Constantinople / Istanbul - Ancient and Modern - Crossroads of the World

Constantinople / Istanbul - Ancient and Modern - Crossroads of the World
Istanbul/constantinople - Ancient/Modern - View of the Old City from across the Golden Horn, atop the Galata Tower.

Learning: Reading, Listening, Viewing

Many people have asked for a bibliography or suggestions for books to help them get ready for the Early Christian World Pilgrimage.  Here are some of my favorite resources to help you to enter most fully into the experience and get the most out of it.


My first recommendation is always to make full use of the resources of the internet.  Follow the links I provide on the itinerary page.  Use your imagination and search any word, place name, person or idea on Google or Wikipedia. Explore in depth Tom Brosnahan's wonderful site, Turkey Travel Planner. and the extensive Sacred Destinations site.  For videos, visit YouTube and enter any search terms you can think of relevant to our Pilgrimage, including my playlists, with videos by Aydin, out tour guide, and me.

Here are my "playlists" on YouTube:

ECW Pilgrimage 2007 video program: "Turkish Meze"
Aydin's 2005 Video Tour of Turkey
Aydin's 2010 Video: "Treasures of Istanbul"
"Crossing Paths with Paul," talk I gave at the Religious Education Congress in 2009

For wonderful photos, you cannot do better than Dick Osseman's extensive and well-organized gallery on pBase

A must-visit site to explore is Byzantium 1200 which features marvelously detailed computer reconstructions of the great buildings of Constantinople as they may have looked at the beginning of the 13th century.  Compare, for example, the Hippodrome then and now.

There are so many different facets to this experience of Turkey, ancient and modern, that I am going to have to categorize and then offer a few suggestions in each category.

General Experience of Turkey

First of all, do not bother buying any travel guide to Turkey that you find in a bookstore.  They are all expensive and none of them is as good as what you can find free on the internet.  A possible exception is the DK Eyewitness Guide to Turkey.  The illustrations are unique and a lot of fun.

A good roadmap may be helpful, and I would recommend the latest edition of the Freytag & Berndt roadmap of Turkey.  You want this most recent one (not this earlier one, which may still be in some bookstores): it has the  new roads and our whole itinerary on the one side.  The older one divides at an awkward spot.

Often when I'm asked what is my favorite book, I will say, "the one I'm reading at the moment."  Well, I recently purchased and began reading the book that I think I'd recommend if you only had time to read one: Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide, edited by Barrie Kerper.  It's recent (2009), very wide-ranging, and obviously a labor of love.  She compiles, and comments on, an extensive variety of writings, and points to a lot of other resources.  It's a fun read, too. (Although it says "Istanbul," the first third of the book is a useful introduction Turkey in general.)

More valuable than a standard travel guide is a little book by Charlotte McPherson, Turkey - Culture Smart!: a quick guide to customs and etiquette.  While not in-depth, it's wide-ranging in scope, and will give you a good "feel" for what it's like to be in Turkey.

Another excellent book that transcends the notion of "your standard guidebook" is Turkish Odyssey: A Cultural Guide to Turkey, by Serif Yenen.  Although it falls a little short in the history department, it's a beautifully presented colorful guide to the richness and diversity of this land and its people.  It's the only guidebook in English written by a Turk, and is a good bargain from Amazon.

New Testament: St. Paul and St. John

This is a Pilgrimage, after all, so we should start with the New Testament.  Indispensable is a book you probably have: the New American Bible (NAB) translation with Revised New Testament.  The "St. Joseph Edition" is most useful, I think, because of the introductions and notes.  For our purposes, try to get familiar with the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of St. Paul (especially Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon).  Pay close attention to the introductions to these books, as well as the map of Paul's journeys, usually printed at the beginning of the Acts.  You'll notice what I mean by "crossing paths with Paul" rather than following in his footsteps.

Regarding St. John, read the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation, as well as the (NAB) introduction.  We will be visiting five of the seven churches to whom those brief letters are addressed.  (Note that "church" does not refer to a building but to the small community of early Christians in each of those cities.  At that time they still met in homes.)

If you read only one book on St. Paul besides the New Testament itself, I'd suggest the rather small volume by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: His Story.  If this book whets your appetite for more, I'd suggest probing more deeply into Murphy-O'Connor's writings or exploring the writings of N.T. Wright on St. Paul.

I also recommend the  Great Courses Apostle Paul by Luke Timothy Johnson as an excellent introduction.  (See below for more about the Great Courses.)

History: Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern,

To expore the history of the land we are visiting, I suggest starting with the Byzantine Empire (approximately 315 AD to exactly the early morning of Tuesday, May 29, 1453).

Even though the Byzantine Empire is little understood or appreciated in the West, its importance cannot be underestimated.  There are many good histories of the Byzantine Empire, but a good, brief, easily read introduction is Giles Morgan, Byzantium: Capital of an Ancient Empire. If that whets your appetite for more, explore the bibliography in book, or follow the leads that gives you.

Hand-in-hand with the Byzantine world is the history, development, and spirit of Orthodox Christianity.  The very best introduction, and in my opinion a "must read" is Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church.  It also counts among the best written books I've ever read.  A smaller, well-illustrated and more popular book, Mary Cunningham, Faith in the Byzantine World, is also worth your attention.

Great Courses

Since I began designing and leading this Pilgrimage, one of my favorite resources has become the Great Courses.  Out of the dozens of courses on history and religion that in some way touch our Pilgrimage, I think the best beginning is Professor Kenneth Harl's, The World of Byzantium. It consists of 24 half-hour lectures in three formats: DVD Video, CD, downloadable mp3.  While the DVD has more "presence" and illustrations and maps, I generally favor downloads because they are cheaper and I can listen to them on an iPod in the car or while exercising.  All the Great Courses come with a good study guide with course outline, timeline, and bibliography.  They may seem quite expensive, but they are frequently on sale at 70% off, and may also be available at your local public library.  (Never pay full price for them!)

The Crusades, of course, play a big -- and in my opinion, lamentably tragic -- role in the Byzantine and early Muslim / Turkish history of this land and all the Middle East.  Professor Kenneth Harl also has a Great Courses series of 36 lectures on The Era of the Crusades which I have not yet listened to, but I can confidently recommend because, well, I am a fan of Harl's!  (Another of his courses that I found unique interesting and horizon-expanding is The Vikings, which is surprising relevant to the medieval history of Turkey and the Middle East.

Once you are "into" the Great Courses, you'll find a lot of other titles relevant to the land and the faith we are exploring.  They are all well worth the time you put into them.  (That said, be a little careful of Prof. Bart Ehrman's courses on Jesus and early Christianity.  While his scholarship is excellent, he lets his own personal anti-Christian bias show through.)

Although Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1543, the Ottoman Empire dates from 1299 to October 29, 1923.  The Seljuk Turks off and on held much of present-day Turkey in the waning centuries of the Byzantine Empire as well. This history also intertwined with the histories of Islamic nations and cultures as well as the Crusades.  I have not yet probed this history in as great a depth as I would like, but I did read Jason Goodwin, Lords of the Horizons: a History of the Ottoman Empire. It's not a great book, somewhat meandering and rather confusingly arranged by topic rather than by chronology.  On the other hand, Goodwin, who is more of a novelist than a historian, manages to immerse the reader in the subject, and it can be a good introduction for the Pilgrim traveler. Goodwin's mystery novels are quite good for engaging the reader in the culture of early19th century Turkey. For Ottoman - Islam - Crusades historical details, I tend to rely pretty heavily on the links and many articles on Wikipedia.

The most highly regarded popular chronicler of the modern Turkish Republic is Stephen Kinzer, whose Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds is unequaled by any modern writer. Be sure to get the latest revision (2008) because so much has changed in Turkey in the last decade.  More recently, Kinzer has published Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future, a fascinating study of the two nations and possibilities for mideast peace.

To stay up to date on current events, as well as to get a lot of social and cultural background, I strongly recommend becoming a regular reader of the English language Turkish newspaper, freely available online, Today's Zaman.

Ancient History

How far back do you want to go?  There are two Great Courses that I especially recommend.  The first is The Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor, again with Professor Kenneth Harl.  This was my first introduction to the Great Courses, and I highly recommend it (along with The World of Byzantium) as the most valuable survey for anyone to begin with.  If you are at all like me, Harl will leave you satisfied and at the same time eager for more.

You want more?  OK.  Try Ancient Empires before Alexander, with Prof. Robert Dise, and Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, with Prof. Jeremy McInerney.  If you've come this far, you are either ready to give it up or you are hopelessly hooked.  If the former, the last thing you want is another recommendation.  If the latter, there are about a dozen other Great Courses titles that will appeal to you, and you won't need me to point them out.

But . . . on the Pilgrimage we go even farther back: Çatalhöyük, (pronounced, more or less, cha-TAL-hu-yook) the fantastic excavations of a 9,000-year-old neolithic settlement.  This is the period of the transition of humans from wandering hunter-gatherers to sedentary agriculture and the domestication of animals.  It was also an era of rapid climate change (yes, global warming).  There are a lot of lessons for us, relevant even our Catholic-Christian faith, to be found in exploring this lore.  Online, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start, but the excavations are well documented in the Çatalhöyük website, which is worth browsing in depth.  Browse also the books that have been written about the site and see whether you get hooked on this as I was.

To be continued . . .


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