the technology for documenting it. Collaboration has to be key to projects in the future. What, for example, Elizabeth Bolman organized in the Red Monastery is a good model of how one can organize an international collaboration that brings together people of a variety of different backgrounds and skill sets together to do an informative and interesting study. Our universities might still want us to do single-authored studies, but I think there are going to be fewer and fewer of those. For those of us who are actually dealing directly with the monuments it makes much more sense to think in terms of collaboration rather than individual projects, now.

Q: You mentioned your work in Anatolia – how do your Turkish colleagues feel now about the future of these collaborative studies?

RO: I think they’re very amenable to them. Right now one of my colleagues in Cappadocia has started working with drone photography to do 3D mapping of large settlement areas so that one can get a record of spatial relationships that might not show up on a two-dimensional form of documentation. One can understand where things sit in relationship to each other in terms of their altitude, in terms of sightlines, and so on. This is really sophisticated drone photography. He has been going back and forth with a strictly controlled drone to produce a grid map of a very large area. Using that as a tool for understanding what is there on the ground is really opening up new avenues. He has now extended that to another site. There are teams of young scholars now going through engineering programs or conservation programs who have learned the technology but don’t know the history that well. So, now he is collaborating with a young engineering team for this project.

He and his part of the team bring the eyes to the project and they bring the technology.

Kariye Camii, view into the south dome of the inner narthex, photo by Robert G. Ousterhout.

Q: One of the really odd things about the situation in Turkey is that they’re quite consciously rebuilding mosques and celebrating that Muslim past but at the same time, when Turkish officials deal with museums in the West and ask for things back, they have referred to objects as imbued with  a spirit or a power that completely contradicts Islamic ideas about shirk and the evils of idolatry. Cultural ministers talk about objects that they want to get back from museums as if they held a spiritual value essential for Turkey to get back, but if you read these statement theologically, you would say they are looking at objects as icons.

RO:  It’s funny, because it’s imbuing power to the object, spiritual or otherwise, and it often has nothing to do with what the object actually was intended to do or what the object meant.

For example, sometime in the 1960s our museum acquired a trove of Bronze Age jewelry which may or may not come from Troy. It is definitely not Schliemann – this is drips and drabs that somebody maybe found elsewhere, maybe it came from the island of Lemnos, maybe they are trade goods that came from Afghanistan – we simply don’t know. These objects were acquired by the Penn Museum basically to keep them together when they went on the art market. No one was interested in them. They asked the Greek government and the Turkish government if they were interested in these objects and they told them no, and so they acquired them. This was before the 1970 Accord but it bothered the museum so much that they established their own policy about acquisitions after that time, but preceding the 1970 agreement.

Then the Turkish government demanded the return of these objects or Turkey would never let the University of Pennsylvania excavate in Turkey again. Well, the objects don’t belong to the excavators, and they don’t belong to the museum. They belong to the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania so repatriation under those terms is very complicated. With a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and a lot of people suffering greatly in the process an agreement was reached for Penn to give these to the museum in Ankara on a long-term loan. The General Director of Antiquities wanted them simply given to him so he could take them home in his suitcase. That is not how museums transfer objects from one to another. But they did have the display cases ready when the object objects arrived in Ankara, and they had a press conference and revealed this collection within hours of the plane landing in Turkey.

Kariye Camii, Virgin Blessed by the Priests Mosaic, Istanbul, Turkey – Joachim and infant Mary, photo 1953, Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork records and papers, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The confusion that resulted from this was just amazing. Now, first of all we don’t know the objects came from Troy. There’s no way that could be proven in a court of law. We had the legal standing, they thought they had the moral high ground, and that we owed it to them to return them. It was very clear from the minute these things were announced by the press that nobody understood what they were. It was assumed that this was Schliemann’s treasure coming back to Turkey. It had nothing to do with Schliemann, and may have had nothing to do with Troy, but suddenly this material took on a life of its own and a meaning of its own. It had its fifteen minutes of fame in Turkey. People just walk right by it when they go through the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations now.

Q: What does it say on the labels?

RO: It does say on the label: ‘from Troy or possibly from Troy, and on long term loan from the University of Pennsylvania,’ and Penn did guarantee its excavations at least for this generation of scholars.

It’s an incredible story because what these objects became was so completely different from what they originally were or what their scholarly context was. They were on the front page in the Turkish press for weeks after they arrived – so maybe they had more than fifteen minutes of fame – that happens with so many of these claims for repatriation. For archaeologists, 1970 is the line in the sand. If you can determine that the object was in a private collection in the West before 1970 then you are home free. If it’s something that has been smuggled out of Etruria or Turkey or Yugoslavia or wherever after 1970 and you can prove it, then you’re in trouble if there are requests for repatriation.

Destabilizations of so many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have put so many monuments at risk – not just monuments on the ground, but looting has become an increasingly lucrative activity. Just now in the news I read about an FBI raid on a New York art gallery and the arrest of its owners, who had amassed hundreds if not thousands of illegal antiquities, for which they were creating fake provenances – their actual histories lost forever. So the 1970 UNESCO Accord has to be taken seriously. History is a fragile thing, even in this day and age, and to properly understand it, it needs to be preserved, to be studied, and it needs to be accessible.


[i] The Architecture of the Kariye Camii in Istanbul, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 25 (Washington, D.C., 1987)

The Art of the Kariye Camii (London-Istanbul: Scala, 2002)

Master Builders of Byzantium (2nd paperback edition, University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, 2008, with translations in Russian and Turkish).

A Byzantine Settlement in Cappadocia, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 42 (2nd revised, paperback edition, Washington, D.C., 2011)

Kariye Camii, Yeniden/The Kariye Camii Reconsidered, edited, with Holger A. Klein and Brigitte Pitarakis (Istanbul: Istanbul Research Institute, 2011)

Osman Hamdi Bey and the Americans: Archaeology, Diplomacy, Art. Exhibition Catalogue (Istanbul: Pera Museum, 2011), edited, with Renata Holod

Approaches to Architecture and Its Decoration: Festschrift for Slobodan Ćurčić (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), ed. with M. Johnson and A. Papalexandrou

Architecture of the Sacred: Space, Ritual, and Experience from Classical Greece to Byzantium (Cambridge University Press, 2012), ed. with Bonna D. Wescoat

Palmyra 1885: The Wolfe Expedition and the Photographs of John Henry Haynes, with B. Anderson (Istanbul: Cornucopia, 2016)

John Henry Haynes: Archaeologist and Photographer in the Ottoman Empire 1881-1900 (2nd revised edition, Istanbul: Cornucopia, 2016)

Visualizing Community: Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 46 (Washington, D.C., 2017)

Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands, (Oxford University Press, 2019)


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