I heaved a sigh of relief when the plane landed at the Venice Marco Polo Airport. Having thought I was never going to make it, I found myself on the ferry from the airport moving towards the city center, peering outside the small window, wondering whether I would first spot the famous towers of Venice or the dome of the St Mark’s Basilica. I had briefly visited Venice during the summer of 2010 and had wandered around the city streets with a friend/colleague, strolling along St. Mark’s, looking for Byzantine medallions, and of course getting lost. It was a longer visit this time, yes, but it was also a much busier schedule. How long I could tour around the city was a question that occupied my mind, but more importantly, I wondered how many presentations I would be able to attend at the actual congress and how upset I would be if I had to choose between presentations taking place simultaneously.
When Hagia Sophia was suddenly converted into a mosque overnight in 2020, the 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies was suddenly taken from Istanbul. After a few months of back and forth discussions as to whether Cyprus or Italy should host the congress, it was decided that Venice-Padua would provide the backdrop. At the time, I did not think I would be attending the congress. In any case, the idea of attending an event where a thousand-odd people would come together while the pandemic was ongoing did not sound very reasonable. But for someone who spends about 2-2.5 hours riding public transportation in Istanbul every single day, the main reason could not be anxiety induced by the pandemic. For me, it was more of a—I don’t know how much room there is for emotions in academia, where both national and international politics are so embedded—feeling of heartbreak turning into resentment, and despair turning into disillusionment.
Then, as I was on the verge of submitting my doctoral thesis, that idea of presenting a paper at the congress provided me with great motivation and I decided to go to Italy. While going over the initial itinerary and making a check-list for items such as passport, visa, flights and accommodation, I realized that the last time I went abroad was about four years ago, again for a significant academic trip. During these four years, traveling has become almost impossible for a prospective academic living in the realities of Turkey, where there is no job security—and even for those who have job security, employment wages do not correspond to their years of education and research. Perhaps I was not one of the victims of the ongoing passport chip crisis in our country, yet I was only able to get the Schengen visa six weeks after my application, and only five days before I set off. It is also pathetic to be willing to wait six weeks just because one out of every five Turkish citizens are denied a visa but I, just like many of us, did so.
With the deterioration of the economic situation in our country, which has crashed to the ground much harder than the global economy, and the relocation of the congress from our relatively cheap Istanbul to the very expensive Venice, the dire situation faced by academics and academic candidates from Turkey, who are not readily wealthy, have thankfully got on the radar of several organizations. The International Byzantine Committee, the Society for Promotion of Byzantine Studies, Koç University GABAM and Boğaziçi University Byzantine Studies Center have all provided academic travel and congress participation scholarships for these participants. In addition to these, there are the scholarship opportunities from other universities as well as the travel scholarships of a number of research centers such as the Istanbul Research Institute. However, as far as I know, none of these scholarships mentioned were enough to cover even the bare minimum expenses of a 6-day long event. The effort of institutions to allocate their limited budgets among as many scholars as possible is, of course, admirable, but unfortunately insufficient.
I realize that I am painting a nightmarish picture as I write about one ill after another. But the socio-economic and political situation we are in is really a bit of a nightmare. Well, if you were to ask where our Venice adventure sits within all this, I would say that my participation in the 24th Byzantine Studies Congress was like a beautiful dream that pushed the pause button on these nightmares. The evening before the congress officially started, I stopped by the opening reception as I was walking from the registration desk to my hotel room. One conversation followed another, acquaintances mingled with each other, and we ended up at a quiet and peaceful bar by the canal, close to the congress venue, talking all things Byzantine. The congress began at the La Fenice Opera House, with our dear professor Paul Magdalino’s amusing and—as always—informative opening speech, followed by the plenary speech by Nevra Necipoğlu, my first professor on the Byzantine History, and whose contribution in carrying Byzantine Studies in Turkey to a whole new level is indubitable. The building’s grandeur is obviously world-class, and we were not even bothered by issues regarding accessibility or the fact that we were not even offered water during the session. Except for the opening session, the Venice leg of the congress took place entirely on the San Giobbe campus of Ca’ Foscari University. It was a perfect choice of venue: the conversations that took place in large lecture halls lined up on both sides of a wide open corridor, went smoothly, comfortably and without any issues; the coffee breaks in the outdoor area where we could take our masks off, chatting while sipping our drinks was a definite luxury. I think, apart from the fact that Venice is one of the most expensive and most touristic cities in Europe in general; the only common complaint of the congress participants was that a hard copy of the congress program was not provided at the time of registration, which can probably be overlooked as a minor shortcoming. The fourth day of the congress took place in Padua. Although we did not have much opportunity to visit the city, it was pleasing to see that one part of the campus consisted of an old monastery and the other part where the papers were presented was made up of large lecture halls. It was obvious that the organization team had planned the programs in the most perfect way possible under the pandemic conditions; could it have been better, I doubt it.
This organization was much needed for people who spend their lives as part of the international academia, especially after a period of isolation instigated by the pandemic, which for some like me, was much longer than the world average, not only for their careers but also, and perhaps more importantly, for their well-being. It was an indescribable source of happiness to be able to meet fellow academics working on Byzantium, who have become friends after numerous conferences, workshops, trips and lectures held at Boğaziçi, Koç, ANAMED, IAE, CEU, Birmingham, Oxford, Edinburgh, Getty Foundation, Dublin, Paris, the Gennadios Library in Athens and THYESPA taking place over the last ten-odd years, and to learn about what was going on in their lives and to listen to the results of their current research.
Furthermore, it turned out that this congress, which was originally planned to take place last year, was much needed by our discipline, Byzantine studies. From listening to the interim and final reports of highly funded research projects, to following current research topics and trends that would have gone unknown otherwise, and from digitally visiting exhibitions including Pera Museum’s successful “What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul!” exhibition to perusing recent publications from various publishing houses, we had a versatile and highly satisfying week.
I am not going to discuss Italy’s important position in medieval and Byzantine studies; that said, Venice’s significance for the discipline is on a whole different level. It was a rare opportunity to be able to access the numerous Byzantine manuscripts in the Marciana Library and to visit the two major exhibitions prepared as parallel events of the Congress and including documents from Marciana. It was also a wonderful feeling to be able to study a document written in Greek by Davud Paşa, Governor General of Rumeli during the rule of Mehmed II in the Venetian Archives. On top of all that, the Venice Biennale was ongoing. The only sad coincidence was that the exterior of St. Mark’s was covered with barriers, piers and tarpaulins due to restoration work. Apart from this, Venice treated us all very well, both in terms of art and architecture, and daily life and entertainment.
It has already been three months since the 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies successfully ended. We returned to our homes with the sweet memory of the city, our discipline, and the catching up with our colleagues/friends. As a 2022-2023 PhD fellow of IAE, I spend a lot of time in Beyoğlu these days, and whenever I run into fellow Byzantinist colleagues, I hear about how motivating Venice had been, and how happy and full of enthusiasm they are about their work. I am in a similar mood. On the one hand, I try to channel this energy into my work, but on the other, I can’t stop myself from desperately thinking “How nice it would have been if this congress was in Istanbul?!” Venice contributed a lot to the Byzantine scholars, but what could Istanbul have offered? What has Istanbul lost? I remember the excitement of everyone, who was not involved in the organization process, during the presentations I attended about the congress preparations in 2019, and in my anguish about what we could have accomplished, how beautiful it could have been, a song kept on playing in my head: I grieve the excitement of possibilities. Still, I have hope that one day, after a congress in Istanbul, hundreds of Byzantine scholars will return to their homes with a huge motivation for research and similar feelings to what we experienced in Venice, and Istanbul will finally be able to fulfill its duty as the true host it deserves to be.
Elif Demirtiken, PhD Candidate, Edinburgh University / IAE 2022-2023 PhD Fellow.
Translation: Neylan Bağcıoğlu
Proofreading: Miray Eroğlu