Islam and the Ancient Monuments

The attitudes of the Turks to the classical past have already been sketched early in this book (above, p.000), but a few words are needed here to fit their needs and preferences into the framework of decline and renewal. Throughout Turkey, it is usual to find early mosques with their walls built from antique blocks and decorated with antique veneers, and their prayer halls supported on antique columns. At Miletus, Ilyas Bey Camii, built in 1403, is constructed from a multitude of veneers taken from the adjacent remains. There would have been plenty to choose from, with an agora and the Baths of Faustina nearby. At Iznik, ancient Nicaea, Yesil Camii was built in 1378-91, with the lower courses from antique blocks. All the columns inside and in the portico are antique, and the interior is clad to a height of over three metres with slabs of marble, many of them in matched pairs and fours (such as can be seen in Hagia Sophia), lifted from the antique and/or Byzantine buildings of the city.

The conditions affecting the re-use of Roman monuments, whether by Christianity or Islam, are remarkably uniform both in Asia Minor and in North Africa, epecially Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. This is because Turkey has many characteristics in common with North Africa, the most obvious of which is a strong Roman presence, with magnificent sets of monuments scattered throughout the land. What is more, they have a parallel post-mediaeval history, in that neither area suffered the large population increases of 19th century Europe; and hence, those remains that survived earlier depradations (often underground) are still with us today.

In both Turkey and Tunisia, what is more, early Arab invasions took over a country whose population had dropped dramatically since the hey-day of Roman occupation - but a country whose monumental remains were largely intact. The Arabs, without any tradition of their own of monumental architecture, and with the need to build permanent mosques from the very beginning, surely caught the vogue for marble and stone from their Byzantine and Roman predecessors, which meant that re-use of spolia was common - and it has even been suggested (Goodwin 1977) that the Arabs bothered to cut but a few columns until well after Seljuk times, preferring to use spolia instead.

Ibn Battuta at Seljuk

In spite of Ibn Khaldun's complaint about the childish awe of his contemporaries, not all travellers from the Arab world thought in terms of giants when they looked at antique buildings. Ibn Battuta, for example, who travelled from 1325 to 1354, when he visited Seljuk, found a large and ancient city venerated by the Greeks, in which there is a great church built with huge stones, each measuring ten or twelve cubits in length and most skilfully hewn [presumably the Church of Mary, built over the ancient Musaion]. The congregational mosque [from the description, the Church of S. John] in this city is one of the most magnificent mosques in the world and unequalled in beauty ... Its walls are of marble of different colours, and it is paved with white marble and roofed with lead. It contains eleven domes, differing in size, with a water pool in the centre of [the area under] each dome (II, 444-5). That Church was probably destroyed by Timur in 1402, and the adjacent mosque of Isa Bey had already taken over its role. This, one of the finest buildings in Anatolia, has a prayer hall graced by granite columns taken from the Harbour Baths at Ephesus: one retains its original capital. Outside, underneath the steps up the entrance, a pagan sarcophagus has been converted into a fountain basin.

It may be fair to conclude that, without Islam's keen interest in the classical past there would have been more classical monuments surviving - but, as a consequence, considerably fewer fine mosques.

Revival and survival

It bears underlining that the story told in this book should not be construed as days of grandeur followed by squalour and gloom, any more than as the charting of the irrevocable destruction of the classical past. Certainly, we cannot contradict the fact of decline; but then this is the lot of all civilizations, and that of Greece and Rome has been luckier than most. We have seen that the early mediaeval centuries as still part-dependent upon the past. This is not restricted to their architecture, but encompasses the re-use of classical elements in many areas of knowledge such as philosophy, law, letters, coinage, and science. The past is therefore used as metaphorical and actual building blocks in the construction of the future - of those new and different civilizations we call the Middle Ages and then (because of its special interest in the re-birth of the classical past) the Renaissance. Much has been written on the continuing importance of classical traditions for later centuries (Weitzmann 1978, 1980, 1981; Panofsky 1970; Greenhalgh 1989), just as the details of actual re-use have been extensively documented (Esch 1969; Deichmann 1939, 1975, 1976).

This ability to look at "decadent art and architecture" as worthy of study is a recent development - and the words are in quotation marks to signal that the whole concept is in doubt. Previous generations, putting together the visible decline in some aspects of art and the obvious re-use of earlier works, concluded that earlier mediaeval art was but a shadow of what had gone before - and, indeed, but an unsuccessful imitation of it. This is probably true of three-dimensional sculpture, but modern scholars emphasize that early mediaeval art (in West and East) is different in appearance from what went before - abstract, so to speak, rather than concrete - because its requirements and horizons are different, not inferior in quality (cf. Browning 1980. 24ff., 62ff. 105ff. for a summary).

It would be most informative to prove this assertion by producing quality works of art and architecture from the disputed periods. Unfortunately, however, we cannot construct a complete record for what happened to art in Turkey from Late Antiquity onwards. Iconoclasm destroyed many images, so not only can we not form a reliable picture of what new types of art were produced, but we are equally at a loss to study their relationship with the classical exemplars which we must assume were still all around them. From what evidence we have (all of which comes from Constantinople, and therefore perhaps tilts the balance in favour of sophistication), points to an uninterrupted classical style in pagan and Christian art alike, at least well into the seventh century (Weitzmann 1981, 74). In brief, where a classical mode was thought suitable, it was used: figures of the Evangelists, for example, are frequently modelled on ancient rhetoricians. And in the decorative arts - ivories, rings and cameos, glassware and metalware - the antique influence remains strong.

I make this point about later art forms to draw a conclusion about Greek and Roman sites. In spite of disrepair, reworking and general neglect, the art and architecture produced in them still held prestige value, to be treasured and imitated for centuries to come, and by people with vastly different philosophies and ways of life. We have no accounts of mediaeval excavations but, if experience in the West is anything to go by (Greenhalgh 1989, 208ff., 223ff.), then treasure-hunting certainly took place, for which later generations are the poorer.

Bibliographical Notes

Ainalov (1961) for the Hellenistic origins of Byzantine art. Cormack (1981) for the continuing influence of the classical past in Thessalonike and Aphrodisias. Grabar (1969) for the origins of Christian iconography in antique art. Davis-Weyer (1971) for contemporary texts on art. Rentschler (1978) for the 10th-century Western view of Byzantine culture, and Weitzmann (various). Mango (1963) for Byzantine attitudes to classical sculpture; Swift (1951), Oakeshott (1959) and Panofsky (1970) for well-illustrated surveys of Western European art and the classical past. Mullett (1981) for aspects of Byzantium and the classical past in various areas, not just art and architecture; Chiri (1954) for attitudes further West.

Jones (1986) and Jones (1966) for studies of the later Roman Empire, and of the decline of the ancient world. Kunderewicz (1971) for the Theodosian Code and the protection of ancient monuments. Ward-Perkins (1984) for the decline of public building in mediaeval Italy.

Complete studies of the post-antique history of Turkish sites are rare: Foss (1976) and Foss (1979), for Sardis and Ephesus respectively, are welcome exceptions. Foss (1977) for a convenient general summary. Deichmann (1930) for the reuse of temples as churches; Deichmann (1975) and (1976) for spolia, to be supplemented by Esch (1969) and Goodwin (1977). Blake (1972) for biblical sites in Turkey. Talbert (1985, 171-2, 177) for maps of the Eastern Roman provinces in 211 AD and 314 AD, and of Christian centres in the early fourth century.

Beck (1980) for Constantinople's origins as a capital; Krautheimer (1983) for a comparative study; Krautheimer (1980) for an account of mediaeval Rome. Muller-Wiener (1977) for a scholarly and well-referenced picture-catalogue of the buildings of the city.

Nickel (1978) for Byzantine art-exports to the West; Weitzmann (1978, 1980, 1981) for aspects of Byzantine art and the classical past. Mainstone (1988) for Hagia Sophia. Brown (1980) for art & society in late antiquity.

Rosenthal (1965), Allen (1986), Goodwin (1977) and Ecochard (1977)for Islam and the classical past; Ettinghausen (1972) for an even broader survey.

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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