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The Future in Byzantium

Monday, February 11, 2013
Yaakov Sullivan

Istanbul, like other great cities of antiquity, is an archaeological treasure trove, an art historian’s delight; a metropolis whose layered patrimony includes sites that span millennia, from the Greco-Roman, through the early to late Byzantine, and into the Ottoman periods. Throughout its rich history, Istanbul has served as a bridge between Europe and Asia Minor, with Turkey’s location traversing two continents.  Not a bad location then for Columbia to open one of its nine Global Centers.

Columbia has a long history of involvement with Turkey and that tradition continues today in the number of Turkish students (157 as of Fall 2012) on campus and their strong and generous alumni base.  Prominent among the Columbia faculty who are deeply committed to the pursuit of excavating, surveying, restoring, and advocating for Byzantine monuments in Turkey is Holger A. Klein, Professor and Chair in the Department of Art History and Archeology.  His scholarship in the archeology and art history of the Eastern Mediterranean, along with his skills as a teacher and tireless advocate for preservation, are well recognized among his peers in the field.  During his tenure at the University, Professor Klein has not only brought Columbia to Byzantium, he also succeeded in bringing Byzantium to Columbia.

 In 2004, Columbia University was the recipient of an exceptional exhibition at the Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, “Restoring Byzantium: The Kariye Carmii in Istanbul and the Byzantine Institute Restoration”. This very important exhibit was curated by Professor Klein who was instrumental in developing it for Columbia, and later bringing it to the Pera Museum in Istanbul.  The exhibit gave the public a chance to view the restoration of one of the most impressive Byzantine monuments in Istanbul, the church of the Chora Monastery or the Kariye Camii, today a museum.

Other projects led by Professor Klein, along with four Columbia and Turkish students, include the work done from 2003-2006, in conducting a topographical survey of the 9th century CE Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia at Bizye (modern day Vize), a major ecclesiastical structures in need of further documentation and analysis. Work on this site continued in 2011, allowing more students to learn surveying techniques while conducting field work.

With the opening of the Columbia Global Center in Istanbul in 2011, Columbia faculty, students and researchers have a home where, under Director Ipek Cem-Taha, they are provided with a central location to meet and interact with their Turkish counterparts.  For the first time, academics engaged with Turkey, whether in art history, public health or international relations have a facilitator for their projects.  For Professor Klein, who serves as Chair of the Steering Committee at the Global Center in Istanbul, it is his vision for creating the “Istanbul Research and Documentation Project”, which would bring to the attention of the Turkish and general publics the critical need to continue preservation and conservation of the Byzantine sites and monuments in Istanbul. This project would involve the formation of a consortium between Columbia and major research institutions and libraries in Turkey.  The number of participating students and scholars from Columbia and Turkish universities would increase, thus allowing for not only more collaborative field work but also greater student interaction with wider sectors of the Turkish population.  The program would be interdisciplinary with students not only working on art history projects but also having the opportunity to enhance their Turkish language skills as well as taking courses in other disciplines at partner universities.

In clarifying the goal of the University’s Global Centers, President Bollinger has stated that: “it is essential that our students and faculty understand more about our world and we are committed to providing new opportunities to strengthen our engagement with scholars, ideas and challenges across the globe.” Columbia’s Global Center in Istanbul is meeting that challenge by serving as a facilitator in helping transform visions into functioning realities, thereby bridging a great past into a living future.

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