Nordic Tales, Byzantine Paths, and a visit to Gotland

In 2019, when we all thought that the 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies would take place in Istanbul in August 2021, the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul was approached by Buket Kitapçı Bayrı of the Tukish Committee for Byzantine Studies, who wanted to know if the institute was interested in organizing an exhibition for the congress. It was a reasonable question, because the institute was at that point under the direction of not only one but two Byzantinists – myself as new director and Olof Heilo as deputy director – and it seemed like a good way of contributing to the congress. So despite our lack of experience in exhibition making, we decided to draft a plan to present at a meeting that Buket arranged between us and the cultural foundation Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık. Yapı Kredi has a wonderful exhibition space on Istiklal Caddesi and Buket thought it would be a good collaboration for the congress.

Coin of Basil II and Constantine VIII, from the Yapı Kredi coin collection. © Yapı Kredi, Istanbul

For that first meeting, we actually had two ideas: one was on Nordic travelers in Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1709–1970; the other was on the relation between Byzantium and the North, intended as an opportunity for Yapı Kredi to display their impressive collection of Byzantine coins by thinking of coins as cultural artifacts that travelled across the world… The latter was certainly less well defined and in fact rather vague, but as soon as we mentioned the word Vikings it was clear that we had found the right topic. The combination of Vicky the Viking’s popularity among Turkish children and the general interest in the Byzantine heritage turned out to be fruitful and we began working on a concept that started out with “The Nordic Tale of Byzantine Coins” and ended up as “Nordic Tales, Byzantine Paths”. Due to the pandemic and the postponement and transfer of the congress to Venice, the original idea of a physical exhibition had to eventually be abandoned and we went for a digital exhibition instead. While this felt sad at the time, the result turned out to be rather wonderful because it is available across the world open access – thus exhibition and catalogue in one!

“Nordic Tales, Byzantine Paths” was presented at the SRII auditorium in early November, before a panel discussion with Alexandra Vukovich, Tonicha Upham, Monica White and Leif Inge Ree Petersen.

Recently the exhibition was officially launched in Istanbul, where Olof has in the meantime replaced me as director and taken the exhibition to a successful conclusion. A panel titled “Roads to Rus: Sources, Materials, Concepts”, with the participation of Alexandra Vukovich, Leif Inge Ree Petersen, Monica White and Tonicha Mae Upham, was a timely way of presenting the exhibition and, at the same time, connecting back to one of its important inspirations: the volume co-edited by Monica White (with Fedir Androshchuk and Jonathan Shepard) and published in Uppsala 2016 as Byzantium and the Viking World. A different source of inspiration – perhaps less learned but more entertaining – was the Viking girl Siri, who was noted by NordByz several years ago and eventually found her way into the exhibition in the form of a guide to Constantinople. The first two albums about Siri have now been translated into Turkish and were launched at Yapı Kredi in Istanbul and at Bilkent University in Ankara, with the participation of her creators Per Demervall and Patric Nyström.

Per Demervall and Patric Nyström came to Istanbul to sign the Turkish translations of the Siri books at the Yapi Kredi Kültür Merkezi near Galatasaray.

The process of working with the exhibition was extremely educational and enjoyable, and I take the opportunity to thank everyone who was involved during my time as director, but especially the core team: Buket who first gave us the idea to do an exhibition and put us in touch with Yapı Kredi, Tülay Güngen and Nihat Tekdemir who believed in us and our rather ambitious ideas, Ivana Jevtic and Nikos Kontogiannis who came in as colleagues, friends and advisors, and the fantastic group of students who helped us with the material. A special thanks goes to the Nordic colleagues who offered seminars for us and the students as a way into the Nordic material: Kent Andresson, Svetlana Svensson, Florent Audy and Neil Price. Last but not least, Olof’s creativity and attention to detail were indispensible for making the exhibition as aesthetically pleasing and userfriendly as it turned out to be.

In early October, Ivana Jevtic, Nikos Kontogiannis and the other organizers were shown the collections of the Historical Museum in Stockholm by Kent Andersson.

A process like this leads to many ideas that cannot be included in the actual product. Something that we kept returning to during the years we worked together was the need to visit some Nordic places and see the investigated objects and spaces in real life. Thanks to a generous grant from the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, and the support of Anders Andrén, this dream came through in early October this year. In this way, the core team was able to travel to Sweden and meet with me (back at Uppsala University) and some of the Swedish colleagues who had been involved only by distance, visit the Historical Museum in Stockholm and see the new Viking exhibition, and then spend two days in Gotland. We were warmly received by Christoff Kilger, who opened both physical and intellectual doors for us, and we left with numerous plans for research projects and collaborations that could include not only Istanbul, Uppsala and Gotland, but also Dumbarton Oaks (where Nikos is now director).

Exploring one of the famous “Byzantios” baptismal fonts at Garde, Gotland.

This turned out to be a long story, but it shows how successful projects tend to follow rather winding paths and involve large networks of places and people. For me, the road to this exhibition started in 2011, when Fedir Androshchuk gathered a group of scholars – including Christoff! – for the round table “Byzantium and the Viking World” at the 22ndInternational Congress of Byzantine Studies in Sofia. That round table led to a conference, which led to that publication co-edited by Monica… And here we are, more than ten years later, with an expanded and much better understanding of what both Byzantium and the Viking world were and can be. It has been a privilege to be part of this particular strand of scholarly development, taking me from Uppsala to Istanbul and back again – following a good old Nordic path to Byzantium.

Explore the digital exhibition site at


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