Essay / Misc.

Revisioning History in Turkey

Earlier this month I had the privilege of traveling to Turkey and Greece with 45 undergraduate students from the Torrey Honors Institute. First, it was a great trip! What a great opportunity for someone who wrote a doctoral dissertation on a twelfth-century Byzantine author (that’s me!) to visit the heart of the former Byzantine empire. Highlights for me were the monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos and the Meteora monasteries in Thessaly. Second, it was great to spend so much time with Torrey Honors students. What a group! The collective personality of the group made it easy to spend countless hours in buses, cruise ships and gulet boats together. I got to see a side of these students that would have remained hidden had I not gone on the trip. They too saw a side of me that should remain hidden! Regardless, what a great time. However, there was one part of the trip that really tested my patience — Turkey’s tendency to revision history. Let me explain with two examples.

(1) We had the opportunity to spend about an hour at Assos (modern Behramkale) in Turkey. Getting up to the acropolis at Assos involved a good steady uphill climb through the small town, past countless elderly Turks selling souvenirs. The top of the hill affords one with an amazing view of the Aegean Sea, the Greek island of Lesvos and the surrounding Turkish countryside. What makes ancient Assos significant is that both Aristotle and the apostle Paul lived here. Aristotle arrived in about 348 BC and stayed here, running a school of philosophy, for about three years. Acts 20:13-14 tell us that Paul’s traveling companions “went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene.” Paul’s journey to Assos and departure for Lesvos occurred on this third missionary journey which took him to many parts of Asia Minor.

Of greater interest to a Byzantinist is the presence of a Christian church on the top of the hill built in the 14th century. Now, of course, it is a mosque but originally it was a church, the architecture alone makes this obvious. Now, enter Turkish revisionism: the sign now affixed to the building reads “Turkish Mosque, 14th century.” Really! I find this hard to believe considering the Ottoman Turks did not construct this “mosque” nor did they control this area in the 14th century. Would it be too hard or asking too much to create a sign that reads “Christian Church, 14-15th century; Turkish Mosque, 15th century”? Changing the facts on a sign does not alter the actual history so why not simply convey that history accurately. Surely modern Turkish people are able to accept that these areas of modern Turkey were not always under Muslim, Turkish control.

(2) My second example comes from the mouth of our very enjoyable and knowledgeable tour guide. At one point, he proceeded to tell us that John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers in the early Christian church and a bishop, preached in Istanbul. Again, really! Now, if by “Istanbul” you etymologically mean “that city,” then, yes, he preached in “Istanbul.” However, I recollect being taught that John Chrysostom preached and was patriarch of Constantinople, that little city founded by emperor Constantine the Great in the early fourth century in a spot formerly known as Byzantium. I was left wondering, how difficult is it to acknowledge that for about 1100 years the modern city of Istanbul was called Constantinople. Would it kill someone to be historically accurate? Perhaps.

The lesson from this experience is that history is not always pretty, not always neat and certainly not always accommodating to our modern sensibilities. Yet, history is what it is, by definition. It’s worth repeating, revisioning details of history does not actually alter the facts of history. A lesson that Turkish sign makers in Assos and Turkish tour guides would do well to learn. Then again, as a historian, that’s a good lesson for me too!

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