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Dimiter Angelov

Oral History Interview with Dimiter Angelov undertaken via Zoom by Anna Stavrakopoulou and Audrey Pettner on July 7, 2020. At Dumbarton Oaks, Dimiter Angelov was a Junior Fellow (1999–2000), a Fellow (spring of 2011), and Harvard Professor in Residence (2019–2020). He has been a Senior Fellow of Byzantine Studies (since the fall of 2013) and the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History (2013–present) at Harvard University.

Audrey Pettner: I’ll go ahead and begin the interview with Professor Dimiter Angelov. We’re talking with him as a Visiting Scholar in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. I wanted to start today just by asking when was the first time you’d heard of Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions both the first time that you heard of it and the first time that you actually visited.

Dimiter Angelov: I think the first time I heard about it was probably in 1994 when I was an undergraduate in Wabash College, Indiana. I was thinking of doing graduate studies in Byzantine history. I was really keen on going to Britain and studying there. I was told by one of my professors that Dumbarton Oaks has something called the Bliss Fellowship that sponsors you for two years. At that point, I wrote to Dumbarton Oaks. I wrote to Alexander Kazhdan, and he immediately responded and sent me the announcement for the Bliss Fellowship. That was long, long ago.

AP: The first time that you had visited Dumbarton Oaks?

DA: Well, I visited in 1995 when I was interviewed but that was a very brief visit. Forty-eight hours and then I flew back to Indiana.

AP: Do you remember who was on that interview committee?

DA: It was Angeliki Laiou who was the most memorable for sure. So memorable was she, in fact, that I ended up doing my PhD at Harvard under her supervision rather than going to Oxford! There were also John Barker, George Majeska, Henry Maguire, I think Christopher Jones was there as well. Yes, there were a number of very important—I didn’t know at the time how important they were—but very important figures. I was an undergraduate, I was 22 maybe, about that age.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: In what ways do you make use of Dumbarton Oaks’ resources, how do you find the collection here? How has it contributed to your research?

DA: The main resources are the library and the scholars whom I met at Dumbarton Oaks. In fact, it was the scholars who have probably been more influential than the library, because I have always been blessed to be close to good libraries. I met, for example, Alice-Mary Talbot, who was the Director of Studies in 1999. I was a junior fellow and she was running a Byzantine reading group, and everyone who was here participated. It was a voluntary reading group, but everyone really wanted to attend, contributed, show off a little bit. At the time, they were junior fellows but nowadays they’re very well known, like Stratis Papaioannou.

AS: So, you were a junior fellow with Stratis Papaioannou?

DA: Yes, Kostis Smyrlis was here as well. I don’t know whether he attended the reading group, but Stratis was there all the time, as well as Tom Papadimitriou, Elizabeth Fisher from George Washington University who was a regular, and so were Denis Sullivan and George Dennis, who was residing in Washington. I remember Alexander Alexakis, too. It was a great community.

AS: What were you reading in this reading group with Alice-Mary Talbot?

DA: We were reading Leo the Deacon, which then became a great publication, a translation of the 10th-century Byzantine historian, who wrote at the time of Basil II. Mostly an account of wars. It had not been translated and it’s now used widely by students, especially in North America and in England.

AS: So, you think that it’s the people more than the library that has had an impact on your work?

DA: Definitely yes. It’s still the best library in Byzantine studies that I know.

AP: You’ve touched on this a little bit about the incredible interaction that you’ve had with your other junior fellows and fellows. During your time at Dumbarton Oaks both from the junior fellowship and now you’ve had the chance to interact with people virtually and in person. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the particularly meaningful interactions, as well as how some of these might differ before COVID regulations and after virtual interactions take place.

DA: I suppose it’s a question about this last month, because I have been at Dumbarton Oaks three times for a prolonged stay: a junior fellow for an entire academic year (1999–2000), for one semester in 2011, and now, almost 10 years later, again for a semester. My current stay started in the best possible way and then was brutally interrupted by COVID. What saved us was the garden because as Anna knows, almost all the fellows went to the garden, perhaps not daily but once every two days, and socialized and exchanged ideas there. That was great, but otherwise it was really a brutal interruption. The pandemic and the closures really affect small and tight-knit communities centered on a library, such as that of Dumbarton Oaks.  

AS: Have you attended many symposiums or colloquia at DO? Can you remember some that stand out in your memory for any particular reason?

DA: I always remember the first one I attended which was on Constantinople and that was in early May 1998. This was when I was still a graduate student, and there were many new discoveries which were being shared for the first time. I remember Cyril Mango’s paper on the Golden Gate, Dagron’s paper. It was really a major symposium. Then I remember very well a couple of years ago the Diagram symposium which I really enjoyed. It’s bad to be self-indulgent because I knew nothing about diagrams. I read manuscripts very often, but I keep ignoring all the marginalia and that was really eye-opening.

AS: Any other symposium? Just these two?

DA: I remember all of those that I attended, but these ones stand in my mind today.

AP: How would you categorize the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks as well as between Dumbarton Oaks and some of the other Washington cultural institutions like the National Gallery? How do you think that that affects the work of your studies but then also some of your fellows?

DA: Harvard graduate students and brilliant undergraduate students, like you, dear Audrey, benefit greatly nowadays from the closer connections with Dumbarton Oaks. As Tyler fellows, graduate students have two years of funded research at Dumbarton Oaks, much more than I ever did, so as to interact with the more experienced scholars, attend and give talks, and take advantage of the amazing resources. There also are class visits for Harvard College students. I myself have organized several of these class visits. The lucky students who took part handled objects at the Byzantine Collection in the museum. Such hands-on exercises are something that historians traditionally don’t appreciate as much as art historians do, but, I can assure you, it was probably the most memorable part of the class! This experience opened up a totally different way for the students to relate to a civilization of the past. These class visits have been one of the great innovations in recent years.

AP: Wonderful.

AP: You worked for 10 years at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham. In comparison, how would you describe Dumbarton Oaks’ role in the international context? Have you noticed this changing over the years, both during your time as a junior fellow and now? How do you think it differs both as an international organization and an American organization?

DA: Yes, that’s a really good question. They say the US and the UK are two countries separated by a common language. The systems are so incompatible that they don’t even dare make a comparison. It’s two totally different worlds. Dumbarton Oaks is an endowed institution able to sustain large flagship projects, like the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium in the 1990s, which is the essential and unsurpassed reference book for any scholar in Byzantine studies, and currently the digitized catalogue of Byzantine coins and seals. UK institutions tend to be more interdisciplinary. The Birmingham Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies is, by definition, an interdisciplinary center, combining different fields studying the eastern Mediterranean. Well, Dumbarton Oaks is also interdisciplinary but in a different way that has to do with the way the Blisses wanted it to be. It combines three fields (Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies), which are less related in terms of time and place. The kind of interdisciplinary dialogue that you have here is based on methodologies, not so much on a shared geography, shared culture, or shared historical experience. These are just two of the differences. I can go on and on. There are so many.

AS: Tell us more. In any case, the program in Birmingham is part of a university. It has students. DO is part of a university, but it’s a research institution.

DA: Birmingham is also a research institution, in the sense that it has its own established seminar series and publications. Thanks to its visionary founder, the late Anthony Bryer, the university started hosting a spring symposium: the UK Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies. Nowadays, it’s every three years in Birmingham.

AS: Now, what in your opinion is the significance of having international fellows and scholars at Dumbarton Oaks?

DA: This is a part of the mission of Dumbarton Oaks. It’s one of the most important aspects historically of Dumbarton Oaks, starting with the figure of the Blisses who were very international both in their life and outlook. Robert Bliss was a diplomat and his long career included service as an ambassador to Argentina. Byzantine studies itself is an international field. Byzantium is one of those world cultures on which no single country can lay a claim to “possess.” It has, one can argue, two natural successor states, Greece and Turkey, which have a very different relationship with the Byzantine past. Different trajectories of Byzantine studies have developed in Western Europe and Russia. One of the key roles of the international fellows, of course, is to enrich Dumbarton Oaks with various traditions and approaches, while helping to maintain highest standards of scholarship.

AS: How has the presence of international scholars contributed to the expansion and the development of Byzantine studies in the United States?

DA: Dumbarton Oaks has always been one of the chief, if not the chief, centers for Byzantine studies in the US. Many graduate students from all over the US have been junior fellows. Many of the older and more established scholars have been Dumbarton Oaks Fellows. The other focal point of Byzantine studies is BSANA: Byzantine Studies Association of North America, including Canada. It was the by-product in some ways of Dumbarton Oaks because one of its founders is Alice-Mary Talbot, who is a former director of studies. It was supposed to be an anti-DO in some ways. It’s much more open and much bigger in size. It’s still much bigger than the annual DO spring symposia and colloquia. But these two foci of Byzantine studies are in fact very much interconnected.

AS: One is a professional association. I feel that they’re very dissimilar.

DA: Yes, they are dissimilar, but they organize conferences and other gatherings. In that, they’re similar. Also, to talk about Dumbarton Oaks in the US context, almost all major scholars of Byzantine studies in the US have been senior fellows at one point or another. I mentioned that I was interviewed once upon a time by George Majeska and John Barker, who were respectively at the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin. About half of the senior fellows have always been US scholars. Then many European scholars have come to the US. You have one example here. But you also find US scholars moving to Europe, including the UK. Most of my colleagues in Birmingham were in fact American. As I mentioned, it’s a very international field, and it will always be like this.

AP:  Do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has an academic duty or that it’s in the best interest of Dumbarton Oaks going forward to launch public outreach initiatives? Particularly in regards to its role on Byzantine history?

DA: I do not see any conflict between the academic duty and public outreach. They go hand in hand. It’s not a question of an alternative. In any case, every educational institution these days has to be involved in outreach, which means including people from outside academia and making them our friends, supporters, allies in the future. We need more Blisses in the future! Byzantium is one of those subjects which, at least in my experience, always draws the attention and curiosity of nonspecialists. Wherever I have taught classes in Byzantine history, whether it’s in Western Michigan, or the University of Birmingham, or at Harvard, most of the students have been non-history majors. Most of the students really did not know anything about Byzantium, but they were very interested in the subject.

AS: According to your experience, you said that many of the students and of course, you’re right, who come to your classes, they’re not history majors, they haven’t been exposed to Byzantium before, what attracts them do you think, from your experience teaching Byzantine history all these years? Out of curiosity?

DA: That’s a great question. The answer depends on where I teach these classes, because I have had a career in a big state university in the US, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, then a big research university in the UK, which is the University of Birmingham, and then at Harvard, which is a totally different kettle of fish. The student audiences are different, but what I have discovered over the years is that, Byzantium has to offer something for everyone. It’s a millennial civilization, which served as bridge between what we call East and West, between antiquity and the modern era. It offers a historical perspective on the experiences of individuals and social groups. It teaches us about the different organization of institutions and states.

For example, when I was at Western Michigan University, I was shocked, in fact, in the beginning that most of the undergraduates were drawn to Byzantine studies because they were interested in the history of the early church. That was not very easy, because as a graduate student I had been trained as a Byzantinist by a group of stellar historians not really interested in traditional church history. In Kalamazoo, I had a graduate student who wanted to do an independent study on the history of the church. I learned as much as he did!

Then in England, I was again, very surprised how much the history of the British Empire and its transformation into a commonwealth shaped the kinds of questions which students who took courses in Byzantine history asked. Many of them had taken classes on the British Empire, or had a deep-seated interest in the decline and fall of empires, for obvious reasons. “Did Byzantium decline? Why did it decline? Could it have been saved?” I even had to supervise an undergraduate thesis asking some these questions, as much as found some of them to be ahistorical.

AS: Well, it’s fascinating that American students today are still attracted to Byzantium, they find charming aspects of the elements that help them improve.

DA: Yes, many of the students who have taken my Byzantine classes have also been very curious as to what happened after the fall of Rome. If Rome fell, why did Byzantium survive? It is the question of adaptation and change, not the teleology of decline that has always been of greater interest to them. In any case, once students enroll in Byzantine courses, they soon find that Byzantium has to offer much, much more to offer to those who are curious!

AS: When you spent time here as a junior fellow and as a regular fellow and in general, even this year as a visiting scholar, as a senior fellow in all your capacities, have you been able to collaborate and interact with other fellow scholars? That is to say, have you started meaningful scholarly relationships at Dumbarton Oaks over the course of time?

DA: These are relationships which last a lifetime. I have had numerous collaborations and exchanges with the scholars whom I met back when I was a junior fellow. The same also in 2011, when I was here for a term, I have had a number of very good contacts and collaborations.  One of the great things about Dumbarton Oaks, the magic of this place, is that it puts a random group of people together, random but preselected, and then you cannot control the dynamics of how these scholarly dialogues and relationships develop over time. That has been not only my experience, that has been the experience of everyone I've talked to who has been at Dumbarton Oaks.

AS: In the post-COVID world, how do you envision Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks changing in the coming years? Both for the scholars and for the public?

DA: That’s a very good question. But allow me not to answer it, because I don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID. I mean, if it stays for the next two, three years, then it will really impact the way we communicate very negatively, but if it drops after the discovery of a vaccine, we’ll forget about it as a bad nightmare. I think we need to wait and see. At the moment, we need to communicate digitally, which is what we are doing.

AS: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, thank you very much. Have a nice afternoon.

DA: Thank you, thank you for organizing.