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Experiencing Art Firsthand


Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

One of the advantages of studying art at Swarthmore is the close proximity of some of America’s greatest art museums in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington. The College’s art history faculty mentors often require students to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the department organizes trips to see other collections, giving students direct experience with great painting and sculpture. But what about architecture? For the most part, buildings stay where they are built—the pyramids in Egypt, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

So when Michael Cothren was offered the opportunity to lead an Alumni College Abroad trip to Turkey last year, he jumped at the chance. And it was at Hagia Sophia that he says he experienced one of the great moments of his life:

“I cried for the first 15 minutes. That’s all I could do. I just stood in the corners and cried. I knew this building intellectually; I’d read everything I could get my hands on since I was an undergraduate. I’ve been teaching it, believing—as an article of faith—that this is the greatest work of architecture ever to have been created by humans on this earth. But I’d never been inside.”

Participants in the Alumni College didn’t get to see Cothren cry. Knowing that he needed to absorb the impact of some of Istanbul’s great monuments before touring them with the Swarthmore travelers, he flew to Turkey ahead of the group.

“If I’ve seen something in advance,” Cothren says, “then it’s the encounter with the alumni that’s in the foreground, not my first encounter with a monument.” Hosted by Ilona Cornfeld, the parent of two Swarthmore students, Cothren visited not only sixth-century Hagia Sophia but also the 14th-century Chora church and several other sights.

“As a result,“ he says, “the great late Byzantine Chora church will figure much more prominently in the next edition of our “big” book when it appears this July.”

Upcoming trips:

Pieter Judson ’78, professor of history, will explore Venice, Croatia, and the Dalmatian Coast, June 14–24.

Assistant Professor of French Alexandra Gueydan-Turek will lead a group to Morocco.

For additional information contact the Alumni College Abroad Office by calling (800) 789-9738 or e-mailing

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