Byzantine Studies Initiative

The Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Byzantine Studies Research Center (BSRC) at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul have been awarded a three-year research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a joint initiative providing enhanced and extended opportunities for teaching and research on the Byzantine Empire, placed in the larger context of the medieval Eastern Mediterranean world, with a strong focus on cross-cultural contacts and comparative perspectives.

One of the primary goals of the collaboration is to contribute to the development of the newly established BSRC, with support from Harvard’s strong tradition and rich resources in Byzantine studies. Boğaziçi University has played a pioneering role in the development of Byzantine studies since the early 1990s, and the BSRC, founded in 2015, is the only center of its kind at a Turkish state university.

The initiative will benefit the growing number of students, scholars, and faculty at both institutions who are interested in the study of the Byzantine Empire and its relations with Islamic and medieval Turkish cultures. Most importantly, it will help foster interdisciplinary research and contribute to the training of future scholars in a field that has until recently remained largely neglected in Turkey, once the heart of the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire occupies a special position in the shaping of the medieval Eastern Mediterranean thanks to the role it played in the formation of Christianity and by virtue of its political, economic, and cultural institutions and practices that defined the Middle Ages and served as a model for neighboring cultures. The traditional approach to Eastern Mediterranean history as the story of the coexistence of self-contained linguistic, religious, and cultural communities that were hostile to each other has obscured cross-cultural contacts and confluences. The collaboration between CMES and the BSRC will encourage the examination of Byzantine culture in relationship to other societies of the Eastern Mediterranean world. A comparative approach will open up new perspectives for scholars and students studying Byzantine civilization and/or its relations with its neighbors such as Sassanid Iran, Islamic Arab polities, medieval Turkish cultures, the Crusaders, and the Ottomans.

Harvard’s resources in Byzantine studies include Dumbarton Oaks Professors and other faculty in Byzantine history, art, and literature—in addition to faculty with research interests in fields related to Byzantium, many of whom are affiliated with CMES; a vibrant and growing community of graduate students; and seminar series across different departments and academic units open to both Harvard and visiting scholars. The book holdings of Widener Library are well suited for research in Byzantine studies, and Houghton Library has a wealth of Byzantine manuscripts and early printed books, including rare editions of Byzantine texts that cannot be found elsewhere. Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, DC, maintains close links with Harvard’s Cambridge campus, and the Fogg Museum and the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection hold among the finest collections of Byzantine artifacts, including 30,000 coins and seals in the Thomas Whittemore Collection.

The collaboration will provide opportunities for Harvard faculty and graduate students to participate in joint research projects, seminars, workshops, conferences, summer school programs, and other activities at the BSRC. Harvard College students will be able to conduct senior thesis research in Istanbul under the guidance of Boğaziçi faculty and graduate students. Visiting Harvard scholars and students will be able to broaden their familiarity with the topography and material remains of the Byzantine imperial capital, including fortifications, shipwrecks, and examples of Byzantine art and architecture.

The Harvard portion of the program will be housed at CMES, under the faculty leadership of Dimiter Angelov, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History, and Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies.