Here’s a post I wrote for the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network. You can find my study abroad reflections and other Georgetown students’ writings here.
When I set off for my travels this summer across Southern Ukraine and Georgia, I was initially excited to discover the essence and defining characteristics of several Black Sea cities. By the time I began my studies in Turkey, however, I had realized the futility of attempting to define cities with hundreds of years of history and myriad cultural influences. As cities were transferred from the control of one society to another, shifting between the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Russia, the Turkish Republic, or the Soviet Union, the diverse cultural habits of the contemporaneous regime left marks on a city’s physical structure and the way of life of its populace. A city’s identity is layered much like limestone, with different characteristics scattered about the city in design and tradition, which compels a visitor to explore winding roads, taste local street food, and stand in awe of monumental religious spaces. In Odessa and Istanbul, two cities both shaped by a long sequence of social and political influences, I experienced the limestone effect in the form of cuisine, language, and architecture.
On the surface, Odessa with its borsch and Istanbul with its magnificent mosques seem to share little historical background. In actuality, their rich and diverse cultural histories share many characteristics. Both cities were in the hands of the Ottoman Empire for a period of time, and their position as Black Sea ports and trading cities have fostered an atmosphere of diversity and exchange. Odessa has been under the control of Tatar khans, the Ottomans, the Russian Empire, and Soviet Union. In its history as a major trade port, it has been home to diverse populations of traders, including Italians, Frenchmen, Greeks, Jews, Albanians, Poles, Armenians, and Romanians. Istanbul has had a similarly cosmopolitan history, having been the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, representing the religious stronghold of both the Orthodox Christian and Muslim faiths. As an important point along the Silk Road and its strategic position connecting Europe and the Middle East, Istanbul has cultivated an eclectic population and dynamic culture.
A city’s cuisine is a major marker of culture and can reflect a history of diverse influences. The similarities between several staple street foods in Odessa and Istanbul was a pleasant surprise. For example, having only discussed the merits of shwarma with Russian-speaking friends, for some reason I had never realized that the delicious pita sandwiches actually originated in Anatolia. Bublik, similar to a bagel but with a denser texture, which are hung on strings appear remarkably similar to simit, also circular bread but with a dryer taste than bagels and bublik. Moreover, I have greatly appreciated the process of picking up Turkish food vocabulary, as the words for many fruits and vegetables are very similar in Turkish and Russian. While each city has definitely crafted its own gastronomic identity, the common aspects of these cities’ histories remain incredibly clear in the realm of cookery.
The cosmopolitan histories of Odessa and Istanbul have resulted in a smorgasbord of visual and spoken language. Especially in Istanbul, walking through the Spice Bazaar one hears ever so flirtatious compliments in English, shopkeepers interacting with Japanese tourists, and Russians haggling over the price of Turkish Delight. In Odessa, German tourists complain about height of the Potemkin stairs while older street vendors slip fluidly between Ukrainian and Russian. Huge blocks of Cyrillic script cover advertisements for Russian-dubbed movies or Italian-Ukrainian restaurants. Histories of religious diversity in Istanbul and Odessa are reflected not only by the shape and construction of religious spaces, but by the variety of language used to convey spiritual messages. For instance, the beautiful calligraphy adorning the walls of the Hagia Sofia is written in Arabic, but the Byzantine mosaics that have been recovered from beneath layers of plaster contain Greek text.
The layout and street configuration of a city offer spatial and visual indicators of the historical and cultural influences on a city. Moreover, the various architectural styles that are telling of different neighborhoods tell a story of the past. In Istanbul, the fancy yalılar, or waterside mansions, nestled along the Bosphorus were built according to a different style than the colorful multistory homes in what used to be a Greek neighborhood before the 1924 population exchange. While the main roads in the hip Taksim district and the touristy Sultanahmet area are wide and accommodating for large vehicles, a diversion from the main street quickly leads to tiny winding roads that offer no indication to cab drivers whether traffic flows in only one direction.
To approach new cities with the goal of affirming knowledge gained in class and from books read, with an attitude of acquiring a solid knowledge of a city’s essence is to miss the ever-changing coalescence of the various cultural influences over hundreds of years. These cities are not static; they have changed consistently over the years as regimes fell and empires conquered, as groups migrated to and from urban areas, and as Western conceptions of modernity spread. Based on my experiences over the past seven months, I have learned to approach a new place with curiosity and an openness to explore and keep my eyes open for visual anomalies.