Spotlight on Presidential Scholar Award Recipient Zeynep Olgun

Zeynep Olgun earned her MA in Archaeology and Art History with a specialization in Maritime Archeology from Koç University in Istanbul. As a Medieval Studies MA student at CEU, her research focuses on the Byzantine Empire: ships and shipbuilding, merchant and sailor communities, naval administration and warfare. Olgun is passionate about strengthening the field of Byzantine scholarship in Turkey and, to that end, has established a communications network among researchers in the region.

We spoke to her on the occasion of her 2021 Presidential Scholar Award. This is an edited interview conducted on September 14, 2021.

What does this honor mean for you?

One of my colleagues in the department wanted to nominate me for the award because of my passion for research. This was significant because it helped me to see how the matters of medieval history specifically were being recognized as a contemporary political issue. It is a political issue to me, and I was delighted to receive the honor not only personally, but to also bring it to my department and make more visible to peers that what we study is relevant to everyday life.

What was your route to CEU?

I come from a background of international relations and shifted my research to Byzantine Studies through my experience of assisting Professor Luca Zavagno, a Byzantinist during my BA. I did an MA in maritime archaeology and then, because I wanted to incorporate textual sources to my work on the maritime aspects of the Byzantine Empire, a professor recommended I continue my research at CEU's Department of Medieval Studies. This department is the perfect place to pursue multi-disciplinary research in the field.

I had visited CEU in 2018 for the Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies Graduate Conference to give a paper, where I had the chance to meet my future professors and peers of the Department of Medieval Studies and History. I always wanted to be in an academic environment where I was with like-minded people who valued their research and their studies, and that's what I found at CEU.

What drives you in your work?

I am very passionate about my research because it's a topic that I always wanted to work on but never had the chance to pursue until this point in my academic career. The topic of Byzantine maritime community is very valuable to me as I come from a similar environment. I was born and raised on the coast of the Mediterranean, and the maritime culture is something that I see as my identity.

There is also a political aspect of being a future “Byzantinist.” Byzantine Studies in Turkey is a politicized and marginalized discipline. A lot of professors will not even use the word "Byzantine" but will prefer “Eastern Roman” - not because of theoretical aspects this terminology represents within the field of history, but because the word “Byzantine” can be used as a slur. Byzantium is associated with the contemporary conflict between Greece and Turkey because Greece is seen as an heir to the empire, and academics are not free of this burden.

It is not only the established academics that are confined by the socio-cultural connotations of this field, but also my peers, the graduate students of Byzantine Studies in Turkey. For example, there are art historians whose families are upset with them because their children study Christian symbolism, such as crosses, and the families think that they are becoming Christians. Tension was also present in the 2020 conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. Just one example is the experience of an art historian friend of mine, who was very upset because she was working on the restoration of the frescoes and feared that her efforts of restoring medieval art would be erased, or hidden behind curtains. Additionally, the International Congress of Byzantine Studies was supposed to be held in Istanbul and, due to these political developments, they decided to relocated it to Venice.

I'm lucky to be at CEU, where I can get funding to attend conferences, but a lot of students from Turkey cannot even afford passports, let alone the expenses to go to another country. To help the graduate students and scholars of Byzantine Studies stay connected, we started a communication network called Bizantolog. We started online because we wanted to be with inclusive as possible, since many people wouldn't be able to come to Istanbul to join meetings. We also started a project supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies providing free Turkish educational programs and summer schools for students all over the country. We post the content on YouTube afterward so that those unable to attend can also benefit.

In light of these developments we have an article which will appear in a volume called “Byzantine Studies, a Colonialist Discipline: Toward a Critical Historiography” to bring these issues to the international academic sphere.

What advice do you have for others applying for this scholarship?

I think we all have certain hidden qualities that inherently contribute back to society. I did not necessarily see my efforts as leadership per se, and then came to the realization that it was something bigger. For people who apply for the scholarship in the future, the process provides an opportunity to reflect on what you are doing to contribute to your community. For researchers in this challenging field, re-igniting that sense of purpose is needed.

What else would you like to express?

This award, which acknowledges research potential and leadership, is something very important because the stages of higher education can be challenging. To be recognized by your colleagues helps you be resilient as you pursue this path. Scholarships work like that - they remind students that their work has value and encourage them to keep going and maintain the necessary drive.

The Presidential Scholars Fund was established by Michael Ignatieff and Zsuzsanna Zsohar. It supports four Presidential Graduate Research Awards for exceptional Master's and Doctoral students whose research shows promise for the next generation. The Fund also awards two scholarships per year to incoming bachelor's students demonstrating exceptional academic credentials and leadership promise.