A mini-odissey and a Great Idea

We're flying to Athens this evening, and plan to see as much of Greece as we can between now and the 2nd of January, when we continue on to Istanbul. We're excited about this adventure: our first view of Greece (I'm sure it won't be our last), and a return to Istanbul, a grand city.

All my research into the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire in its last decades has made me especially sensitive to the complicated, many-layered relationships of Greeks and Turks, adding to my excitement about this visit. I've been trying to learn a few Greek phrases and to familiarize myself with the alphabet at least well enough to be able to sound out street signs. I hope to understand their thinking a little better, and being in the original homeland after trying to understand their "Byzantine" phase should help, before I resume thinking about the explosive implications of the Μεγάλη Ιδέα — the "Megali" or Great Idea that emerged in the 19th century, of recovering under Greek control all the lands their ancestors once held, including Constantinople and most of Anatolia.

On that "Idea", as experienced by Turks in their fierce "War of Independence" of the 1920s , I've begun reading Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar 's exquisitely written novel whose protagonist, Mümtaz, is orphaned and thereafter deeply affected by that war. If I ever return to the themes of A Gift for the Sultan, it will be to take them up in a later period, perhaps the 20th or 21st century.

We've never been in Istanbul in winter, and we see that it will be even a little colder than Madrid (it's almost one degree further north). But no matter. We have friends there, and even the loan of an apartment, and I'll be doing a reading from A Gift for the Sultan before a group of Turks who surely will catch all the subtle references in the book.

I'll tell you what I think I've learned when I get back. Until then, Happy New Year!