As historians, we often argue over definitions. For instance, what exactly do we mean when we speak of, say, the “civil rights movement”? Are we defining that narrowly, as a social movement that existed from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, or are we willing to broaden our time horizons? And which people or groups are included—or excluded—from our definition of the movement? We use these shorthand phrases all the time, and yet our definitions, whether implicit or explicit, clearly matter.
Thus, it makes sense that I begin this blog by defining my focus.
I chose the title intentionally, because I believe history is a palimpsest. This can be seen in the landscape, as older buildings stand alongside new construction. The landscape, in that sense, is being scraped clean and “re-written.” A great example of this comes from the Macefield House in Seattle which is said to have inspired the 2009 film Up.
It can also be seen in the evolution of culture over time. For instance, the image in the header comes from the Palimpsest Wall at the Santa Maria Antiqua church in Rome. Built in the fifth century, the wall is a visual representation of Roman history.
The famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is of course another example. There, beautiful Byzantine architecture and mosaic art sit alongside Islamic renovations from the Ottoman period, when the building was converted to a mosque. Since 1935, it has been a museum—a further transformation which came at the hands of the secular nationalist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken significant steps away from Atatürk’s secular vision of the Hagia Sophia, a development cheered by Turkish Muslims who wish to see it converted back into a mosque. In short, it is impossible to visit the Hagia Sophia without feeling the centuries of conflict that have shaped Constantinople (to which, of course, you can’t go back).
To my mind, historiography mirrors the “palimpsestuous” nature of the landscape. As Eric Foner writes in Who Owns History?:
History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives. But that each generation can and must rewrite history does not mean that history is simply a series of myths and inventions. There are commonly accepted professional standards that enable us to distinguish good history from falsehoods like the denial of the Holocaust.
In historical scholarship, the old isn’t simply discarded and replaced; it can still be found (at least for a time) “underneath” the new, either in footnotes or endnotes.
This brings me to my aim for this blog. In short, I intend for this to be a place to explore my thinking about history: about how it’s done, about how we teach it, about how it influences the world in which we live today.
But there is a personal angle here as well. As we “build” our lives bit by bit, each layer building upon the one that preceded it, we are all “palimpsestuous,” and for me, this promises to be a year of great change. I won’t go into the many reasons in this post, but as I look ahead, I have reason to believe that 2019 will mark a new layer for me. I look ahead with much excitement—and, if I’m being honest, some trepidation.