A few hours before the SRII seminar “The Straits: Inquiries into a Crossroad” was set to begin, the three NBN members responsible for its planning and execution sat down at a café on Tünel square and pondered the outcome. Would the mixture of Byzantine and Ottoman perspectives work as a whole? Would the participants connect to each other across disciplinary and geographical boundaries? Would the planned excursion around the Marmara Sea work smoothly and offer any substantial perspectives to the overall topic of the seminar?
As it were, our worries turned out to be ill founded. Despite the unusually cold, windy and rainy weather, Istanbul soon proved its old ability of bringing people together; and after a small reception and introductory lecture at the Swedish Research Institute the participants took part in a city walk through the central areas where the Byzantine and Ottoman capitals are still intertwined: from the Çemberlitaş square and the 15-century Atik Ali Paşa mosque along the old Mese to the Hippodrome with the Palace of Ibrahim Paşa, and further down to the Gülhane park with the column of the Goths overlooking the junction between the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. It seemed to be the natural point of departure for a broader take on the straits that have historically brought together as much as they have separated.
For the next two days, the participants would prove it in the most diverse ways. AnnaLinden Weller (New York) began the paper presentations at the Islamic frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, exploring Homeric references in the letters that Nikephoros Ouranos dispatched to the imperial capital. Grigori Simeonov (Vienna) surveyed the gathering of relics around the Bosporus in the wake of the Arab conquest of the Near East, and the way in which they attracted Byzantines from near and afar to the Straits. Victoria Legkikh (Munich), on the other hand, discussed the transfer of the relics of St. Nicholas from Myra to Bari and its reception in Latin, Greek and Slavonic texts. Lee Beaudoen (Los Angeles) concluded the first day by offering a broad take on the history of the Straits from Byzantine to Ottoman rule.
On the first seminar day, we also had the great pleasure of hearing prof. Asnu Bilban Yalçin (Istanbul) giving a lecture on the archaeological excavations and topographical surveys that have been undertaken in recent years at the site of the ancient Byzantine fortress of Yoros at the Black Sea mound of the Bosporus.
On the second day, Federica Gigante (London) pushed further into the Ottoman era by analyzing the reception of Islamic artefacts in Renaissance Italy. Constantinople with environs was the direct topic of attention in the presentations of Isabel Kimmelfield (Nijmegen), who examined the Byzantine suburb of Argyropolis and its remnants in the later Turkish neighborhood of Tophane, and Miloš Petrovič (Belgrade), who studied toponyms in the Ottoman capital that have connections to Belgrade and the conquest of Serbia. With the papers of Ulzhan Dyusembayeva (Bratislava) on the transformation of Belgrade in the post-Ottoman era, and Sandra Anić (Zagreb) on the conservation of the Maškovića Han – the Westernmost secular building in the Ottoman Empire – the presentations ended at the diametrical cognate to where they had started: at the Ottoman frontiers against Christian Europe.
For the three-day excursion around the Marmara Sea, we had been given an excellent guide and travel organizer in Elisabeth Narin Kurumlu, who not only managed the logistical and practical challenges of the trip, but also took us to sites that we had not otherwise heard about or planned to visit.
The longest part of the trip was the first one, which took us through Thrace down to Gallipoli and Eceabat, where a ferryboat shipped us across the Dardanelles. The painful memory of the First World War still hangs over the Straits at this point, where the centennial of the Ottoman entry into the war had taken place just the day before, and where the failed British campaign of 1915 is bound to be commemorated in the upcoming spring.
A much older conflict is the one that lies embedded in the layers of excavations and receptions at Troy, at the western mound of the Dardanelles. Despite the somewhat peculiar methods of Heinrich Schliemann – among other things, he used dynamite to retrieve what he believed to be the Homeric city – the site turned out to be more worth seeing than what is usually claimed, even if it should be admitted that its most picturesque features are the bucolic landscape and the inquisitive cats.
The main goal of the excursion was Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, where some of the earliest Ottoman sultans lie buried. The Ulu and Green mosques in particular offer fascinating glimpses of an empire whose early history was as far not marked by the lavish splendor of Constantinople. Unfortunately the destruction that the city suffered in the 1855 earthquake means that nothing but the site remains of the Byzantine monastery where Orhan Gazi interred his father after the 1326 conquest of the city.
A city that has made itself a name both in Greek and Turkish is Iznik alias Nicaea, site of two major ecumenical councils in the early Byzantine era and later center of the Ottoman ceramic tile manufacture that is still associated with the Turkish name. In this case, the destruction wrought by the 1921-22 Graeco-Turkish war has left little but the burnt shell of the former Hagia Sophia and city walls to visit, but we also had the pleasure of watching the Iznik vakfı at work in their idyllic little villa at the outskirts of the city.
We returned to Istanbul with the ferry from Yalova just as the sun was setting over the Sea of Marmara, the characteristic skyline of domes and minarets slowly emerging out of the afternoon haze. The journey from Constantinople to Troy and back again had been considerably longer than we had first imagined, and yet it seemed more clear than ever that the sites we had visited on the way were all interrelated through their connection to the unique geographical cosmos that is the Straits.
We thank the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul that made this interdisciplinary approach to the shared past of Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, Antiquity and Modernity possible, and the Tercentenary Foundation of the Bank of Sweden for supporting what was also an unusually multinational seminar. We counted to no less than ten different languages that the participants used to communicate with each other and were particularly pleased to detect the eagerness by which they did so irrespective of their individual approaches to the overall topic of the seminar.