When I was asked to contribute to this blog series about my experience at the 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies, Byzantium – Bridge between Worlds, I was very honored. At the same time, I was secretly very happy that I finally had a chance to share the bittersweet emotions that I felt as an early career Turkish researcher and academic funded by a Belgian Research Foundation at a congress that was supposed to be in Istanbul but was held in Venice instead. I know this sentence was a mouthful to read, but it forms the core of my experience of my first day at the congress, which will always stay with me.
As I headed to the inaugural session of the congress with a group of colleagues from my university in the relatively empty but soon-to-be buzzing streets of the labyrinth called Venice, I kept thinking how lucky we were to be a part of this congress with the financial support of our funding body. I endearingly called the congress “The World Cup of Byzantine Studies” because of the sheer number of participants from various countries. Unfortunately, we got a little lost and decided to follow a famous Byzantinist (Albrecht Berger) that we had spotted along the way, thanks to the beautiful red bags handed out by the congress. We jokingly commented that Prof. Berger must have a good sense of direction as he produced accurate maps of medieval Constantinople.
We hurried into the entrance hall of the opulent Teatro La Fenice and lost each other along the way as we saw old friends. What was the World Cup of Byzantine Studies was on the verge of becoming an awkward reunion where hugs were exchanged wearing N95 masks. Prominent names in the field attracted more extensive crowds and younger generations that buzzed around them. I couldn’t help but notice that the Turkish academics gathered around the other Turks, whereas the European contingencies formed more diverse groups. We are a close-knit society with a significant representation in this congress, I thought or would have liked to have thought. In the back of my head was the reality of the continuous isolation Turkish academics face as they struggle to find funding to travel on top of the long process of visa appointments. Unfortunately, Turkish academics rarely have the luxury Europeans do of hopping on trains to attend different congresses or do other things, such as organizing a Byzantine Studies congress. As I thought about this, I played out an alternative reality in my head of how this group of Turkish academics, who would have been the organizers of the congress, would have proudly greeted the participants of the congress if it had been held in Istanbul.
I joined the Turkish contingency for a split second and then hurried to claim a seat at the bustling Teatro La Fenice. As the institutional greetings and promotional videos of the organizing Italian Universities (featuring scenes involving but not limited to veterinary sciences, childbirth, and scenes from a swimming pool) went on, I was becoming impatient to hear the inaugural lecture of Prof. Paul Magdalino, and the plenary session of Prof. Albrecht Berger and Prof. Nevra Necipoğlu who are all esteemed experts on Constantinople. At the same time, I was also delighted to see two women, respective heads of the Universities of Venice and Padua, giving the institutional greetings of the congress. One of them declared that they would give their speeches in Italian and stated that we needed to protect “our languages” and promote multilingualism. There would be English subtitles instead on the screen behind them. Part of the crowd applauded. I had a disgruntled thought: if the congress was held in Turkey, could we have two women heads of universities who would also risk not being understood by an international crowd by speaking their mother tongue? Perhaps, this statement by the Italians stemmed from a confidence that as speakers of a Romance language, they would be understood by academics who are often well-versed in Romance languages, a luxury Turkish does not have. Perhaps, it was just a statement that stemmed from their uneasiness with their English-speaking abilities. And perhaps, it was a genuine effort to protect their language. Either way, I was unsure what we Turks would or could do in the same situation. On top of it, I started getting peevish as they kept mentioning how Venice was the perfect spot to host this congress. I mumbled that Venice was, at best, Byzantium’s favorite frenemy; at worst, it was its imposter. I also found it somewhat tone-deaf thinking that the Turkish committee’s efforts were left unrecognized in their speeches. The President of the International Association of Byzantine Studies Prof. John Haldon’s poignant speech and not-so-veiled criticism of why the congress was not held in Istanbul and his acknowledgment of the Turkish committee’s efforts was a much-needed reality check.
Another reality check was when the inaugural lecturer of the congress Prof. Paul Magdalino uttered the words that will not be easily forgotten by anyone present and addressed the elephant in the room that was disregarded by the Italian organizers: “The last time a group this interested in Byzantium was in Venice was almost 800 years ago heading the Fourth Crusade that ended up looting Constantinople and bringing the spoils back to Venice.” The entire room let out nervous waves of laughter as Magdalino made analogies with the congress and the ill-fated crusade. Later, as Magdalino changed course and discussed at length how exceptional Constantinople was, I jokingly told my colleague sitting next to me: “I should have never left!” I know that many Istanbulites like me entertain this feeling while also being perfectly aware of the valid reasons for our choice, such as the painful cognizance of where the congress should have been held and all the limitations of why it could not have been there. It is always bittersweet being one of the lucky ones to have found better opportunities abroad that offer funding and possibilities of academic enterprise yet are drenched in an ever-present nostalgia. We always carry Istanbul with us, the good and the bad. Soon, Prof. Berger, who we had followed on our way there, again demonstrated his vast knowledge of medieval Constantinople (and there was a map, too), and Prof. Nevra Necipoğlu gave an in-depth speech on monasteries of Late Byzantine Constantinople. Afterwards, I joined the crowd buzzing around her. I overcame my feelings with academic curiosity, the only solace for many Turkish academics like me.
The rest of the congress was a sheer show of force in our field. Many sessions went on simultaneously, yet none were bereft of participants. As another colleague reminded me, it was not the World Cup of Byzantine studies; it was instead the Olympics, where different skills are demonstrated every minute. I felt less and less disgruntled as I watched many colleagues, senior and junior, present excellent papers. I was motivated to work harder and think harder. Yet, I kept thinking how proud I would have been had the congress been held in Istanbul and how I would show my city to my foreign colleagues, saying, “some call it chaos: we call it home.” This thought will always be in my mind, and one day perhaps many years later, I will be able to utter it while attending the Byzantine Olympics in Istanbul.
Pırıl Us-MacLennan, PhD Candidate, Department of Literary Studies, Ghent University.
Proofreading: Miray Eroğlu