Chapter 2

Archaeology in Turkey

The Middle Ages: The Turks and Classical Antiquities

What archaeologists find to dig depends ultimately on the attitudes of earlier generations toward the past - what they have treasured, left behind, reused or destroyed. Such attitudes, as well as changing through time, can be varied - the more so, perhaps, in those countries like Turkey where the present inhabitants are not generally the descendants of the earlier Greek or Roman. In this respect we may profitably compare and contrast the attitudes of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks to classical antiquities with those of the Arabs - just as we might those of later generations from the West (as does Van der Vin for Constantinople: 1980, I, 315-23). Both Turks and Arabs were nomadic in origin, and there are still numbers of nomads in Turkey. The importance of this fact is that nomads are, by their very way of life, unaccustomed to - and arguably uninterested in - the attributes of settled living. The nomadic origin of both Turks and Arabs also helps define one of the characteristics of the first types of art and architecture that they developed - namely a strong imitation of both the techniques and styles of the countries in which they eventually settled, but only after very detrimental effects on classical monuments which they neither understood nor appreciated (Vryonis 1975). Indeed, we may turn to Arab writers for the broadest perceptions of "non-Western" approaches to the classical past.

Ibn Khaldun

The common attitude of the Arabs of his own time to classical sites is roundly criticized by the fourteenth-century writer Ibn Khaldun (who also knew and wrote about Turkey) as being not only child-like but frequently destructive. He berates them as being generally uninterested in monumental buildings which, as he remarks (IV.2), attest to the civilisation of earlier nations. For example: It is noteworthy how civilization always collapsed in places the Arabs took over and conquered, and how such settlements were depopulated and the (very) earth there turned into something that was no (longer) earth. The Yemen where (the Arabs) live is in ruins, except for a few cities. Persian civilisation in the Arab 'Iraq is likewise completely ruined. The same applies to contemporary Syria ... Formerly, the whole region between the Sudan and the Mediterranean had been settled. This (fact) is attested by the relics of civilization there, such as monuments, architectural sculpture, and the visible remains of villages and hamlets (II.25). He likewise points out the "backwardness" of the Bedouin, who are dominated by the urban population because of the latter's crafts, use of money, and other necessities; while the urban dweller needs the Bedouin only for life's luxuries (II.28). The conclusion is inevitably that, since sedentary culture is the goal of civilisation (IV.17), since the buildings erected in Islam are comparatively few considering her power (IV.7, IV.8), and since those that are built quickly fall into ruins (IV.9), then the Arabs are not civilised in Ibn Khaldun's sense. This assessment is, of course, valid only for his own time.

Ibn Khaldun was fascinated by architecture, and especially by the constructions of the ancients. He states (V.24) that architecture is the first and oldest craft of sedentary civilization - and hence depends on the level of urban life: he instances that when al-Walid decided to build the mosques of Medina and Jerusalem and his own mosque in Damascus, He sent to the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople for workmen skilled in construction work, and the Byzantine emperor sent him enough men to build these mosques as he had planned them - and, indeed, the Byzantine artisans were to embellish them with mosaics. He also hints at "supernatural" explanations for the size of antique buildings: Many people who view the great monuments and constructions of the ancients, such as ... the pyramids of Egypt, the arches of the Malga (at Carthage) and those of Cherchel in the Magreb, think that the ancients erected them by their own (unaided) powers, whether (they worked) as individuals or in groups. They imagine that the ancients had bodies proportionate to (those monuments) and that their bodies, consequently, were much taller, wider and heavier than (our bodies), so that there was the right proportion between (their bodies) and the physical strength from which such buildings resulted. They forget the importance of machines and pulleys and engineering skill implied in this connection (IV.3).

Indeed the Arabs, it appears, sometimes "got the measure" of antiquities only by trying to pull them down. Such large constructions were often the work of more than one dynasty, writes Ibn Khaldun (in the Muqaddimah, written in 1377 AD), and their solidity is seen from the difficulties of tearing them down - witness Ar-Rashid, who wished to tear down the Reception Hall at Khosraw (Iwan Kisra), but could not do so, in spite of efforts with pick-axes and vinegar; the same happened to al-Ma'mun who tried to tear down the Pyramids, and the arches of the Malga at Carthage, whose stones the people of Tunis wanted for their building: For a long time, they have attempted to tear them down. However, even the smallest (part) of the walls comes down only after the greatest efforts. Parties assemble for the purpose. (They are) a well-known (custom), and I have seen many of them in the days of my youth (IV.4; see also III.16).

Ibn Khaldun's general analysis of the building cycle (IV.10) is interesting, because it surely proceeds from his own observations. He may well have made many of these during his time in Turkey so that, in the absence of parallel accounts, we may use it as a model for what happened in Turkey - a model easily confirmed by observation. It reads as follows: It should be known that when cities are first founded, they have few dwellings and few building materials, such as stones and quicklime, or the things that serve as ornamental coverings for walls, such as tiles, marble, mosaic, jet, shells (mother-of-pearl), and glass. Thus, at that time, the buildings are built in Bedouin (style), and the materials used for them are perishable... [civilization grows and reaches its limit] The civilization of the city then recedes, and its inhabitants decrease in number. This entails a decrease in the crafts. As a result, good and solid building and the ornamentation of buildings are no longer practised. ... Materials such as stone, marble, and other things are now being imported scarcely at all, and (building materials) become unavailable. The materials that are in existing buildings are re-used for building and refinishing. They are transferred from one construction to another, since most of the (large) constructions, castles, and mansions stand empty as the result of the scarcity of civilization (population) [...] (The same materials) continue to be used for one castle after another and for one house after another, until most of it is completely used up. People then return to the Bedouin way of building. They use adobe instead of stone and omit all ornamentation. The architecture of the city reverts to that of villages and hamlets. The mark of the desert shows in it. (The city) then gradually decays and falls into complete ruin, if it is thus destined for it. This is how God proceeds with his creatures.

The perceptive comments of Ibn Khaldun are, I repeat, unmatched by contemporary accounts from Turkey. What comments we have from earlier Western travellers about the attitudes of rural Turks to monuments do not frequently antedate the eighteenth century (but see Stavrou 1986), and are frequently prejudiced. Nevertheless, they accord well with "country" attitudes amply recorded both in the West and in North Africa. The usual stance is that the ruins from the past were built by kings (or giants), and were sites for magic or, if one was lucky, rich with treasure - and plenty of Greek treasures were indeed documented as being discovered in Byzantine times (Morrisson 1981). A similar disjunction is evident in both Turkey and further West: peasants in France or Italy seem not to have considered that such remains had been built by their own ancestors; and the Turks, of course, were not in Turkey when her Greek and Roman cities were constructed.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey