You know a trip was a success when your normal world looks different after you return home.
Though our vans pulled into campus almost three days ago, some in our group are clearly still adapting to a return to life in the United States. We’re a bit groggy from the long flight and time change, a bit unaccustomed to waking up to something other than the call to prayer, and a bit unsure about what breakfast should be, since it consisted of cucumbers, cheese, tomatoes, and olives for the past week.
These are a few of the small and more temporary unsettling moments that I suspect all in our group will experience over the coming days. But I have no doubt that our trip to Turkey will leave a lasting impression on Wabash students in their academic work and personal outlook.
I write this because I certainly know it’s the case for me. Though my scholarly work on Roman urbanism routinely takes me abroad to examine cities like Rome and Pompeii, I had never been to Turkey. This visit opened up for me sides and sites of Greek and Roman life that I hadn’t experienced or fully appreciated before.
Over the course of the week, I could feel the Wabash students gaining a sense of the reality of the Greco-Roman world. That’s no small thing. Approaching antiquity from such a temporal and physical distance creates a real obstacle for American students. We can dissect the plays of Sophocles, the speeches of Cicero, or the letters of Paul in our Wabash classrooms, and we can examine ground plans, photos, and reconstructions of Greek or Roman temples or streets. Yet despite this wealth of evidence and the best efforts of gifted teachers and imaginative students, the ancient Mediterranean can seem like an intellectual construct, a fantasy world.
That’s why trips like this one are so critical academically. While we walked the same streets as Paul at Ephesus, marveled at a cliff-side temple dedicated to the worship of the Emperor Trajan at Pergamum, and prowled through baths used by countless nameless others at Sardis, it was impossible not to ponder the characters who once populated this place and to imagine their lives in every dimension: what they ate, how they interacted, which gods they prayed to. The inhabitants of these cities and the authors of our texts were no longer at arm’s length, but were immediately palpable.
YET TURKEY’S PEOPLE AND PLACES made as much of an impression on our students as its Greco-Roman poleis. For many of us, this was our first experience living amid a predominately Muslim country, with everything that entailed. (Hoosiers with no pork products for a week!) Women disappeared from public spaces as the sun set; the call to prayer regularly echoed from the minarets spiking above every city and town; and even roadside rest stops offered devout truck drivers places for ablution and prayer.
But this was hardly the Islam that Americans normally see on television. When some Wallies were in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque for the morning prayer, for instance, they noted men scurrying in late and worshipers exchanging frustrated glances when their cellphones chirped during prayer. Similarly, in the cafes of Istanbul, we saw hip students downing beer while widows waddled by dressed in black from headscarf to shoes. These were cities and a country that defied easy categorization—were they the westernmost outpost of the East, or the easternmost extension of the West?
One of the real highlights of the trip was our Turkish guide, Nam. A master at illustrating points with telling anecdotes and at greasing the skids of a country not prone to quick movements, he kept us en-grossed during long bus trips with impromptu talks about Turkish history and customs. We learned about military service (obligatory, with regular corporal punishment), arranged marriage and all its delicate rituals and negotiations (if you’re ready to get hitched and your parents aren’t doing anything about it, then try nailing your father’s slippers to your front door—he’ll get the message), and even circumcision at puberty (ouch!). We’re all hoping to lure Nam to Crawfordsville for next year’s Bell Game, and his good humor and quick smile will stick with us well into the future.
But for all of Nam’s insider narrative, Turkey remains challenging. Much of the country seemed comfortable to us, while other facets of its past and present challenge our assumptions and ways of being in the world.
And that’s a good thing—perhaps the most important thing about travel. This pivot between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the normal and the alien, grants the opportunity to see one’s world, whether in the class-room or on a stroll around town, anew.
Photo: A student compares his foot to a famous marker in Ephseus.