Mediaeval appreciation of the antique?

We must also be careful not to assume that extensive reworking of antique remains during later centuries indicated a contempt for them. This is not the place to delve into the thorny matter of mediaeval appreciation of the antique, except to say that it was certainly widespread if decidedly fitful. Often, sculptures and architectural members are piled together pell-mell with a vandalistic disregard for their original purpose, let alone their beauty. In a few cases, however, a pride in the past is obvious - as with the so-called Gate of Persecutions at Seljuk (near ancient Ephesus), leading up to the citadel. This is built entirely with re-used marble blocks (presumably from the area) but, what is more, decorative friezes have deliberately been incorporated to beautify it. Chandler, who visited the site in 1764, tells us (1971, 76) that even the approach to the upper castle was strewn with marbles; and that its entrance is supported on each side by a huge and awkward buttress, constructed chiefly with the seats of a theatre or stadium, many of them marked with Greek letters. Several fragments of inscriptions are inserted in it, or lie near. Over the arch are four pieces of ancient sculpture. The two in the middle are in alto-rilievo, of most exquisite workmanship, and evidently parts of the same design (viz. the story of Patroclus. All engraved by Bartolozzi, in Wood's Essay on Homer). Similarly, Leake remarks (1824, 48) during his 1800 visit to Konya on its walls, of the time of the Seljukian kings, who seem to have taken considerable pains to exhibit the Greek inscriptions, and the remains of architecture and sculpture belonging to the ancient Iconium, which they made use of in building their walls. Today, the walls have been replaced by ringroads and boulevards lined with highrise buildings.

Re-use under the Late Empire and Byzantium

Although the Romans were not averse to re-using earlier material in particular circumstances (as can be seen in Rome), in Turkey I know of no examples of the Romans building with large quantities of obviously classical Greek or Hellenistic members. The reasons for this are simple: manpower was plentiful, transport (mostly along good roads, or by water) not impossibly difficult, an international trade and communications system was in place - and, above all, plentiful supplies of good building materials were available in Turkey, often at no great distance from the building sites themselves. In any case, the Romans of the early Empire usually wanted to build bigger and better than even their Hellenistic predecessors, so new work was called for. For this reason alone, separating out the building phases on a large building (the temples at Didyma or Sardis) is straightforward.

The change begins in the late Imperial period - a period of decline, when we do find older materials being re-used - such as in the great marble streets at Ephesus, already described, the flanking colonnades of which are assembled from a curious mixture of columns of different materials and girth. But the great change is in the decline of antique building types (from the bath and the agora to the colonnaded street and the temple), and also a probable but unmeasurable decline in the population of the whole Western world - accompanied by a disinclination to live in towns and cities. Taken together, this meant that large quantities of antique architecture became "surplus to requirements" over the course of a few generations. Certainly, some temples were converted into churches, and some sets of antique columns taken for embellishing new churches. But generally speaking, post antique architecture is unadventurous in construction, little aware of the beauty that can be achieved from tightly-fitting marble or stone blocks, and with a limited need for the elements of the "syntax" of antique architecture - the column, capital, base and entablature. What is more, it is probable that quarry production declined drastically or even ceased in Turkey, just as it did further West.


Constantinople is a different matter, however. If, thanks to the archaeologists and their cranes, it requires little imagination to envisage the splendour of Ephesus or Pergamum, Miletus or Perge, this is unfortunately not the case with present-day Istanbul. Of little importance before Constantine made it the capital of his Empire in 330 AD, its significance as the seat of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empire (with prestigious buildings biting deep into the earth, often made with elements from Constantine's city) has meant that insufficient survives above ground, or is recoverable below ground, to give a full impression of an antique city. This is not of course to say that there are not world-class monuments such as Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene from an early period - merely that, by contrast with Rome, we can no longer admire anything but a few fragments (including some fine mosaics) of the Great Palace, much of which now lies under the precincts of the Sultan Ahmet mosque.

Superabundance of spolia

Although both Greeks and Romans recycled earlier monuments, their extensive reuse begins in the later Empire, from the third century onwards. Thus Christians either converted Roman buildings or, more usually, made their own basilicas out of earlier spolia. In both North Africa and Turkey, Byzantine occupation entailed an obvious rush to fortify what was available. There are many Byzantine forts comparable to those in Asia Minor; in both countries, fortifications were sometimes thrown up in a great hurry; in others, care was taken to reuse antiquities in an aesthetically decorative fashion. In this category are the fort at Haidra, which is surely the most spectacular of all such works bar none; and the fort of similarly large dimensions at Ain Tounga, overlooking the main road through the pass. But the Triumphal Arch at Haidra is also fortified by being encased in additional (spolia) masonry, and looks a mess: likewise the Capitol temple at Dougga, once presumably completely fortified.

In the majority of Byzantine walls, of course, antiquities were not re-used for their beauty but simply as convenient building blocks. At Xanthus, for example, parts of several monuments were retrieved by Fellows from the defensive wall built on top of the theatre; at Pergamum, sculptures from the Altar of Zeus were also retrieved from a Byzantine defensive wall. Although many such walls have been dismantled, plenty survive. At Tlos, the fortifications for the acropolis (29) are made from a very large number of columns, perhaps simply rolled down the hill from structures nearer its summit; at Aphrodisias, the late walls still contain interesting reliefs (SB8.3).

Spolia as decorative elements

As a result of changes in building direction and population needs, we must imagine huge quantities of building material lying for centuries in deserted antique cities. The desire for sturdy construction caused castle builders to go in search of convenient building blocks and other members, which they thus found in great quantities. Most Greek/Roman cities in Turkey are situated on a river and/or near the sea, so transport was no problem. At Kizkalesi, for example, the twelfth-century Armenian builders made full use of the blocks from the nearby city of Korykos, which is just across the modern road from the castle. Still to be seen there are the ruins of baths, houses and rock-cut tombs, together with the quarrying beds. Indeed, nearly all the castle is built from spolia, including some very large blocks, and also some make-and-mend walls with outer faces smooth, but inner faces all jutting and receding because of the irregular antique bits and pieces used for their construction. Several towers are decorated with antique column-shafts (22). Decorated is indeed the correct word because all the shafts, symmetrically disposed, protrude a few centimetres from the face of the wall, giving a bossy, sculptural effect. Entry to the tower is difficult and dangerous but, from two samples lying at its foot, it appears that the shafts are used solely for decoration, because they are cut-down column of about half their original length, and not the full-length ones needed to span the thickness of the wall.

Spolia as structural elements

This decoration is at variance with the usual mediaeval practice in Turkey, where there seems to have been a vogue for re-using antique columns and other architectural members both in foundations and as tie bars joining double-skin walls - a more massive version of the modern galvanized steel butterfly tie for joining two brick skins together. (Of course, unless the wall is falling down, it can be difficult to distinguish between decoration and structural ties.) Once alerted to the use of columns as structural members, long lists could be constructed: granite columns used as ties in the Byzantine wall by the small church on At Meydani, Istanbul; a succession of marble columns used as floor supports both in the Red Tower at Alanya, and in the outermost square tower of the peninsular fortifications (both sets protruding as bossy decoration); columns forming a floor in the mediaeval fortress-cum-house (still occupied as such) as Syedra (SB8.4), east of Antalya; columns in both the foundations, the curtain walls and the towers of Kizkalesi; columns both as decoration and as tie-bars in the Byzantine wall near to the theatre at Side, taken from the adjacent agora. There is a profusion at Seljuk: lintels in the lower fortress, especially on the east side, and columns in the east tower of the Gate of Persecutions itself. A splendid example, which explains a little of what happened to that ciy's antiquities, is to be seen at the late mediaeval Tekfur Saray palace, at the corner of Constantinople's Land Walls. Here great sets of antique architrave blocks are used as ties, some vertically, perhaps to support an exterior balcony or walkway.


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

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey