Spolia in Fortifications:

Turkey, Syria and North Africa


Michael Greenhalgh,

Department of Art History

Australian National University




After briefly explaining why the East is worthy of study for its use of spolia, setting both the geographical scene and the chronologies involved, and examining the reasons for their very survival and availability, this paper will focus on their military reuse in fortresses and city walls. It provides an overview of the antique structures which were the models, set against the decline of civic life from late antiquity onwards, and concentrates on the aesthetic and the practical reasons for reuse, which include both strengthening and structural support, and conspicuous display, such as the widespread reuse of column shafts in fortress walls. Fortifications at Nicaea and Korykos, Ankara and Byblos will be examined, together with the reuse of antique reliefs at Seljuk and Halicarnassus, and of antique ‘architectural furniture’ at Myra. Finally, we shall look briefly at French experiences in Algeria in the 19th century, because these were probably analogous to those of our mediaeval forbears in Europe over a thousand years beforehand, when the antique monuments in the West were in a roughly similar state to those when the French invaded Algeria in 1830. If the French made very practical use of the spolia they found, then so did armourers: and details will be given of the reuse, well into the 19th century, of marble and granite columns as cannon balls.


Because of the special circumstances of Turkey and North Africa, the concept of alto medioevo is stretched beyond breaking-point, but with the bonus that studying such areas can provide us with insights into how the ancient monuments may have appeared to our mediaeval forbears - evidence largely unavailable in the West because of the pressure of further development in succeeding centuries, and hence obliteration of the majority of source monuments. The French, for example, benefitted from this apparent “time shift” in Algeria. Given the very variable takeup of city-dwelling in that country, it much impressed the French when they invaded Algeria in 1830 that their direct predecessors as city-dwellers (and hence as architecturally aware, for both civilian and military works - indeed, as civilized people rather than barbarians) were the Romans, including their Byzantine successors. Their establishment there of a colonial empire provides the most recent thoroughgoing practical use of spolia, analogous to mediaeval usage.


In Turkey, the population has never (until our century) been sufficient to devastate all the monuments (and one can still find classical sites there occupied by nomads, although fewer now than decades ago); as a thirteenth-century dervish put it, in a lament which might stand as a leitmotif for this paper, and which is repeated down the centuries: It is for the work of demolition that Turkish workmen must be hired. For the construction of the world is special to the Greeks [...] They erected numerous cities and mountain fortresses [...] so that after centuries these constructions serve as models to the men of recent times [...] [God] created the people of the Turks in order to demolish, without respect or pity, all the constructions which they see…[1]. However, destruction was necessary in order to build: many Turks took up alien traditions, and were as enthusiastic users of spolia as the Crusaders, as we shall see from the walls of Konya, where the Seljuk Turks, especially prizing Greek and Roman architecture, reused it for aesthetic ends. Their successors generally lived off spolia, often using it in a purely utilitarian manner. However, Mehmet’s reported reaction to the glories of Constantinople (cavalco da un luogo all’altro, considerande con grandissima maraviglia fabriche tanto rare[2])  suggests something more programmatic, as perhaps does that of Tamerlane before him, who wondered at the costly buildings of the temples, the faire ingraven pillars, the high pyramides; whilst at Jerusalem, he sought out all the antiquities of that auncient citie.[3]




[1] JALAL AL-DIN RUMI, in the Mamaqib al-Arifim, quoted by S. VRYONIS, Nomadization and Islamization in Asia Minor, in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 29 (1975),  p.71;

[2] G. B. PODESTA, Annali Ottomanici, Vienna 1672, p.100;

[3] R. KNOLLES, The generall Historie of the Turkes, London 1603, pp.222-3;