Ross School

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Great Pyramids at Giza

After a day of travel and rest, we finally got out to explore Egypt today. Cairo couldn't be more dissimilar from Istanbul; While the areas we spent most of our time in Istanbul consisted of twisting cobblestone streets surrounded by outcropping historical marvels, perfectly preserved but not detached from daily life, Cairo is rushing cars on four lane highways, hurrying pedestrians, and smog. From my room in Turkey I could see quaint shops and the Hagia Sofia, but here, on the sixteenth floor of our skyscraper hotel, I see a never-ending expanse of sandy colored structures cleaved by the muddy Nile. I'm not trying to suggest that this isn't a stunning, magnificent city, it merely functions at a different speed and in a different manner than we have become accustomed to.

Rejuvenated by the day before, we began with a breakfast dappled with traditional Egyptian foods, and then attended a morning lecture by Dr Ali Radwan, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University. He instructed us on the power of women in ancient Egyptian society, both in religion and in royalty.

Afterwards, we set out to see the epitome of Egyptian sightseeing, the pyramids. The first set we saw contained the first pyramid ever built, and put the antiquity of our previous city to shame. The Necropolis of Sakkara contained one remaining step pyramid built for the Pharaoh Djoser, and the remains of other buildings for the containment of his artifacts after his death, the worship of the gods, and changing his royal clothing during ceremonies.

Our guide then directed us to a carpet school, where students learn the trade of handmade carpet making in the morning and have regular school in the afternoon. The tour seemed more geared at getting us to purchase their tapestries ("No pressure! No pressure!") than showing us the school, but it was nonetheless thought provoking to see this portion of the Egyptian school system.

To conclude our adventures, we moved to the Great Pyramids at Giza. They did not disappoint in the slightest: they were innumerably more massive, dense, and heavy looking than could have ever expected. Three pyramids, built by the Pharaohs Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus, were situated alongside the Sphinx, unexpectedly close to downtown Cairo. These monuments were around 4500 years old and the only remaining components of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When we were in Istanbul, I was surprised with the cavalier attitude towards their nation's ancient sites. Standing atop the Walls of Theodosius, I could see cars on the highway, houses leaning against the wall, and businesses set up only a hundred yards away, but here the familiarity extends almost to disrespect. The wonderful, majestic pyramids were clouded with the stench of garbage and camel waste from the locals trying to make a profit off the gawking tourist. It would be a great misfortune if the Ministry of Antiquities did not sort out how to treat these famous locations before they are ruined beyond repair.

We ended our day with some academy time and a sumptuous late dinner. Ms. McCall gave us an overview of Egyptian mythology, explaining the stories of the gods and the role those beliefs played in Egyptian culture, which helped give us more background in preparation for this morning's lecture.

When you picture Egypt, one geometric shape pops into mind. Pyramids. Nothing can really prepare you for the awe-inspiring feeling the pyramids have. They are unimaginably huge. Seeing them and being able to walk around them was an awesome and unforgettable experience. Something that was a little bit disappointing was how close modern civilization has encroached upon the Pyramids we visited. There was a Pizza Hut less than a few kilometers from the pyramid. Tourism also seemed to defile this place that was intended to be very sacred.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sailing to the Black Sea - Last Day in Istanbul

We slept in a bit today after our late and wonderful evening with friends at Bahçeşehir Üniversitesi We departed our hotel at 10:45 am, arriving at our boat to set sail on the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea. We learned that the Bosphorus flows into the Black Sea, constantly contributing copious amounts of fresh water to the giant salt-water mass. Sunlight has difficulty reaching the depths of the seawater, causing the sea to appear dark. Thus, we learned how the Black Sea got its name.

We rode northeast for approximately 50 km to a small town known as Poyraz. On the way, we nibbled on cheese, crackers, and olives while sipping Cay, Turkish tea, and/or pomegrante juice. When we docked, there was a slight drizzle falling. We walked past dozens of fishing boats to the steep steps that led to the town. We climbed up to what essentially serves as the town's center, finding just a few storefronts with fantastic views of the Bosphorus. Some students continued the climb up to where there should have been a lighthouse. We didn't find one, but we did come across several strange graffiti-covered buildings and a fabulous view. Even through the haze, one was able to look back the way we came, down past the village to the Bosphorus as it leads South. The view North looked down a steep cliff to the water of the Black Sea lapping at the rocks. Some of us ventured down the steps of one of the bunker-like buildings. After feeling through the darkness for a while, students and teachers found themselves on the front tip of the land mass, facing East, at a radar device which they figure probably helps guide vessels around the landmass from the Black Sea into the Bosphorus.

After exploring this little town, we returned to our boat for lunch. Apparently, the boat is owned by a restaurateur in Istanbul. His chefs cooked us an amazing multi-course, 3 hour feast. We had mezze to start, consisting of many variations of eggplant, peppers, grilled vegetables, raw vegetables, and salad. Then the carnivores were served beef with mashed potatoes and lamb with orzo, while the vegetarians dined on spaghetti and extraordinarily sweet cooked carrots. We ate most of our food while docked, but the desert portion was consumed back on the open waters. Desert was a rich warm molten chocolate cake with fresh fruit (strawberries, bananas, apples, and peaches). A highlight of my day was chatting in broken English and Turkish with the captain of our boat, who permitted me to take the wheel for a little while. Our communication was shoddy, but he guided me as I piloted us under the first bridge back towards Istanbul. At the point where the Black Sea waters meet the Bosphorus waters, we were told there is always a bit of a rough water. Marie, Emre and Barış were on the bow filming when suddenly the boat began rocking severely. Marie and company heroically gripped our impressive camera equipment, including a tripod at full extension. They were flung to and fro while those of us inside were being showered with various foods and beverages. Miraculously, everyone managed to stay aboard and everything stayed dry, even Marie and her tripod. Once we were within the natural harbor, we experienced safe and easy sailing back to the dock. Our last day in Turkey proved to be a great adventure, filled with scrumptious edibles, fun company, and beautiful views.

Today, we cruised the Bosphorus for the second time on the trip. Since the first time was on the first day, the experience has bookended our time in Istanbul. It was neat to stare in amazement at all of these foreign sites on the first day and then take to the Bosporus after visiting much of what was visible. We also stopped at a small town on the Black Sea that had an awesome view of the sea and the Bosporus. Exploring the dilapidated cold war military installation there was a lot of fun. We went down some creepy pitch black staircases to find an old radar emplacement. It was a good experience for ending our Istanbul journey.


Today, we were on a boat which went through the Bosporus into the Black Sea. We stopped in a small fishing village at the entrance to the sea. When translated, the name of the village means North Wind. The north wind is very important to Istanbul. It is the main wind which hits the Bosporus and causes the strong currents.

In the village I saw a group of men who were preparing a net to go fishing. They were working hard; I saw in their faces they had worked hard before. Their faces had weathered with the salt and their concentration. As I looked at one fisherman, our eyes met, and I could see that for generations he has been doing this. He seemed trapped in time. In his eyes I saw no strive for salvation. There was no hope for escape. In his eyes I saw the many eyes that came before him. His father, his father's father, and so on.

We saw a sign that "Forbidden Zone." I agree with this sign, in more ways than one.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Galata Tower


Our morning began with a tour of the Galata, the commercial section in the northern part of the city. We better understand the city's layout each time we visit a new section. We stopped at a building that claimed to have been built in the year 717. That year, however, was the building date of the first structure ever to inhabit that piece of land, not the date of the building that currently stands there. It was a church-turned-mosque; a common description for buildings here. When converting a building from a church to a mosque in Istanbul, the minbar is usually situated slightly at an angle to the building, in order to point towards Mecca. This mosque, however, had neglected to make this few degrees change. The people simply pray directly east in that mosque. The only explanation we were given is that it may have been too difficult to change the direction.

Our first visit today was meeting the Hakham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Isaac Haleva. He shared his insights on the relationship between education and religion in Turkey. The current situation for training rabbis in the Jewish religion here is similar to that of training priests that we had heard about when meeting with His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch. There was a school in Istanbul until the year 1965 that taught theology, however there were not enough students to keep this school open. The rabbi school closed by choice, not by force of law, which was the case for training of priests for the Eastern Orthodox Church. If Jewish students are interested in a career in religion, they are often sent out of the country to further their studies. Rabbi Haleva's son studied in the United States. In closing, the Chief Rabbi expressed an opinion very much against any type of violence, stating that, "War isn't good for anyone. No one ever wins a war." Finally, Rabbi Halevi made a few calls to assist Noah in looking up members of his family who had lived in Istanbul in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

We walked from the Rabbi's office to the main synagogue of Istanbul. There have been two terrorist attacks in that synagogue, and so we had to go through multiple security checks. This was followed by lunch in the Galata Tower, which has a panoramic view of Istanbul. The tower was built by the Genovese in order to oversee and control trade to and from the city. The view was nothing short of magnificent.
We continued our day with a short trip to the Jewish Museum of Istanbul. One of my favorite parts of this museum was the downstairs section, filled with tapestries and clothing. The museum also included a letter written from Einstein to Ataturk in 1933, requesting permission for German scientists to continue their work in Turkey.
Our busy day was followed by a dinner meeting with the Chairman of the Board of Bahçesehir University, Mr. Enver Yücel. We spoke about the mission of their school and the curriculum and mission of Ross School and how we work toward the same goals. Two professors spoke to us during dinner. Dr. Bekir Kaliga, a professor of theology and Islamic history, spoke of a curricular project he has been working on to organize study of world civilizations from ancient Mesopotamian to the present, similar to Ross School. Dr. Binnaz Toprak, a political science professor (who had spent time working in East Hampton in the sixties) spoke of contemporary Turkey, especially the political structure, education, and its westernization. We gained insight into the university's structure and mission, and will maintain contact with them for future collaborations.
We discovered how difficult rush hour traffic is here in Istanbul. On our way to dinner, the bus ride took an hour and forty minutes. On the way back it took eight minutes. The distance was four miles. This is NOT an exaggeration. That is the reason for the construction of an extensive underground rail system in Istanbul at present.

Today we visited with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey. After making our way through extensive security, we found a very warm man welcoming us into his office. He encouraged us to ask questions and gave thoughtful answers. We spoke a bit after the big group conversation; as I was leaving I said "Shalom" to him which made him smile and reply the same to me. I think he appreciated that. We continued our tour of Istanbul's Jewish history with a visit to a Jewish synagogue that was built in the early 1990's.

We ate lunch atop the Galata Tower, a restored lighthouse which affords visitors tremendous 360 views. I think it is important to see cities from above; it helps me understand the lay of the land. After I have seen the city from above, I feel I can understand it at the street level. After lunch, we stopped in at the only Jewish Museum in Turkey, located in a converted synagogue. We stopped by in our hotel for a few minutes before venturing to a university for dinner and two lectures by local professors. The first was a professor of Islamic Religion and Philosophy, the second, a professor of political science. Both professors were interesting, but I found the latter to be especially engaging and interesting. Asking her questions about the contemporary regime was quite fun!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Golden Gate and Port Theodosius Excavation Site


Today we visited two sites that were both entrances to Constantinople and therefore nodes within the Golden Matrix node of Constantinople. The ideas that we have been studying in the Golden Matrix passed through either the Golden Gate or through the Port of Theodosius. The Golden Gate was once a decorative arch outside the city, but was later transformed into a gate as the city grew. The gate was monumental. It was easy to imagine Justinian coming into the city triumphant after a conquest. The Gate was built as a key part of the Theodosian walls in 408. These walls stood undefeated for over one thousand years. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the invading Ottomans could not find the body of Constantine XI, the last Emperor.

 There was a legend that eventually Constantine XI would return through the Golden Gate and recapture the city.  To thwart this, or at least the defeated Byzantines, Sultan Mehmet II blocked the gate and added three towers to the four existing towers at the Gate. Thus it is also called the “Fortress of the Seven Towers.” The Fortress later also served as a dungeon, and is known to many as the “Dark Dungeon.” The Gate and subsequent Fortress have played a pivotal role in the history of this city. Our group went to the site to examine the glory of early Byzantium as well as the transition between Byzantine and Ottoman rule of Constantinople/Istanbul. The site was well preserved yet au naturale; it was private and therefore off the beaten path. We walked on the walls and explored the many passages inside the towers. I was very impressed by the scale of the site as well as the well-preserved state of it compared to other Byzantine structures in the city.

- Photograph Source - All Rights Reserved By The Original Owner:
'Yenikapi 11." =

After our visit to the Golden Gate, we went to the Port of Theodosius Excavation Site. It is the future home of two subway stations: one to the Asian side of the city across the Bosphorus, and the other as an extension of the city metro. However, before the project can be completed, the archaeologists need to do their due diligence. They have been doing this due diligence since 2004. In their excavations, they have uncovered thirty-five shipwrecks and countless pieces of ceramics. It is a tremendous undertaking: not only is the site very large, but there are tens of layers of history to uncover. Just six inches under the 6th century there was another layer of artifacts from the 5th century. Texts of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, and others were brought in and out of the port along with the goods being traded around the Mediterranean world. Trade was the lifeblood of the Golden Matrix; it facilitated the transfer of knowledge from Greece to Italy by way of Constantinople, Alexandria, Baghdad, and Cordoba. The manager of the excavation led us around the site. He had a particular interest in prehistory, and told us of several prehistoric cultures and their burial rituals. We ended our tour by stopping in their processing area. There workers sorted, washed, and catalogued artifacts. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph or film at the site. Getting permission to even go was hard enough; we obtained the necessary permission just a few hours before our arrival. Nevertheless, the site was amazing and pertained very closely to our mission.

The man who toured us around the archeological site was wearing a grey coat. The sun shone brightly for the first ten minutes, then clouds covered the light. A dark tone vibrated over the site. We saw the process of uncovering years of soil. They were left with the garbage, the remnants of once so sophisticated civilizations. Time and history become diluted into small ceramic pieces. Like a puzzle we put them together and make inferences. We see similarities and differences. We base these inferences on our civilization because we have nothing else to base it on.
Beautiful boat. Submerged under rock and soil. Covered by time and sediments. Uncovered by archeologists.
Amazing to see the process of history. How we find out so much about who we are and what we are. One could say the early Byzantines are a pile of old ceramic pieces. The early Ottomans now only a few examples of architecture. And the city, Istanbul, a combination of all of this. The years and years of dust and sediment. All encompassing people, culture, traditions, philosophy, mathematics, science, technology, rhetoric, and above all the most powerful and complicated thing, human thought and emotion.

Both of today’s visits were incredible. The dark dungeon was one of the most massive structures I’ve ever been in. Though the bricks literally were crumbling beneath my hands, there was still a sense of power and grandiosity that surely would have been even more impressive to visitors approaching the city five hundred years ago.
The Port of Theodosius excavation was a very special treat. We were walking across what had been the sea floor in the 5th century! It was littered with pot shards and shells of creatures that had died 1500 years ago. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to take a piece of amphora with me. Most impressive of all were the shipwrecks, miraculously preserved in the mud since the time of the Byzantines, filled with critical clues to classical trade and daily life. There’s so much more of the site to excavate; surely, whole books-worth of fascinating information are waiting to be discovered.

The Seven Towers of Istanbul, which we visited today, was one of the most impressive sites we’ve visited so far. Many different rulers built the walls at different time periods; some parts were up to 1600 years old. A slight touch makes the wall crumble; you can feel the history. This piece of land is not a normal tourist attraction, which means that there is no glass, no railings, nothing stopping you from connecting with the energy that is in that space.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mosque of the Rose, the Iron Church and Asia

Today was a relatively lightly-scheduled one. We started out by walking to a mosque known as the “Mosque of the Rose” in Turkish. There are a few stories explaining the name, the most beautiful of which is that, since the church was named Hagia Theodosia, churchgoers would fill it with flowers on St. Theodosia’s feast day. As it would happen, St. Theodosia’s day in 1453 was the day before the Turks took the city. When the Turks entered the church, they found it bedecked in fresh flowers and thus converted it to a mosque and gave it its unusual name.
The mosque itself was, to be honest, a little underwhelming. It had neither the soaring architecture nor the elaborate decoration of many of the other places of worship we have visited over the last few days. The sole point of interest was a small tomb up a winding set of stairs, supposedly belonging to either the last Emperor of Constantinople (the Christian believe) or one of Christ’s apostles (the Muslim belief). Since Christ and his apostles are recognized as holy men in Islam, the tomb was not removed, as was usually the case when churches were converted to mosques.
The most interesting part of the visit was the disagreement between our Turkish guides and the Imam guiding us. Although he did not make any mention of it when we arrived, about twenty minutes into our visit he started to complain to the guides that we were being disrespectful since (A) a member of our group was using a cane, which touches the ground and is therefore unclean, and (B) the women were not wearing headscarves. When our guides explained to him (in Turkish) that we would have gladly complied with these requests had he made them before, he started shouting that they didn’t understand Islam. At this point, we left. I think the disagreement hit a nerve with both the Imam and our guides. There is a very sharp divide in this country between religious and secular people, one that becomes apparent whenever politics is discussed. It is worth noting that the discussion at the breakfast table this morning was about the arrest yesterday of about 50 current and former military officials accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the government, currently run by a democratically elected Islamic party. The military is the traditional defender of secularism in Turkey, and secularists here worry about the current government's attempts to move Turkey away from its stridently secular republican history, established by Atatürk in 1923.
We then visited the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church, otherwise known as the Iron Church. It is a typical orthodox church on the inside, but its structure is extraordinary. The church was manufactured out of prefabricated iron sections in Vienna and then shipped all the way to Istanbul! Apparently, this was a bit of a fad in the 19th century, but today it is one of the few surviving metal churches.

Our other major sight of the morning, a church, turned out to be closed. Thankfully, the restaurant we were having lunch in was next door, so we settled in. The restaurant was on a beautiful hilltop location, looking down on Istanbul’s Golden Horn, an astounding patchwork of buildings, bridges and water. I don’t think this landscape will ever start boring me; it’s just too rich.
After lunch, we had a free afternoon. Except for Krzysztof, who decided to return to the hotel, we all went down to the waterfront to catch a ferry to check out the Asian side of the city. The Anatolian part of Istanbul turned out to be very busy, dynamic and fun. Nathaniel and I took a heritage trolley (complete with dated informational plaques in German) from the harbor inland one stop and then wandered around. Something I like about this city is the large number of pedestrian streets to wander, which make for a relaxed environment and bring this huge metropolis down to a human scale. After a few hours of shopping, café-sitting and people watching, it was time to return to the hotel. We crossed back on the ferry as the sun set on another day in this magical place astride two continents.

The panoramic view of the Istanbul skyline, from the deck of the ferry to Asia, was indescribable. Seagulls were flying, encircling our boat, hoping for fish. Sunset fog blurred the lines between island and the lavender blue sky. Silhouettes of minarets rose above the architecture on the first hill. The wind whipping at the red Turkish flag, over the waves, through my hair.
I say this every day, but this was perhaps the most beautiful thing I have experienced so far here. Being able to sit and survey the city in its entirety was stunning.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meeting His All Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople


This morning, we made the acquaintance of His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople at the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate. Patriarch Bartholomew is, perhaps, the most genuinely warm, positive person I have ever met. That any of us have ever met, in fact. What can only be described as pure good will seemed to radiate from him from the moment he entered the meeting room, where we had been neatly ranged on two parallel rows of cushy red chairs. Marie set up her tripod with Olgu, who was acting as our temporary production assistant even though he owns his own production company. We had been instructed to have our legs uncrossed and our collars buttoned, and Krzysztof had a box of Turkish chocolates on his lap, a gift for the Patriarch, and was anxiously rehearsing a brief missive of thanks. We waited for about 20 minutes before being informed that a meeting with diplomats had run longer than expected, and we would have to rearrange the schedule to explore the Patriarchal library and cathedral before our meeting rather than after.

Environmental Consciousness via Patriarch from Ross Institute on Vimeo.

This wasn't the worst thing to happen, we were all nearly breathless with anticipation, having only ever seen this leader of 300,000,000 orthodox Christians worldwide before in a 60 Minutes interview filmed last December during His All Holiness’s visit to the United States.
An orthodox priest and deacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Father Nephon gave us a tour of the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George the Tropiophoros in Constantinople, somberly explaining that few relics remained after the 4th Crusade. A native Chicagoan, Father Nephon’s accent disguised his English enough to prompt us to question which part of Turkey he hailed from. He laughed and told us he had family in Gary, Indiana and had gone to College of the Holy Cross before moving (permanently) to Istanbul.

We were allowed to explore the library which was filled with priceless manuscripts and books preserved carefully in boxes. The archivist selected a 12th century manuscript, The Lives of Saints, to show us. By coincidence, it just happened to be what Father Nephon had just finished reading, in its modern form.

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew welcomed us warmly around noon reading a warm and congratulatory letter to our delegation and Mrs. Ross about her contribution to the field of education. He told us he was happy to meet with ambassadors of the Ross School and expressed admiration for our mission, to promote global awareness and tolerance across faiths and cultures.

The following is the basic script for my podcast, about Patriarch Bartholomew’s environmental activism:
His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, or Bartholomew, as he prefers to be called, was dubbed “The Green Patriarch” in 1996. This title is well deserved, as Patriarch Bartholomew has worked extensively with environmentalists, climatologists, and religious leaders in efforts to overcome differences and unite people in cooperative environmental action. From the Amazon to the Baltic Sea, His All Holiness has held symposiums for religious leaders and preeminent scientists, providing them a venue to discuss issues of climate change, deforestation, overfishing, and toxic waste management and to formulate potential solutions to these problems.

He is the first religious leader of his stature to have made environmental issues a central issue in his campaigns. It is a sin, Patriarch Bartholomew says, to harm God’s creation; every living thing and ecosystem is sacred and must not be abused or destroyed. The issue of global warming…

His efforts are based in a vision of a scientific and theological communities coming together over a common reverence for nature. His symposia become an arena for both communities to give each other the time of day: for the scientists to voice their empirical data and propose a course of action, and for the religious leaders to voice philosophical ideas about the way such science should be conducted. Patriarch Bartholomew hoped the fragile state of the environment would help to reconcile the two communities who have long been at odds over issues such as the creation theory, stem cell research, and human cloning. Because there is no separation between nature and religion, just as there is none in nature and science, the natural world is common ground over which politics, religion, and science might unite to face threats that affect the entire human community.

Following this meeting, we went on a walking tour, and then to lunch at a restaurant that felt like it went three miles into the building. The lobby was filled with preserves marked with dates, carrots from 1976, figs from 1984… The food was great, as usual, and there was lots of it. We finished with five kinds of dessert, several of which were infused with rosewater, and Turkish tea and coffee.

The remainder of the afternoon we were free to explore the Taksim, regarded by locals as the city center, with chain stores as well as small shops and restaurants. In the evening we went to see a performance of Whirling Dervishes at a venue for ethnic dance concerts that, personally, I thought was fantastic. It was really beautiful to see the dancers in such profound meditation, spinning and spinning and then stopping short and moving back into formation with no dizziness (evident) at all. Their dance expresses the mourning of the death of Rumi while the spinning allows these Sufis to release from this existence into a mystical state of ecstasy and union with the divine.

The second best part of today in my eyes, after meeting the spiritual leader of more than 300 million people, was a little snack Sylvia and I enjoyed in the Taksim neighborhood. While walking down a side alley we became entranced with a woman rolling out and cooking flatbread. We decided to share a taste at the restaurant. We ate a cheese, spinach and onion filled crepe of sorts. It was so delicious! No single component overwhelmed any other, the blend was superb. It was a nice taste of Istanbul from the street!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hagia Sophia

"The dome is a work admirable and terrifying...seeming not to rest on the masonry below it, but to be suspended by a chain of gold from the height of the sky." -Procopius (Byzantine historian of the 5th Century)

There are fascinating things, and then there are absolutely awe-inspiring things. We have seen many interesting buildings and places of cultural significance, yet nothing can compare to what we have seen today. I woke up late, no longer jet lagged, and refreshed. Breakfast was delicious and jump-started my system, giving me energy for today’s touring. We first visited the Basilica Cistern, this huge underground structure whose purpose was to store water. The roof was held up by rows upon rows of reused columns. It was amusing to see how the marble of old temples were repurposed for the cistern, most notably a marble block with a carving of Medusa’s face.

Despite how amazing the Cistern was, it was quite literally overshadowed by the Hagia Sophia. The building itself is colossal, dwarfing everything else in the city. I might have hurt my neck from looking up so much while inside of the building. The history surrounding the very room we were in was overwhelming. The walls were covered with marble that was cut in such a way that it was symmetrical, creating a kind of flower-like effect on many of the slates. After our tour guide finished explaining the significance and history of each part of the Hagia Sophia, we were allowed to explore on our own. I sketched the elaborate door handle of the Library, built by Mahmut I. Places like the Hagia Sophia remind us of just how little we are in the face of history and of something that is over a millennia years old.

This is what the rest of the group had to say about today:

Nathaniel Oppenheimer:

Today, we looked at the grandeur of the Byzantium. The two sites we visited, the Yerebatan Cistern and the Hagia Sophia, were constructed during the heights of the Eastern Roman Empire. While I was looking at these seemingly unexplainable buildings, I kept thinking of how the Byzantines called themselves Romans. Byzantium's feats can be explained by the excellence that being Roman affords. When I saw the Cistern and the Hagia Sophia, I thought of what being Roman meant. It meant dominance unparalleled in human history. It is that dominance that led to the Hagia Sophia, the Cistern, and Byzantium's one thousand years of existence after the fall of Rome.

Also, we had an amazing meal afterwards.

David Kaner:

I think the way today was structured worked out very well. The only thing on our agenda during the day was the Hagia Sophia, which allowed us plenty of time to not only see the structure in detail but also reflect on it afterwards. Since my specialty is architecture, I did a video podcast about the site and why it is a milestone in the history of architecture. It is not just a building but a solution; the first piece of architecture to figure out how to put a circular dome on a square building. The secret was pendentives, triangular sections that distributed the weight to the massive piers in the corners. There’s this incredible sense of floating and weightlessness, complemented by the gold of the mosaics. All these years later, it still feels like another world, which was exactly what the Byzantines were going for. The Turks were smart enough to leave it basically alone, just plastering over the mosaics and making some minor adjustments to the structure for use as a mosque.

The lecture from Professor Turgut Saner this evening complemented the visit, as he was discussing the reuse of Byzantine structures by the Ottomans. It’s amazing how many Ottoman mosques are more or less reinterpretations of the Hagia Sophia. It’s also always interesting to see the other churches of Istanbul other than Hagia Sophia that were converted into mosques, removing their mosaics but saving their structures.

Shola Farber:

We were given free time in the morning. I woke up early to do some work before venturing out into the city. I walked from our hotel to the Bosphorus, where I found a Turkish Delight/Tea shop that has been serving up sweets since 1864. It was delicious! I bought some Turkish Delight to bring home to my grandma and enjoyed a cup of tea with the owner. Then I ventured to the Galata Bridge, famous for the hundreds of men and women who cast off its sidewalks. I didn't see anyone reeling in fish from the Bosphorus, but I did very much enjoy the local atmosphere. After walking around in Asia for a few minutes I decided to venture back to Europe in order to visit the Spice Market. On the way, I was drawn into a giant mosque which I later found out is called the New Mosque. The place is 400+ years old, but in this city that building is a young-en! The Egyptian or Spice Market was great. Every stall was overwhelmingly and wonderfully aromatic. I eventually picked up a spice for salad and another spicey spice for meat/vegetables. The propetier of that stall invited me to drink apple tea with him. Drinking tea is a custom here, and it is an honor to be invited to join someone for a cup.

Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel to meet the group and venture off to the Underground Palace, alternatively known as one of the many underground Cisterns built by the Byzantines. The cavernous vault is held up by 300+ columns, all recycled from older temples, probably pagan sites the Byzantines tore down or allowed to deteriorate. My favorite moment in the Cistern was viewing some of the more unusual columns. For example, there were at least two highlighted which portrayed Medusa's head at the base of the column.

Next, we visited Hagia Sofia, which was as overwhelming as I'd heard it would be! The confluence of cultures within a single space was a brilliant example of the sort of cultural diffusion we are here to study. Two examples stood out to me. The first moment was when one of our tour guides pointed out a spot on an arch on the second floor where one can clearly view the original brick and mortar supports of the giant central dome, the mosaics created by the Byzantines and the frescoes that the Ottomans put over said mosaics when they found them too iconographic for a mosque. Another moment I enjoyed in the Hagia Sofia was pointed out by our other guide, who showed us some graffiti left on the marble railing by the Goths when they visited the religious site.

Our day ended with seven delicious courses of fish at the best fish restaurant in town. There were also some vegetable courses and a traditional Turkish dessert involving ice cream and a grain kind of food. I finished the night with a Turkish coffee in order to absorb an engaging lecture from a local university professor and then, I am off to work again!

Noah Engel:

Today we visited the Hagia Sophia. It was incredible. The huge spaces are very inspiring. I love the sense of space of these ancient structures. The many different religions that have inhabited the space makes it all the more impressive. We feel so small when we are in such huge spaces. We are moving through time as we see the different styles and periods of occupation.

Call to Prayer on a Windy Hill in Istanbul

Julia Lewis:

When I walked into the small, square, and unexciting building displaying the sign "Basilica Cistern", the last thing I was expecting was to follow some stairs down to a vast, darkened chamber, filled with columns taken from pagan temples sitting in about a foot of water. The scene created by the the play of floor lights and dripping water was otherworldly. We moved then from the underworld to the heavens in the Hagia Sofia. This colossal structure seemed empty, and somehow less impressive than the cistern, until I took my mother's advice and spread my fingers out on one of the marble columns. The connection I had with that piece of stone was immense, put the huge mosque in a sort of perspective, and renewed the sense of awe I felt before.

Sylvia Channing:

This morning we had a chance to sleep in, which really kicked the last of my jet lag and gave everyone a chance to kind of do their own thing. I actually slept in and went to the little health club again, which was really nice, as usual, but I am so desperate to go walking around after hearing what little Turkish delight shops and tea houses were encountered on ramblings this morning (by Shola). First thing after breakfast, during which the Four Seasons staff was setting up a fantastic omelette station for Sunday brunch, we headed out to the Basilica Cistern, which is quite possibly the most magical historical site I have ever visited.

Under a less than unprepossessing little building just west of the Hagia Sophia, one can descend a flight of stairs in to a dreamlike Venetian palace that once held 100,000 tons of water for the Byzantine palace. It was fantastically beautiful, with high ceilings supported by columns of marble Roman columns taken from early pagan temples.

After that, we had a thorough tour of the Hagia Sophia, where we learned everything from the history and science of its construction and restorations, to the mosaic iconography adorning its walls, to it's conversion from a church to a mosque and finally to a museum. It was seriously breathtaking, though I don't know how much I like colors used in the most recent Italian restoration. The dome, though, was staggeringly huge and shimmering gold. And we met the cat, Gillie, vaccinated prior to Obama's visit, who haunts the museum.

My neck was killing me throughout lunch, probably due to craning, but the food was so good I didn't notice. Courses and courses of fish straight from the Bosphorus were prepared in every way imaginable. It was a two hour lunch, but between lunch and dinner time so we considered it kind of the only meal of the day. There was yoghurt and snapper and eggplant and shrimp and rice, but also Turbo and three kinds of dessert. (Thanks very much to Fatosh and Mrs. Ross for organizing that fabulous meal!!)

Emily Watson:

I've been looking forward to seeing the Hagia Sophia probably more than anything else on our trip. Though it was absolutely beautiful, I had a hard time feeling sacred energy. There were many tourists, and most seemed to be there for the spectacle of the place, the beauty of the material, rather than for the beauty of the history of the place. We learned from our guide that praying inside of the Hagia Sophia is actually against the law. This is surprising. I think that people should be able to pray to whomever they want inside the building as it has such a significant history as both a church and later a mosque.
Permitting people to pray would preserve the sacred feelings I expected to feel in the space.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jumps in Time


Simply walking past the mosques in the city of Istanbul feels like time travel, but today we stood at the Ottoman breach of the walls of Constantinople, complete with cannon booms, battle cries, and marching band war music. The Panorama 1453 Historical Museum recreates exactly how the war would have looked in that spot 557 years ago in painstaking detail. A huge painted dome provides backdrop for the scattered cannons and historically accurate accessories, and yet we found ourselves considered as much of a spectacle as what was happening around us. One other group even asked to have their pictures taken with us.

From there, we moved even further back in time to the Church of Chora, which contains the most exquisitely preserved and concentrated examples of Byzantine art still in existence. Our guide was the same art historian who toured the Pope around the Hagia Sofia, and he explained "the stupidity" of Roman art for its perspective and hidden meaning. Byzantine art, he continued, is not simply images on walls, but "the truth." After a traditional Ottoman era lunch, we proceeded to the Sulymaniye Library to see original Turkish translations of manuscripts. They included works by Avicenna, collections of maps, and books on philosophy, religion, physics, and veterinary surgery, all copied in tiny, precise, Arabic calligraphy. I've never been so amazed by words I couldn't read. Before returning to our hotel, we stopped at the Grand Bazaar and walked the mazes of stores selling carpets, jewelry, and knock-off Abercrombie and Fitch shirts.

Julia's Podcast on the Chora Church @ Kariye Müzesi. Istanbul

Friday, February 19, 2010

Istanbul Blue

When standing in the Blue Mosque I could feel the millions of people who have passed through. Religion, I feel, is powerful because of the huge numbers of people who share a belief. Seeing the gigantic domes towering over the people makes a person feel like a person. In the city the fusion of history and cultures creates a feeling of movement. Istanbul is a city of silhouettes. I saw the minarets as we flew in and it is inspiring to be in a place with so many people who share so much and yet differ so much. Differences show us how we are similar. 
People invest themselves into a religion. In doing this they give off a part of themselves in order to become a part of something vastly greater. So far, on the first few days of the trip, I have received insight into this sort of grandeur. Istanbul inspires this feeling of awe and the color blue.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tea Time on the Bosporous

We descended upon Istanbul in a sea of khaki and navy. The first day of our travels brought two glorious meals, a short tour of the city, and a boat ride on the Bosporous. We have met our two new specialists, Baris and Fatos. They have a great way of explaning things so they are understandable both in context of the history and the present day. We also met the man who is helping our media team with all the video we are taking.

After checking into our hotel, we walked over to a beautiful outdoor café. Dates, Hünkar Beğendi, Chicken kabbob, and fresh squeezed orange juice were just a few of the surprises we encountered.

We traveled to the Golden Horn to take a quick trip down the Bosporous on boat. With tea in hand, the slight breeze didn't bother us in the least. It was a beautiful trip. All of the students were remembering the 9th grade cirriculum, when we learned about the fall of Constantinople. Seeing the walls of Theodosius in person was one of the most incredible feelings for all of us.

Julia and I have never been to Europe or Asia. Today, we landed in Europe and were just a few hundred yards off the coast of Asia. This is probably one of the coolest parts so far of Istanbul.

Today was a nice day to get acclimated to our surroundings. Many of us felt sick after the plane. We're also on very little sleep. I have gotten two hours of sleep in the last 30 hours. But our hotel is beautiful, and we are all just relaxing and getting ready for the day ahead.

Tomorrow our itinerary contains sites all in walking distance of our hotel. Seeing as our rooms have a view of the blue mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and an archeological excavation, this promises to be an eventful day.

During our stay, also planned is a viewing of the whirling dervishes and a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This is going to be an amazing 10 days.

P.S. - I (Emily) am in love with the camera we bought for the trip. Bill and I kept switching camera duty. Here are a few of our first shots.

Bosporus Cruise

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A conversation without tea is like a night without a moon.

It is respectful to bend slightly

Turkey do's and dont's
  • "It is respectful to bend slightly (not a complete bow) when greeting someone older or in a position of authority.
  • Don't mention the Armenian Genocide, Kurdish separatism and the Cyprus problem. These are extremely sensitive topics and are definately to be avoided. Turkish society has a highly emotional approach to these issues. 
  • Don't blow your nose during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude. 
  • Making an 'O' with your thumb and forefinger (as if to say "OK!") is rude because you are making the gesture for a hole - which has connotations refering to homosexuality in the Turkish psyche. 
  • Don't bear hug or back slap someone, especially in formal situations and occasions and with someone you just met and/or you do not know well enough. This is considered very rude."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mission Statement (partial)

The purpose of this M-term trip is to survey the evolution of world culture through the lens of complex dynamical systems theory. In this view, a matrix of historical nodes are connected by a system of links or routes, along which cultural and trade goods are transmitted, people migrate and armies conquer. We call this system the Golden Matrix. Through scholarly translations and creative contributions, culture diffuses and evolves. The ideas, philosophy, customs, beliefs and cultural wealth of one node, when transmitted along a link, is transformed by an alchemy of language, resources, art and geographical context into a new and more complex form. Over time, hybrids emerge that represent the repository of cultural and scholarly heritage in new forms and that serve as catalysts for the evolution of culture and consciousness.

This is the third installment of three trips exploring the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, commercial and cultural exchange from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley to Greece, then through Byzantium or Baghdad (via al-Andalus, Sicily, and other routes) to Rome and Renaissance Florence. The first trip examined the culture of tolerance and evidence of cultural fusion amongst the three Abrahamic religions in medieval al-Andalus; the second explored the birth of Western philosophy and culture in ancient Greece and the final fluorescence in Renaissance Florence. This trip will address both the role of Byzantium as the link from ancient Greece to Renaissance Florence and the influence of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt in fostering the foundations of Greece’s contribution’s to philosophy, mathematics, science and government. Constantinople, straddling the Asian and European continents on the Bosporus, served as a nexus for cultural, scholarly, commercial and religious exchange. As the socio-political and religious heirs to Rome, the Byzantines spoke Greek and established institutions that produced scholars who were invited to Baghdad by the Islamic caliphs. Eventually, these illustrious scholars would carry the knowledge and philosophy of the ancient Greeks to the Medicis and spawn the establishment of Ficino’s Florentine Academy. 

Likewise, Hellenistic Alexandria played a critical role in the preservation of ancient knowledge with the establishment of the Alexandrian library, the largest of its time. Fusing the rich heritage of ancient Egypt’s archaeo-astronomy, medicine and technology with revival of Platonic philosophy, Alexandria was the home of the great Pharos, one of the ancient wonders of the world. From Alexandria, the work of Euclid and the Neoplatonists diffused to the cultures of Greece and Rome. Not only was it the crossroads of commerce between Europe, the Near East and Asia, and with Sicily, the breadbasket to the Roman Empire, but it was also the largest city of its time and the one with the largest Jewish population in the Hellenistic world.

Students will analyze the roles of Alexandria and Byzantium as nodes in the Golden Matrix--preserving and transmitting ancient knowledge, fostering new interpretations and cultural paradigms, and engaging in transcontinental commerce. They will draw connections between these two nodes and those of ancient Egypt, Athens, Rome, Hellenistic Alexandria, Byzantium, the Golden Age of Islam and Renaissance Florence through analysis of economic, religious, political, technological, linguistic, mathematical, scientific, philosophical, artistic and culinary cultural expressions. Through blogs and various media, students will create curricula for public and independent school curricula. The results will be integrated with curricula developed from previous trips having studied al-Andalus, Athens and Florence. The intent of the final product is twofold: first, to nurture understanding of a period of time from the ancients through the Renaissance in the Mediterranean world when there evolved a dynamic of culture, trade, faith and knowledge; and second, to disseminate the global cultural Ross School Spiral Curriculum.
Ross School