Mixing the past and the present

Hillsboro native, Byzantine history professor Leidholm finds love in Turkey

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Posted: Friday, July 12, 2019 6:00 am

Give Nathan Leidholm credit. He’s not afraid to take the road less traveled.

While his peers at the University of North Dakota were majoring in accounting and pre-med, Leidholm opted to study the Eastern Roman Empire.

Instead of pursuing a research fellowship in the Midwest as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Leidholm spent nine months living in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people. Leidholm’s willingness to pursue his education and dreams in far-off lands paid off.

The 2004 Hillsboro High School grad found love in Turkey’s economic and cultural hub, setting off a globe-trotting long-distance relationship that culminated in an overseas wedding a year ago.

Now living and teaching in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, Leidholm and his wife, Pinar, hosted a wedding reception Monday at the Vets Club in Hillsboro for those who couldn’t attend last year’s nuptials.

Leidholm conceded the journey that led him from Hillsboro to Ankara wasn’t planned.

But in some ways, it seemed he was destined to land in Turkey.

“Finding a job teaching about Byzantine history can be a little bit of a struggle, so oddly enough that’s why I ended up in Turkey,” the 33-year-old Hillsboro native said.

“But Turkey was the geographical core of the Byzantine Empire, so I’m exactly where I should be.”

Fellowship of the ring

Leidholm’s mom, Jan, taught second grade in Hillsboro for 34 years prior to retiring in 2016.

Leidholm didn’t set out from high school intending to pursue a career in education.

“I really wasn’t sure about teaching,” he said. “But I was always interested in history and the far-flung places of the world.”

After high school, he enrolled at UND and majored in biology and chemistry as a freshman.

He changed his focus after taking a course led by UND assistant history professor Bill Caraher.

“His survey class on the Eastern Roman Empire blew my mind,” Leidholm said.

Leidholm graduated from UND in 2008 and began taking summer courses – a form of ancient Greek boot camp – to study the language and writings of philosophers like Plato.

He continued his education at the University of Chicago, where he pursued his master’s degree and a doctorate in Byzantine history.

Leidholm applied for a research fellowship in fall 2014 in Istanbul, where he met Pinar, a graduate student living in London who applied for the same fellowship.

“There were 26 fellows there and on Day 1 we had a shared workspace,” Leidholm recalled.

“We picked seats right next to each other and for nine months we worked very closely.”

The pair had kindled a romance by April, which Leidholm still can’t seem to believe.

“It was amazing, really,” he said. “Of all the little decisions that led to the two of us meeting in Istanbul, and then making it work afterward, it was really amazing.”

Trek to Turkey

The relationship wasn’t without its share of roadblocks.

Leidholm went back to the United States in June 2015 while Pinar returned to London.

After finishing his classes at the University of Chicago, Leidholm was granted permission to live anywhere while he finished writing his thesis. He picked London.

Reunited in England, Leidholm proposed to Pinar on the day she finished her dissertation.

And, yes, he waited until she had finished her presentation.

“I arrived two days before the exam and had my grandma’s ring but I told myself it wasn’t fair to (propose) until her big day,” Leidholm said.

“She passed with flying colors … and I couldn’t wait any longer.”

Freshly engaged, and after spending 12 years in higher education, Leidholm knew it was time to enter the working world, much to the delight of his parents Jan and Dwayne.

“They were very supportive of me, even if they didn’t always understand exactly what I was doing,” Leidholm says with a laugh.

The job market for an expert in Byzantine history can be fickle, however, and Leidholm and Pinar weren’t able to find employment in London.

The couple expanded their job search and Leidholm landed a short-term job at a university in Istanbul while Pinar was hired for a temporary gig at Columbia University in New York.

The separation proved to be short-lived and the couple was reunited last year when Leidholm was hired as an assistant professor at Bilkent University in Ankara.

Pinar recently accepted a position at Middle East Technical University less than 10 minutes away.

Leidholm wasted no time settling in Ankara. Next month, he will publish his first book.

“Elite Byzantine Kinship” focuses on the definition of family and what it meant to be a member of a family in the 10th through 12th centuries in the Byzantine Empire.

The book, which is available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, retails for $105.

Planning to stay

Seated inside the Vets Club on Monday and surrounded by friends and his former piano and school teachers, Leidholm said there are things he misses about Hillsboro and living in the United States.

“I miss fishing with my dad,” he said. “But Ankara is a big city. There are places to go to have a good burger or get buffalo wings.

“I really don’t miss too much, except for my friends and family.”

Life in Turkey isn’t as foreign as an outsider may expect, Leidholm said.

He and Pinar catch Hollywood-made movies at the theaters and hit the town to socialize.

Leidholm’s Turkish isn’t perfect. But he can read and understand the language.

His speech is still a tad broken at times.

“When I first met my wife, I didn’t know a word of Turkish,” he said. “But when you fall for a Turkish girl things change a little bit.

“I didn’t think I would be speaking Turkish one day to my father-in-law, but that is the best motivation you can imagine for learning a language.”

Pinar insists her parents accepted Leidholm. “They were pretty OK with it, but they were like, ‘An American? Where did you meet him?’” she said, laughing.

The couple has no plans to leave Turkey in the near future.

Pinar’s ties to the country and the bonds the pair have formed there would make it hard to leave.

“It’s a beautiful country and I really love it there,” Leidholm said. “It’s cheap and a great place to visit. If anyone ever wants to come to Ankara, our door is always open.”

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