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    Entries in Byzantium (6)


    The end of the adventure approacheth

    The journey is nearly over.

    In the past three weeks, I’ve visited more than 40 Roman and Byzantine-era sites. Driven more than 2500The Alahan Monastery, high in the Taurus Mountains near Mut kilometers. Taken at least 3,000 pictures, and filled a 300-page journal and most of a college composition book with notes on what I’ve seen. Spoken to archaeologists, historians, nautical preservationists, and many, many Turks and foreign travelers. It’s been a phenomenal adventure.

    Rarely have I found direct evidence of life in the Byzantine world of the early 8th century. For the most part, what remnants of the deep past are still evident are either much earlier – Roman, Greek, even Hittite – or later, Seljuk and Ottoman. The Byzantines of the early 8th century were in a period of profound instability and retrenchment. They had little time to build great monuments or establish new settlements. For the most part, they reused and repurposed the great works that came before them. Later, when their civilization recovered some of its former glory and established secure borders, they would again create astounding works of art and architecture – the mosaics of Chora Monastery, for example, or the frescoes in the Dark Church in Göreme. To judge by the remaining archaeological evidence – what has been unearthed to date, at least – the Byzantines of the early 8th century lived in a time when economic disaster, plague, invasion, loss of territory, and a series of massive earthquakes in the 6th and 7th centuries had reduced their world to a state of constant instability.

    Part of the ongoing excavations at Amorium, capital of the Byzantine Anatolikon themeAnd yet… I’ve come to believe – and some emerging archaeological and multi-disciplinary research on complex adaptive systems seems to support this view – that the so-called Dark Ages of Byzantium were not completely dark. Constantinople, for example, may have had a much smaller population in the early 8th century than it did in, say, the early years of Justinian I’s reign, 150 or so years before. Large areas of the city had been given over to orchards and vegetable gardens, the great monumental buildings were sometimes not maintained, little new building was going on aside from repairs to the defensive walls, and the mansions of earlier generations of the aristocracy may have been subdivided into smaller apartments. Yet this makes sense for a city adapting to vastly different circumstances – we just have to look at Detroit for a contemporary comparison. Over time, the Byzantines repurposed the structures of the great city Constantine had built and made them relevant to their new circumstances. In the process, they made the city more self-sufficient and resilient in the face of threat. A city with a smaller population and its own resources for food production – orchards, gardens, fisheries – is much more able to withstand external threat than is one bursting at the seams with overpopulation, dependent upon distant provinces for its basic sustenance, with sprawling suburbs outside the city walls whose people would swell the already overwhelming numbers of hungry mouths inside the defenses in times of crisis.

    What ruins I did find that were directly attributable to my period or that would clearly have been in continuousThe ancient citadel at Afyon (Akroinon), which goes back at least as far as the Hittites occupation throughout it – say, the great city of Amorium, or Syllaeum (Syllium) on the Pamphylian plain – show that the Byzantines had not lost the ability to thrive and build upon the inheritance of their forebears, where the circumstances allowed. Elaborate stonework is in evidence at Amorium, a city built in the early Byzantine period that was the capital of the Anatolikon theme – the strongest and most strategically vital of all the Byzantine provinces – throughout the period I’m researching. Syllaeum awaits serious excavation, which may reveal many heretofore hidden secrets about its progression from Hittite stronghold to Greek city-state to Roman town to Byzantine fortress, and onward. Even inside Constantinople, sites like the Yenikapı harbor excavations reveal that maritime trade may have continued to thrive, albeit perhaps on a more regional scale compared to the height of the Roman era. Other sites relevant to the early Byzantine period, such as the church of St. Mary of Chalkoprateia in Istanbul, have yet to be retrieved from their currently neglected state – in this case, hidden behind a sidewalk café, used as a lighting backdrop and otherwise left to crumble into further ruin – remain to be explored.

    A half-buried inscription at AmoriumI’m certain that if the same kind of passion and resources that the archaeological and historical communities have devoted to the Greek and Roman eras were applied to Byzantine sites, we could learn much about the lives of these people struggling to adapt to rapid changes in their economic, social, religious, geopolitical, and even ecological environments. I have no doubt that much of what we’d find would challenge pre-existing assumptions about the “Dark Ages” of Byzantium.

    Meanwhile, for lack of the wealth of evidence that I would have found were my book set, say, 7 centuries earlier, I must rely on my own imagination and the work of a few pioneers in early Byzantine studies to re-create the world in which my characters might have lived. This journey has provided invaluable fuel for that leap of the imagination. All that’s left now is to tell the story.

    “All.” As if that weren’t everything.

    As of today, I have a complete draft of Part One. Part Two awaits when I return home. Onward.

    Some of the better pictures I've taken over the course of my 2500km journey from Antalya to Cappadocia can be found here.



    Over the past few days, since leaving Istanbul, I've covered something like 700km by road all across the Pamphyian plain, the Pisidian highlands and the passes through the Tauros Mountains, and on into the Central Plateau. Except while sleeping, I've barely sat still. My great "rest stop" was an afternoon in Eğirdir, a pretty little town on the gorgeous lake of the same name, napping and catching up on my trip planning and emails. Other than that, it's been dawn to dusk exploration. Time is growing short. In eight days, I catch a flight back to the States, and I still have the entire stretch of the old Royal Road from here (Afyon) to Cappadocia and the Cilician Gates beyond to cover.

    I've spent a morning scrambling up the steep escarpment at Sillyon (Sillaeon), one of the major fortified towns near Attaleia (modern Antalya), in 44-degree C heat. I've gotten thoroughly lost trying to find the ruins of Milyos and Cremna, which are a good 10 km away from where the Michelin maps show them, on crazy one-lane rural roads that wind through the mountains. (I got found again. I thank my Viking ancestors for my navigational sense.) I spent two hours trekking around the magnificent pre-Hellenistic, Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine city of Sagalassos, high in the mountains in what should have been a nearly impregnable position, though its strategic location stopped neither Alexander the Great nor a series of earthquakes and plagues that ultimately doomed the city.

    I spent a couple hours in the impossibly confusing and traffic-crazy town of Yalvaç trying to find the ruins of Antioch in Pisidia, a major crossroads city that was besieged by the son of Caliph al-Walid I in 713 and never fully recovered. (The remaining ruins are unimpressive, once found.) I've followed both the western route (Via Sebaste) and central route of the old Roman roads through the Taurus mountains to the central highlands, trying to retrace the ways travelers and/or armies might have made it from the coast to the strategic cities in the Anatolikon theme during the time of my novel. 

    Today comes the highlight of this part of the trip: Amorium, the Byzantine fortress city that was the capital of the Anatolikon theme. The city was sacked by the Arabs in 838 and never fully recovered, but at the time of my book, it was a relatively thriving crossroads city, well fortified and crucial to the defense of west-central Anatolia and the approaches to the strategically vital cities farther to the west and northwest. Here, the future Leo III, newly appointed strategos of the Anatolikon theme, played a game of cat-and-mouse with the Arab armies in the summer of 716, holding out to them the possibility that he might be their bought man in Constantinople if they would only help him attain the throne, while buying time and pinning the bulk of the Arab army in place through an entire campaign season while he frustrated them through sheer diplomatic wiles. From here, he raced to Constantinople as soon as the campaign season was over and, with the help of Artavasdos, the strategos of the vital Armenian theme, made his ultimately successful bid for the Imperium.

    Amorium is crucial to my story, so I hope the site will whisper to my imagination whatever secrets it has left to tell. Sadly, the team that has been excavating the site for the past 25 years or more did not obtain their permit to dig this year, so there will likely be no archaeologists on site. I'll have to go by the articles and maps that I brought with me, and then bombard Christopher Lightfoot and Zeliha Demirel Gökalp, the former and current directors of the Amorium Project, with questions about the state of the city in 715. 

    It will be a big day.

    And then, tomorrow, on to Cappadocia, via the ancient roads (or the closest approximation I can manage on the current road system), to see what an army invading from the Cilician Gates would have seen as they crossed the Anatolian Plateau. I look forward to Cappadocia both as a capstone of my journey and as a chance to take a (relative) rest. Assemble my notes, catch up on my actual writing, and explore the remaining areas in south-central Turkey that would have played a role in the story of the Siege of 717-18 and its buildup. 

    I've uploaded several new batches of photos from my journey - so far untagged, but organized by site, to make it easier to identify what you're seeing. When time permits, I'll try to go through and describe each photo and provide further detail.



    Istanbul, farewell

    My last day in Istanbul. A city of deep history, bewildering diversity, a multi-layered heritage going back to ancient times, and a vigorous embrace of modernity. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here that it feels like much more than a week has passed. I’ve learned what the city can still teach about the life and surroundings of its inhabitants thirteen centuries ago – an effort of imagination, given the vast accumulation of relics from later times that stand atop the city the Byzantines would have known. Long before the population explosion and resulting relentless development of the past twenty years, Istanbul was never especially sentimental about its pre-Ottoman history. Yet enough remains to enable an imaginative historian – or writer – to assemble a mosaic of what early Byzantine Constantiople would have looked like. I’ve filled two notebooks and taken hundreds of pictures. I have what I came for.

    As a traveler, Istanbul astounds. In the Old City, from Sultanahmet to Eminönü, you can hear dozens of languages spoken. At any restaurant in the main tourist areas, you will find waiters who are fluent in half a dozen tongues in addition to their own. Alongside families from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia with women in burkas and children in strollers, you will see burly Aussie men in sleeveless tank tops, Frenchwomen in halter tops and short-shorts, backpackers loaded front and back with their essentials who haven’t showered for days, and modernity-craving young Turks in spray-on jeans and t-shirts with logos from Old Navy and Victoria’s Secret. You can’t walk a step without being approached by a would-be “tour guide” or carpet seller or the owner of a shop selling the famous Iznik ceramics, who will follow you trying guess where you’re from, in several languages if you don’t immediately respond to their first approach. It’s impossible to avoid walking through someone’s snapshot of their family against the backdrop of the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, still staring each other down across the plaza after all these centuries.

    I suppose it’s possible to find bad food in Istanbul. So far, however, I haven’t. I could live on the desserts alone, quite happily. Even the ice cream is sprinkled with ground pistachios. You can stand a spoon in the coffee – the key is to know when to stop, before you ingest the mud at the bottom. Avoid the Nescafe. But you knew that.

    Heaven must be something like sitting on a rooftop terrace at sundown, white tablecloths under a plate of meze, eating olives cured with herbs and munching baklava after your meal, while watching the lights come on across the city and the tankers sailing majestically through the blue, blue waters of the Bosphorus. Even a non-believer can be transported by the haunting calls to prayer ululating from the muezzin’s loudspeakers, a call and response that echoes back and forth across the entire city five times a day. The prayer schedule can be inconvenient for those who like to sleep in or go to bed early. But you certainly know you are in a place that stands poised between continents, self-consciously aware of its unique place in the world. Neither Europe nor Asia, neither Middle East nor Mediterranean, but a mélange of all the above. It’s a heady mixture.

    While I’ve been here, I’ve walked virtually the entire length of the ancient Theodosian Walls, from the Marmara to the south to the Golden Horn in the north. I’ve walked along the Golden Horn itself from Blachernae to Topkapı, and around to Sultanahmet again. I’ve visited with archaeologists at the Bathonea Project west of the city, who were incredibly kind and generous with their time and their knowledge, showing me a site that could easily be at the beginning stages of a hundred-year dig on the scale of Troy and Ephesus, if only budget issues and pressures from developers spare their 700,000-year relics that lie under corn fields and thick underbrush.

    I’ve had the rare privilege of visiting the well-hidden work area, buried in an industrial wasteland near the international ferry terminal, where archaeologists and conservationists and maritime experts try to piece together the enormous treasure trove discovered when the Marmara Tunnel project uncovered a vast array of perfectly preserved ships and their cargoes from the 5th to the 8th centuries. I touched the planking of a 1500-year-old ship. I met the young archaeologists working feverishly to catalog and preserve thousands of artifacts, from fragments of ship’s hulls to pottery shards to jars of peaches and olives that sank into the harbor mud in Roman and early Byzantine times. I sat with a nautical reconstruction specialist at his computer and saw how the team has used precise digital measurement and advanced 3D modeling to recreate the exact dimensions and construction methods of one of the few intact Byzantine dromon ever found.

    The enthusiasm and generosity of these young archaeologists and academics was humbling. Their willingness to share their work and talk about their findings with a random American historical novelist left me feeling honored. It also gave me a profound sense of obligation to tell the story, not only of the work these incredible people are doing but of the lives and times they are piecing together, bit by bit, out of the soil and mud beneath a rapidly growing city voracious for land to build on.

    Profound thanks to Haldun Aydingün and the team of the Istanbul Prehistoric Research Project; Namik Kiliç, Evren Türkmenoğlu, and the team of the Istanbul University Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project; and Inci Türkoğlu, PhD, who was gracious enough to arrange for me to visit these precious sites and the dedicated people who are working to uncover their secrets. My thanks too to the wonderful staff of the Blue House Hotel, who have been as welcoming and helpful as any visitor 10,000 miles from home could wish.

    Tomorrow I will fly to Antalya. There, I hope to visit the ruins of many of the most prosperous cities of Roman and Byzantine times along the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor. Thus will begin the more free-roaming stage of my journey, as I attempt to retrace the paths and places that might be crucial to my story. I’ll also need to start working hard on my Turkish. Once I leave Antalya, I’ll be traveling to areas that are not quite so accustomed to tourists. At a bare minimum, I hope to learn how to ask how to find the bathroom.


    Photo tour of Constantinople, I mean, Istanbul

    For your viewing pleasure, I've uploaded some of the more interesting pictures I've taken along the way as I've walked all over Istanbul, searching for sites that would have existed in the early 8th century. I've only managed to write descriptions of about a third of them thus far. I'll keep plugging away at that in between rambles. Hopefully my processing ability will keep pace with my picture production, though really, who are we kidding?

    Go to the Gallery here.


    In the footsteps of the Byzantines

    On August 1 I'll be leaving for Turkey on a trip that has been three years in the making. For all that time, I've been writing my 8th-century historical novel set in what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel without ever having set foot on the soil of any of those countries. A difficult feat, to be sure. As of Friday, for the first, time, I'll be set loose to wander along the paths my characters would have trod, sample the scents and tastes they would have sensed, see the birds and flowers and lakes they would have found around them, and feel the same aches in my muscles and blisters on my feet as I travel the same roads they would have taken.

    For three weeks, I'll be doing intensive research on-site in areas ranging from Istanbul to Cappadocia, gathering as much input as I can on what life might have been like in what the Byzantines would have called Romaioi in 715-18 CE. This will require a significant leap of the imagination. Modern-day Turkey is a very different place. Even the topography has changed over the past 1300 years in places, thanks to the silting up of harbors, the expansion of landmasses by human effort or earthquake, dams and deforestation and climate change. Underneath modern cities lie the layers of Ottoman history, and Seljuk, and Latin crusaders, and late and then middle Byzantine periods, and many periods of cultural disruption due to invasion, before we get to the chaotic period in which my novel is set. In many cases, remaining ruins have been excavated past the early medieval period to access earlier classical Roman and Greek and even neolithic remains that are of greater interest to scholars, leaving little information about what life might have been like in those places in the so-called Dark Ages. Major sites were abandoned - a case in point being Amorium, the capital of the Anatolikon theme at the time of my novel and a large fortified city, which was sacked in 838 and never fully recovered, and eventually abandoned. Where once was a thriving city with a population in the tens of thousands (large by medieval standards) now lies a small farming village, irregularly enlarged by teams of archaeologists. 

    How does one turn the human mind into a canvas on which centuries-dead cities and people can come back to life? I'm about to do my best to find out.

    I'll be making an effort to share portions of the trip here. Stay tuned.