THE LABYRINTHIAN VAULTS OF CONSTANTINOPLE, like a treasure trove of thought, held the manuscripts of Plato for 1500 years. Yesterday, I read Plato for a course I am taking here, and the professor mentioned that Constantinople was one of the holding places for the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient intellects for centuries. When the professor said that, and I simultaneously held a text of Aristotle in my hand, I was struck by the powerful, overwhelming transfer of knowledge which has allowed me to examine and experience Aristotle’s thought process some 2300 years after he lived. It may sound trivial, but there is something remarkable even about the physical proximity one has in Istanbul to the vaults of ancient knowledge which held ancient voices and timeless wisdom, ultimately enabling the Renaissance and largely paving the way for how we think about the world today. I am also amazed that something as ostensibly simple as text can preserve and disseminate one person’s thoughts across two millennia. Indeed, text is a bridge that spans time.
Istanbul, at least colloquially, is also a bridge. The famous tagline of Istanbul is that it is “the bridge between the East and the West,” a description I used to tout frequently. But being here, walking the streets of the city, and reading extensively about its history and people, I have begun to deconstruct this typical characterization of Istanbul, based on several foundations. First and foremost, I think that there is a contradiction in the very wording of the phrase “bridge between the East and the West.” At first glance, the phrase connotes that the East and West and separate, distinct entities. If they were not separate and distinct, no bridge would be necessary. And yet, the notion of a bridge suggests that two regions are not distinct, as it implies a constant interchange between the two. This brings me to another point: I have come to believe that the separation of East and West is entirely a construction, particularly a Western one, which we have created in order to help conceptualize a world with which we are unfamiliar. But studying the history both of the West and the Middle East, one cannot possibly sustain the idea that the two entities operate on different axes of thought, especially when one considers the thicket of historical entanglement between the two (and there I go again, perpetuating the divide, in using between the two – language of separation). Basically what I am saying is that Samuel P. Huntington got it dead wrong; there is no “Clash of Civilizations.” That is not to say that there are not strong cultural differences, political disparities, and very real problems which repeatedly come between East and West. Rather, I just want to suggest that the situation is far more complex, and entails much more than a simple divide, a simple geographical, religious, and political partition.
Of course, I am not alone in these thoughts. Edward Said gave a really fascinating lecture on this topic, which you may wish to view right here:
I find these topics endlessly fascinating. They really do get one thinking about all of the models we use to construct our conception of the world.