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December 7, 2012

Teaching in the streets of Istanbul, Stanford historian urges students to look beyond the monuments

Through an exploration of Istanbul's back alleys and shantytowns, Stanford students get up close and personal with a city caught between a glorious past and a global future.

By Benjamin Hein

During the Istanbul Bing Overseas Seminar, Asia Chiao and her classmates explored the city's complex history through a study of sights, sounds and smells. (Photo courtesy of Ali Yaycioglu)

Every year, millions of people visit Istanbul's iconic and ancient monuments: Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Süleymaniye Mosque and Galata Tower, among others.

But these monuments were not the focus of a new Istanbul Bing Overseas Seminar taught by Stanford historian Ali Yaycioğlu this fall. Instead, walking back streets, shantytowns and districts undergoing gentrification, his 15 undergraduate students explored the less glamorous corners of the storied city.

Yaycioğlu's philosophy is that history is alive and well beyond the textbook or the museum and can be found in the sights, sounds and even smells of the cosmopolitan city.

A recent boom in new developments and gentrification projects – due in part to globalization – has set off contentious debates about the city's historical heritage among a multitude of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic communities.

By moving beyond ancient monuments and grand avenues and into the back streets of the city, the students have an opportunity to experience these debates firsthand, allowing them to observe how different urban narratives, memories and histories are interacting and competing in a global city.

"To see what was being preserved and what wasn't opened a unique point of access to Istanbul's tumultuous history," said Stanford senior Jacob Kovacs-Goodman, a classics major. "It revealed what was covered up, and what was not."

During the three-week long seminar in September, the students lived in the Beyoğlu district of downtown Istanbul. Daily walking tours and "street lectures" emphasized the experiential dimension of the seminar, with students encouraged to take notice of not only the surrounding sights and monuments but also the multitude of different sounds and smells.

Impromptu 'street lectures'

An expert in the history of the Ottoman Empire, Yaycioğlu brought students to neighborhoods that had once thrived under Ottoman leadership. Today, these communities struggle visibly to retain their unique identity amid changing demographics, secularization and globalization.

For example, new developments or renovations of older buildings often contradict the purpose and meaning of the originals. Tensions rise as houses of worship – a small, dilapidated church or an old mosque – are redesigned for secular functions such as housing or even commercial activities.

Student Michelle Valentine, a junior, said she was able to "study how the memories of past empires and the dynamism of the present coexist in the fabric of the city today." She is interested in the intersection between history and urban design, so the question that intrigued her most was "how a modern-day, secular Turkish identity is being constructed on top of and next to older layers of history and identity."

It is a question that guides the seminar as a whole. To help direct students toward an answer, Yaycioğlu relies heavily on locals' testimony.

With the help of another Stanford scholar, Umran Inan – the professor emeritus of electrical engineering is now the president of Koç University in Istanbul – he assembled a diverse group of guest speakers to lead the seminar's lectures, presentations and tours. Local teachers, university professors, urban artists, grass-roots activists, self-proclaimed socialists, conservatives, businessmen and, at times, even street performers take part.

Hearing, seeing and smelling history

Close attention to detail is key. "Everything is part of the seminar," insisted Yaycioğlu. "Whether students sit in a café sipping coffee or are visiting a local nightclub, it is all part of their projects. The idea is to register sounds, to take pictures, to take notes, to grasp the city in its entirety."

In fact, in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, the soundscapes and smellscapes, as Yaycioğlu calls them, are more revealing of historical background than the visual landscape under construction. The smell of local cuisine, the mix of languages spoken at one of the ubiquitous bazaars, the muezzin's call to prayer – all are indicative of a particular cultural, religious or linguistic community practicing its historic ritual.

Many students chose to craft drawings of the surrounding landscape by hand because it turned their attention to details they might otherwise have overlooked when snapping a picture. Others kept daily journals or composed short stories to capture less tangible experiences.

"I am not artistically inclined when it comes to drawing," admitted Kovacs-Goodman. "But I am interested in creative writing, and so each day I composed short stories and poems about my experiences."

In mid-January, the students will showcase their observations in a special exhibition staged in Stanford's Cecil H. Green Library. A collage of photographs, drawings and short stories will tell the history of Istanbul from the perspective of its backstreets.

The overarching theme of the exhibition will be "melancholy," wrote Andrew Aguilar, a senior majoring in history. It is a feeling – an atmosphere – that many of the students gathered as they walked through Istanbul's historic neighborhoods.

"The concept is difficult to describe in words," said Kovacs-Goodman. "But it is definitely there – a sense of nostalgia for the past, communicated in everything from locals' mannerisms and dress to the chatter at a bazaar or the facades of buildings."

The problem, argued Aguilar, is that historic boundaries are vanishing. "The Greek district no longer seems all that Greek, but increasingly cosmopolitan, with lots of Western influence," he wrote. "What was once home to a vibrant Kurdish community under the Ottoman Empire now is a neighborhood in clear physical and economic decline."

"Looking ahead," concluded Valentine, "it is the experience of Istanbul's past that will be remembered long after we have forgotten the textbook details."

Benjamin Hein is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156,

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