Princeton Meets the Near East: John Van Antwerp MacMurray’s Ambassadorship in Turkey

By Diana Dayoub ’21

The connections between Princeton and the Near East are not self-evident. My tentative effort to uncover some link between the North American university I consider home now and the part of the Orient where I was born and raised seemed almost futile until I discovered the John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094). John Van Antwerp MacMurray, a member of Princeton’s class of 1902 and a career diplomat, served as the United States’ ambassador to Turkey from 1936 to 1942. He was previously appointed minister to China from 1925 to 1929 and minister to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from 1933 to 1936. The part of this collection that concerns Turkey includes MacMurray’s family correspondence (notably with his two sisters Edna and Ethel, with whom he was very close), photographs that capture the breathtaking scenery of mountainous Turkey, and negatives that are yet to be digitized.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray in Turkey. John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 151.

Although MacMurray was appointed ambassador as Kemal Atatürk was introducing radical reforms that revolutionized the country’s legal and education systems and gave meaning to Turkish identity, the collection not only documents the particular nature of his job in a time of national emancipation but also holds records of his personal impressions of the Near East and photographs that depict the romantic landscapes of 20th-century Turkey.

On March 13, 1939, MacMurrary wrote poetically to his wife Lois, who he nicknamed Loishka, about gazing at Turkey’s sublime sunsets for extended periods of time, lost in their beauty. “The purple sunset on Hussein Gazi [Hüseyingazi] is so lovely that I can’t keep my eyes indoors,” he wrote. As an avid photographer, he also wrote to his wife about the dazzling effects of a sunset’s lights on a chilly February evening:

We are getting so comfortably settled that Ankara seems a different place from what we ever [sic] known before. As I glance of [sic] from writing, there is, on the hills towards Hussein Gazi [Hüseyingazi] one of the strangest and most beautiful light effects I ever saw, with the [level?] sunset light casting the shadows of our hill onto the one beyond.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 151.

Away from his diplomatic trips and office crowded with memorandum, MacMurray treasured his solitary walks, often accompanied by a dog he adored so much that it was the protagonist of most of his letters to his sisters and “Loishka.” His photographs exhibit the Turkish mountains where he hiked occasionally and those which he contemplated during his walks, like the one described in his letter of November 9th, 1938 to his wife:

Yesterday afternoon I went to the favorite place at the top of the pass to Çubuk, I walked down, cross-country, on a solitary walk. There was snow-capped mountains off to the south, although Elwa Dagh [Uludağ] has no snow yet. It has turned quite cold to brisk, now.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 150.

MacMurray’s photographs of Rumelihisarı, a medieval fortress on the Bosphorus, entertained Ethel’s romantic imagination of Istanbul. In response to his postcards, she eagerly described how the photographs of “those old walls and towers against the blue of the Bosphorus” were reminiscent of his photographs from China:

My dear Jack, That you find Rumili Hassar charming and picturesque is evident from the post cards I have before me, and in some of them I find a reminder of Peking, especially in that with the feathery tree in the foreground. It must be lovely when the sky in blue and great clouds sail above the passing steamers.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 150.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 150.

However, Rumelihisarı was not the only Bosphorus location that was the subject of MacMurray’s letters to his sisters. He also wrote enthusiastically about the summer residence he was planning to rent on the Bosphorus. His photograph collection includes pictures of the boat that he used to commute to the embassy in Istanbul and romantic pictures of Istanbul from the other side of the Bosphorus that show the minarets and mosque domes hanging between the blue of the sky and the sea. In a longer letter on March 27th of 1936, he wrote to Ethel:

We have found out that has everything in its favor; but the owner has not yet made up his mind to rent. It is a famous old Turkish house, with a fair-sized garden, at [Isbudesi?] , on the Asiatic side, looking across the Bosphorus to Stamboul from a position that brings the mosques and their minarets into relief against the sunset. And the house, straggling over the edge of the cliff, is quaint and full of charm – not very big, but with rooms that are both spacious and cozy, quite simply decorated, and with furniture that seems both comfortable and appropriate. The only drawback is that it is across the water, so that every journey into the city or back would require boat and automobile to be coordinated.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 151.

Istanbul appears in MacMurrary’s descriptions as a young, wild city at the intersection of the ancient and the modern, full of lively noises and a host of tranquil sunsets at once. MacMurray’s comparisons of Turkey and China are particularly curious since seldom two very far regions of the world are juxtaposed in the notes of a traveller. MacMurrary characterized Istanbul in a manner that Ethel compliments since, she wrote, it “puts it before me better than a long travellogue.” He describes in the same letter of March 27th:

I have got no further than to conclude that in things Chinese there is a fundamental unity of idea – a degree of order and coherence and homogeneity proper to an immemorial development of civilization; whereas Constantinople (I do not attempt to generalize for Turkey as a whole) is a fascinating hodge-podge of peoples and of conflicting civilizations that have in turn (?) and left survivals in the city itself and in its modes of life. (…) The extremes of ancient and modern meet here. And the modern–very self-conscious and rather ashamed of its ancient background–is so vigorously alive and self-confident and purposeful that it seems equally unrelated to either the dead past or the confused and aimless present of Constantinople.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 150.

John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 151.

An issue of National Geographic from 1939 documents this particular historical period with an article titled “The Transformation of Turkey: New Hats and New Alphabet are the Surface Symbols of the Swiftest National Changes in Modern Times” by Douglas Chandler. One of the aspects that is universally appreciated about Istanbul, sitting at the meeting point of the Orient and the Occident, is its deep, ancient history and the multitude of civilizations it has seen prosper and collapse. This National Geographic travel log puts it eloquently:

Of that army of American and European cruise-ship adventurers who trudge beneath the soaring dome of St. Sophia (page 4), how many are able to visualize the surrounding area as it appeared during the height of Byzantine glory? On St. Sophia’s south flank stretched a vast marble-paved square, the Augusteum. To the east and south of the square, which some writers liken to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, stood the Senate House and the Palace; from the lofty elevation of the Kathisma the Emperor was able to gaze down on the glory sports of the Hippodrome. Near the location of the long-since vanished Hippodrome, in the court of the Palace of Constantine the Great, founder of the Byzantine Empire, mosaics of extraordinary beauty have recently been unearthed by Professor James H. Baxter, of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Cover of National Geographic, January 1939. John Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers (MC094), Box 99, Folder 5.

While arriving in Princeton in 2017 as an international student gave me the impression that Princeton exists in a parallel universe from my home, the Van Antwerp MacMurray Papers were my window to the life of a Princeton alumnus who was having my same experience backwards in the late 1930s as his diplomatic career landed him a position in Turkey, a few hours away from my birthplace in Syria. MacMurray’s pictures of busy Turkish streets, fruit vendors, elderly men playing tavla in the corner of an alley in Istanbul, and his descriptions of the Turkish cities he toured were reminiscent of the human and geographic landscapes that are very familiar to my eyes. Reading through this collection was simply heart-warming. Moreover, the Van Antwerp MacMurray collection is not only interesting because it documents the extensive career of a distinguished diplomat, but it above all has the particularity of comprising extensive family correspondence and personal photographs that reflect MacMurray’s personal impressions of Turkey. These allow us to see MacMurray’s ambassadorship in Turkey from a personal lens in a time of political transformation and turmoil.

1 thought on “Princeton Meets the Near East: John Van Antwerp MacMurray’s Ambassadorship in Turkey

  1. I am JVA’s grand-daughter (his son Frank was my father), and Dan Linke kindly sent me your blog. It was wonderful to read JVA’s impressions, and his sister Ethel’s responses, as I was very fond of both of them. As a former history teacher, I love knowing that those papers are cherished at Princeton and inspire younger scholars like you. I will pass your article along to the other family members who would be interested. Thank you!

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