Looking at Ruins, Part Three: East Meets West

The handful of you actively hanging on everything I post (Hi, Mom!) have probably noticed my lack of activity over the past month. Rest assured that this is a reflection not of unwillingness but of the particular brutality that is the Greece FSP. 10-hour days with an assignment at night are routine, and the Hellenic tendency to put everything important on the top of a mountain tends to sap the energy of an out-of-shape college student. Nevertheless, while it happened several weeks ago I wish to write a bit about the true highlight of the entire trip, a week long swing through the legendary city of Istanbul.

The seat of two empires over 1600 years, Istanbul actually possesses few classical sites except for the (impressive) remains of the Theodosian Walls. Consequently, a visit here seems about as relevant to Classics as Classics is to one’s future job. However, the Greece FSP fleshes itself out by looking at later periods of Greek material culture as well, and Istanbul is amply supplied with structures from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. In hindsight, of course, I can safely say that just about any excuse to visit Istanbul is acceptable, because the city is astounding.

Unsurprisingly, the city bursts at the seams with history. The Hagia Sophia has been standing for nearly 1500 years and rivals the pyramids as the ancient world’s most spectacular structure. Following in its wake are the Chora Church, a massive cistern straight out of From Russia With Love, a sublime array of Ottoman mosques and palaces, and one of the world’s truly great museums in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Mixing these sites in with a modern city that is strikingly cosmopolitan, Istanbul captures the full range of the human experience like no other city on Earth.

Further enhancing the experience was the excellent hospitality of the Turkish people. Our group was quite used to Greeks being quite friendly folk, but the Turks we encountered took nice to a whole different level. Much of this of course was simply a matter of catering to tourists, but it was all done with a zeal and commitment to enterprise that I found very appealing. Plus, when strangers who see you reading a sign come up to ask if you need help it’s not hard to believe that the Turks are just exceptionally friendly people.

In a development that I am sure was 100% unrelated to 10 of our 14 FSP members being female (I am a progressive fellow who would never stereotype, no sirree), the second most popular undertaking for the group in Istanbul after visiting sites was shopping. Even this had an element of history, though, since the city’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar is still active today. It’s largely a tourist destination today, selling goods like scarves, ceramics, and fezzes which are famously Turkish but which actual Turks have little need to buy. The only things Turks seem to buy at the Grand Bazaar are jewelry and special goods like elaborate circumcision outfits (uh…don’t ask).

Of course, this being the Classics FSP, the visit was not without numerous assignments, but even this element was influenced by the city’s magic. In a genuine Easter miracle, Professor Christeson, infamous taskmaster of Classics 19, granted the group two days off in which we could simply wander the city as we wished. Now that, for once, was an assignment I could get right behind.

–Blake Neff