Deni Hoxha is a senior in Adams House concentrating in economics and pursuing a concurrent AM degree in Middle Eastern studies. As a speaker in the “Destination: World – Student Tales from Beyond the Comfort Zone” event in October 2020, part of Worldwide Week at Harvard, Deni gave a PechaKucha-style PowerPoint presentation about his experiences on CMES Wintersession trips to Turkey (2018) and Tunisia (2019). Here is his talk, edited for the web.
Growing up in Albania, I was surrounded by various remnants of the Ottoman Empire from public spaces, architecture, and cultural influences. Albania was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for five centuries until its independence in 1912. I was always curious about my country’s past and throughout college I tried to find out more by taking Middle Eastern history courses. When I found out about the Center for Middle Eastern Studies winter trip in Turkey, I immediately thought to sign up and visit the capital of the empire, Istanbul.
The winter trip in Turkey was three weeks and it focused on the “political, religious, economic, and cultural impact” of Turkish cities throughout history. During the three weeks, we visited museums, monuments, palaces, churches, mosques, organizations, and more. The trip was divided across four different cities: Istanbul, Edirne, Canakkale, and Bursa. Moreover, visits were accompanied by readings and discussions which proved to be fruitful and insightful given the diversity of our group.
One of the first sites visited on the trip was the Hagia Sophia. Built in the sixth century, it was the cathedral of the Byzantine Empire and had become a mosque in 1453 after Mehmed the Conqueror’s conquest of Constantinople. Then in 1934, it became a museum. As our tour guide explained, renovations brought back Orthodox mosaics which were plastered while the museum was a mosque. Seeing the Islamic calligraphy next to Orthodox mosaics and icons was a remarkable and spiritual sight. It was symbolic of a pluralism between Islam and Christianity that I had not seen before. Equally as spiritual was the whirling dervish performance at the Mevlevi Lodge Museum of Istanbul. A Sufi Islamic ritual, whirling is a form of dhikr, or remembrance to God. The performance was mesmerizing and at the same time deeply mystical.
Moreover, the Gallipoli War Museum left an impression on me because of the historical significance of the event. I had learned in history courses that the Gallipoli campaign was one of the most important events of World War I, but to visit the site, the monuments and the museum nearby was a surreal experience that demonstrated the devastating consequences of war. Although military history was previously not one of my interests, the museum’s exhibits as well as its artifacts made this a memorable experience.
Other places which were just as important and impressive on the trip were the Hrant Dink Foundation, Kora Church, Princess Islands, Edirne Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace.
Following my sophomore winter in Turkey, I spent my junior winter in Tunisia. Founded in 2017, CMES Tunisia is an overseas branch of CMES and offers several academic and research opportunities for Harvard students, including the J-Term Study Excursion. Similar to the winter term in Turkey, this trip offers a discovery of Tunisian history, literature, and culture. Although primarily intended for graduate students, undergraduate upperclassmen can also apply. I chose to apply given my interest in Arab and European encounters after having studied postcolonial and orientalist theory on a Harvard Summer School program in Aix-en-Provence, France, led by CMES Director William Granara. Moreover, as an economics concentrator, the economic history of Tunisia in the Ottoman Empire as well as its assimilation of French institutions and their impact on economic growth piqued my interest.
Previously familiar with Tunisia’s Ottoman and French history, during the trip I discovered Tunisia’s ancient past as a Carthaginian and Roman province through our visits to archeological sites across the country. Three historic and impressive sights were Dougga, Bulla Regia, and the El-Jem Amphitheatre. Bulla Regia, a Roman archeological site adorned by mosaics which impressively were still intact, struck me for its underground theatre and the architecture of Roman houses. Dougga, considered by UNESCO as the best-preserved Roman town in North Africa, offered a fascinating glimpse of life in antiquity. After Dougga, we also visited El Jem—the second largest Roman amphitheater after the Colosseum. It was interesting to hear how the usage of the amphitheatre had changed under the administration of the Romans and the Ottomans. The experience became even more unique when we visited the amphitheater’s gladiatorial underground complex which revealed the scale and grandeur of Roman architecture.
The excursion in Tunisia differed from the one in Turkey in that the Harvard base in the country facilitated additional opportunities for students. The CMES Tunisia Office was not only an excellent resource for our trips to different sites, but it also served as a center of exchange and research in the evenings. Throughout the excursion, we attended lectures and networking events where we met with Tunisian journalists, activists, photographers, historians, and scholars. These events enhanced my general understanding of Tunisia while also enriching my curiosity for topics like Ottoman and post-Ottoman Tunisia. The Center was also incredibly resourceful in facilitating visits to institutions like the National Archives of Tunisia and the National Library of Tunisia. Evidently, the presence of the Center and its convenience has influenced my research interests and future possibilities.
As I reflect on these two excursions, they have been some of my most transformative experiences at Harvard. They have challenged my understanding of the countries and shaped me into the student and emerging scholar that I am today. I hope to further explore the Ottoman and post-Ottoman past of Albania, while also drawing unique connections between Albania, Turkey, and Tunisia. After having been to Tunisia and Turkey twice, I can stay that one can never visit these countries too many times.
I want to thank the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Cambridge and in Tunis for allowing me to participate in these programs and for supporting my journey at Harvard. Special thanks go to Professor William Granara, Dr. Jesse Howell, Sihem Lamine, Carol Ann Young, Akif Yerlioglu, and Laura Thompson.