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Travel has always been a key component of the Eastern Mediterranean Studies program at Emmanuel. But earlier this year it charted a new course, to the University of Oxford in England. 

Emmanuel Associate Professor of Political Science Petros Vamvakas was among the 30 academics, diplomats, and policy makers invited to lead a two-day workshop on the region in May.  The event was partially a celebration of Oxford launching a new Eastern Mediterranean studies program, and Vamvakas said the invite was a welcome surprise. 

“It was completely unexpected, but they definitely knew of us and recognized the work we have done,” said Vamvakas. “It was pretty cool.” 

Emmanuel Associate Professor of Political Science Petros Vamvakas at Oxford

In announcing the new program, Oxford cited a proliferation of academic studies on the eastern Mediterranean in recent years. Vamvakas said the attention is warranted. He described the region as a unique crossroads, which has alternately been a cosmopolitan bridge between cultures or a fortified frontier during its long history. 

“I think what we’re living through now is the frontier, and we’re missing a great opportunity,” said Vamvakas. “The eastern Mediterranean symbolizes exactly the globalization that we envision, and it has become rather the globalization we dread.”

Professor Vamvakas at Oxford with colleagues from the University of Nicosia, University of Cyprus, and the London School of Economics.

Vamvakas said the region has been in transition since the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War 1.  Centered on modern day Turkey, it once ranged from Crimea to Kosovo, and from the Persian Gulf to much of the North African coast. Those borders were redrawn by European powers as the empire receded, with international ramifications that persist to this day. 

The island of Cyprus is one example of the trend toward fortified frontiers: it will soon mark 50 years since being divided into Greek and Turkish zones. There’s now a barbed wire fence that runs through the divided capital city of Nicosia, where those communities lived alongside each other for centuries.

“We try to create cohesive structures in places where there had been mosaics of coexistence,” said Vamvakas. “It’s something that existed there and it’s been fragmented the past 100 years, and that’s the tragedy of it.” 

Sixteen Emmanuel students will visit Cyprus in June as part of the annual Emmanuel College Summer Institute in Crete. The three-week summer session provides a firsthand perspective on the region while students earn Political Science credits. The trip also includes a visit to Malta and lectures at the University of Crete.

A group of 16 Emmanuel students traveled to Crete earlier this month as part of the annual Emmanuel College Summer Institute in Crete

The summer sessions in Crete started as a standalone project in 2015 and things grew from there. Vamvakas also teaches In the Footsteps of Thucydides, a travel course that visits Crete every other spring and examines the ethics of international politics through the lens of the Peloponnesian War.  In 2018, he founded a nonprofit Institute of Eastern Mediterranean Studies, which sponsors academic programs, research, and educational opportunities in the heart of Boston.  

“We thought it would be great to host some events and bring the Mediterranean to the Fenway,” said Vamvakas. “We’ve hosted lectures, films, art shows and concerts—things that have to do with the Mediterranean as a space of bridges and crossroads, not conflict.”

Vamvakas has taught at Emmanuel since 2005. He traced the genesis of the Eastern Mediterranean Studies program to a 2011 family trip to Crete.  The Eurozone debt crisis was underway, with people losing their jobs and unable to make bank withdrawals. Local air traffic was heavy, due to the NATO intervention in Libya. All of these international currents impacting local life got Vamvakas thinking about the region’s educational potential.  

“The idea at the time is that this would be the perfect classroom to really do some international relations studies,” he said. 

Vamvakas also noted the United States has long been interested in the region, dating back to when the U.S.S. Constitution was dispatched there to protect trade routes in the early 19th century. Discussions about the eastern Mediterranean often center on oil, but Vamvakas said it’s bigger than that. 

“Even if we go to electric cars in the future, the region will continue to be important because it’s the only place in the world where three continents come together,” said Vamvakas. “There is no other spot in the world that has that geopolitical structure.” 

Students with the 2024 Crete summer session enjoying a meal together.

For more information about studying in Crete and other travel opportunities, contact the Emmanuel Study Abroad Office at studyabroad [at] emmanuel.edu (studyabroad[at]emmanuel[dot]edu). Click here for more information about the Institute of Eastern Mediterranean Studies.