The Istanbul Research Institute’s exhibition at the Pera Museum, “What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul!”: Byzantium in Popular Culture, curated by Emir Alışık, navigates through the eclectic presence of Byzantium in popular culture. Through the contribution of its advisors Gülru Tanman, Brigitte Pitarakis, Roland Betancourt, Felice Lifshitz, Sinan Ekim, Yağmur Karakaya, Elif Demirtiken, Jeremy J. Swist, Marco Fasolio, Haris Theodorelis Rigas, Vedran Bileta, M. Özalp Birol, M. Baha Tanman, and K. Mehmet Kentel, the exhibition explores the multiple and conflicting meanings of Byzantinism and investigates popular culture’s interaction with the Byzantine legacy by scrutinizing a selection of motifs representing Byzantium in popular culture.
Accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition catalog, What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul! borrows its title from Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu’s novel Panorama I-II (1953–1954), where the protagonist utters these lines to express his frustration at postwar Turkish society. Karaosmanoğlu knew precisely what he meant by Byzantinism: he was referring not only to the social unrest and hostility among the nation’s citizens, but also to the superstitions raging in society at the time, for many people found the chaos they were living in otherwise inexplicable. The exhibition has stripped Karaosmanoğlu’s exclamation of its connotations and has taken it at face value, as a genuine question, all the while aiming—among other things—to show that Constantinople/Istanbul is naturally—historically and geographically—Byzantinism’s home turf.
While the academic and archaeological “rediscovery” of Byzantium in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had repercussions on a wide range of artistic forms of expression like painting, architecture, drama, music, and literature, the fascination with Byzantium was amplified over time and blossomed into new directions—from unlikely musical and literary genres and painting and film-making techniques to textile production and new narrative mediums like graphic novels.
As access to the Byzantine heritage in Constantinople gradually intensified, access to material sources of inspiration for Byzantinism marked a shift from Ravenna to Constantinople. The urban framework of Byzantium’s capital city and its inhabitants are at the core of the renewed interest in it in contemporary times. These popular sources have broken the boundaries of historical re-enactment and historical fiction, leading to an exploration of new ways to appropriate Byzantine forms, history, and materiality as a means to tell unique stories. Although Byzantine history is sometimes invoked to kindle hostilities via the manipulation of historical facts, the Byzantine legacy is also frequently used to reflect on complicated sociopolitical issues. These two aspects are both critically represented in “What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul!”. By bringing together contemporary novels, metal music, comics and graphic novels, visual arts, video-games, movies, and fashion, the exhibition reveals that Byzantinism is a far-stretching phenomenon to be encountered even in unexpected places.