A Search For Historical Interpretation – Istanbul: An Opportunity Lost

The heart of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet District could be described as a World Heritage Site on steroids. The area’s main tourist sites have had a vast and outsized influence on the history of Europe, the near East and Western Civilization. It is hard to think of a place that rival it. Two of the main sights, Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque stand opposite one another. The former was once the largest cathedral in the world, a physical representation of the power and prominence of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). The Blue Mosque, so named because of the blue Izmit tiles that cover part of its interior is an outstanding compliment to Aya Sofya. It is surrounded by six minarets, a rarity in the Islamic World. It was the greatest mosque in the Ottoman Empire, which was home to the Islamic Caliphate for many centuries. A visitor standing between the two is confronted on either side by touchstones of human civilization.  These two structures represent religions that not only transformed the world, but continue to shape it.  The area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya is truly the meeting point for east and west. It is said that Istanbul stands on the cusp of both the western world and the orient. This is true geographically, historically and spiritually.

The Aya Sofya - What Does It Really Mean?

The Aya Sofya – What Does It Really Mean?

If that was not enough, just a stone’s throw away from Aya Sofya is Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-15th century up until the mid-19th century. A period that saw their rule both expand and contract over much of the Middle East, north Africa and south-central Europe. Here was the place where much of the power politics of the late Middle Ages and early modern era took place. The decisions that were made within the palace had far reaching effects that still resonate today in the lands once under the sway of Ottoman hegemony. These three sites existence today are living proof both a physical and spiritual connection to the past. Their importance cannot be overstated.

So how in the world did I find myself after a daylong guided tour of these sites so upset about the art of historical interpretation. I will not name the company or guide involved. They were not up to par to say the least. Instead I would like to focus on what made this experience so lacking in history. What I would like to hone in on are some of the things that I found so lacking in this less than educational experience. Before I get started let me answer one question: Why does it matter? Quite simply because this may well be the only opportunity that visitors will ever have to learn about the history of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire as well as two major religions: Islam and Orthodox Christianity. These are all of world historical importance. Furthermore, they will be confronted with unique architectural elements that either are seen nowhere else in the world or happen to be the hallmarks of styles that came to permeate both the Middle East and Europe. This is heady, important stuff and it’s all right there in front of the visitor, but to extract the deeper meanings takes both accurate information as well as a gift for interpretation.

A Short Guide to Better Historical Interpretation
1) Information for information’s sake, is neither memorable nor interesting
I could write the shortest book ever from the facts that I remember after today’s tour. I bet thousands of others could have done the same thing this past year. What good is it to know the height of something. For example, if a minaret is 120 meters high, unless I am told why it is that high or it is compared with a structure of similar height that I can associate it with, in essence what I have learned is something pretty much incomprehensible. Now pile on another ten of these facts in a five minute speech and I become bored. These facts mean nothing unless they are used to create a narrative, make a point or cause the listener to become curious. Facts are a foundation. They are a means to an end, not vice versa.

2) Offer context
I heard Justinian’s name mentioned several times on the tour. Two of the more memorable facts were that Justinian commissioned the building of the Aya Sofya and that he killed 20,000 people in the Nika Revolts that took place in and around the Hippodrome. Now why did a guy who was the driving force behind one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders also kill 20,000 people in something known as the Nika Revolts. (Disclaimer: I knew about Justinian and the history mentioned, but my wife did not.) How in the world could she ever understand such a strange series of events surrounding one man without any context whatsoever. What were the Nika Revolts? Why did Justinian commission the building of the Aya Sofya? I believe there are thousands of visitors who ponder this, but then again they will never get the answer on this tour.

3) People make history
Make people present, not anonymous. Justinian, Mehmet the Conqueror, countless Sultans and Valide Sultans were unbelievably complex figures. It is difficult enough to understand the complexity of great men and women, but when visitors are not informed about their personas it is an injustice to understanding history. People make history, it’s not the other way around. By trying to understand these people, we can also come to better understand how we got to where we are at today. That is one of the many uses of the past.

4) Architecture and layout is a portal into deeper meanings and by extension deeper understanding
For instance, there is a reason that Topkapi palace has four courtyards, this is not happenstance, it is by design. The harem’s position on the palace grounds had more of a political meaning than a physical one. The power is in the placement of features. This goes for everything from the library to the fountains to the imperial council chambers. To get a visitor’s head around this takes a skilled guide. Nonetheless, it would be well worth the effort to make that connection.

5) Use visuals
I figure the average visitor is smart enough to know that the way things look today is much different than 1,500 years ago, 500 years ago or even 100 years ago. Looking at a diagram of the original layout and how it changed or more to the point how it was changed and for what purpose these changes were done is revealing. And this would lead to perhaps the most intriguing question of all, why were some things not changed.

6) Identify less obvious, but no less important perspectives
These can be everything from architectural to cultural to religious perspectives. One thing I heard was this intriguing phrase regarding the Ottoman taking of the city in 1453: “The Conquest of Istanbul.” In the west we call it “the Fall of Constantinople.” What an interesting difference in perspective. To be honest since the city is today Turkish, the correct phrase is: “The Conquest of Istanbul.” That catchphrase is both present and past tense. The phrase “The Fall of Constantinople” is past tense. This is only one example of an endless array of possibilities that could be used to counter cliche and ignorance. It takes a seasoned guide to listen to themselves, consider the statements they are making, but this awareness could lead to ways for better engagement with an audience.

I will finish by saying that the overriding disappointment I had with this tour, was the guide’s ignorance. Not of the facts though, but of how to use them. Because of this the opportunity to better educate a curious audience was lost. Until more thought is given to the art of presentation and style, context and perspective, the importance of people and their stories, the substance of such tour will be lacking.

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