Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sand Storm

Thanks to Charles Jones, once head of our very own Blegen Library, who sent along this satellite image showing the dust cloud currently looming over Greece. If it looks indecipherable, orient yourself via the bright green Nile Delta and the Nile River Valley in the bottom right corner.

From the ground it looks a lot different, I have to say. The picture evokes images of horrifying dust storms in the desert, capable of flaying the skin right off a camel. But not here in Athens. Instead, imagine the haziest haze you ever saw, a slate grey sky that looks close enough to touch, and the heavy oppressive feeling of imminent rain. Or doom. Whichever. Then dump in an extra bucket of humidity and you're good to go.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Istanbul in Fantasy Novels: Guy Gavriel Kay and Juliet Marillier

I've known for a few months that I would be coming to Turkey. Prior to my trip, I somehow, by complete chance, ended up reading two novels that took place in Istanbul at two different historical periods. The books also managed to have different levels of success both in the story-telling and in the recreation of the city (which John Camp has called the 'true center of the world').

I don't normally go for the historical fiction. I do history for a living, so I'm not really interested in reading about that kind of stuff for fun. But some friends highly recommended this book called Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's set in Byzantine Constantinople under the rule of Justinian. It's historical fiction researched to the point that I could actually tell you what book the author got his research from but all the names are changed to spare the innocent: Justinian = Valerius, Procopius = Pertennius, and so on. Even the title 'Sailing to Sarantium' refers to WB Yeats 1927 poem 'Sailing to Byzantium' which is in turn referenced in Colin Wells' Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. I have to admit, though, that I did enjoy the book, but found its sequel to be far superior in every way.

What I liked about Lord of Emperors is that the main characters were 1) a mosaicist working in this building:
Agia Sophia, the 6th c. church built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, later turned into a mosque.

The scaffolding reaching up to the tip-top dome gives a great idea of the conditions required for tiling a mosaic on such a huge dome. Apparently they are sprucing up Agia Sophia in preparation for Obama's impending visit.

2) a charioteer in the hippodrome and 3) a dancer for the Greens faction.

Terracotta figurine of a woman on a donkey/horse/thing, Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

It really did bring Constantinople to life, most vividly in its depictions of the chariot racing and the soccer hooliganism of the principle factions in the city, the Blues and Greens. Really cool stuff.

GGK convinced me that the chariot races could be a lot more exciting then I thought. The hippodrome has since been turned into a central avenue in the center of Istanbul, next to Agia Sophia and marked by two obelisks and the serpent column from Delphi, formerly lining its spina (the median). The plan of the ancient hippodrome still shapes the urban landscape.

Because the ground was not completely flat, a huge curved platform had to be constructed at one end of the hippodrome, still partly visible today.

So all in all, I enjoyed the novel, especially for its colorful and rich depiction of Constantinople.

The second novel I read before coming to Turkey was Juliet Marillier’s Cybele’s Secret, the sequel to her YA Wildwood Dancing. Set during the 14th/15th century, when Italian merchants flocked to Istanbul and the Golden Horn, it follows Marillier’s standard approach, the reinterpretation of folk-lore into a magical romance for SF girls.

Grave stele of Demetrios, Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

I have been known to enjoy some of her stories, what can I say. This one, however, did not work for me at all. Mostly the plot and characters left a lot to be desired, but I will admit that the novel generally does exhibit a snapshot of the historical city, complete with hamams (bath houses), libraries full of manuscripts, and foreign traders. While it was well-researched, the depiction of the city felt dry and analytical, it created a city without specific personality or heart. There was no sense that a city is both its structure and its people, and that together they have a unique stamp. Even though the hustle and exotic bustle of Istanbul was central to the story, the description read as any standard depiction of an ‘Eastern’ city, repeated in the fantasy genre a thousand times over. I didn’t ‘get’ Istanbul the way I got GGK’s Constantanople/Sarantium.

But I was glad that I had read them both before going to Turkey and spending a few days in the heart of Byzantium. Visiting a town like Istanbul with its cityscape marked by domes, the alternating call-to-prayer of Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and wooden Ottoman houses starred with colored tiles…well, it makes it hard to appreciate concrete, colorless Athens. The Acropolis seems all the more barren and lifeless having seen Justinian churches-turned-mosques and the Alexander Sarcophagus. (Mash is out there sharpening the knives, I can hear it as I type this.)

The Alexander Sarcophagus, so much more fantastic in real life. Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Wondering how to get into a locked mosque, also known as one of the three surviving churches from the reign of Justinian.

But on the other hand, it’s fantastic to get out of Turkey. Sorry Hüseyin, but Turkey is sometimes not a fun place to go as a foreign woman. It’s the kind of place where the experience is entirely different if you walk to the ATM alone or with a male chaperon, even in the tourist heart of the city. I won’t make that mistake again. I can't tell you what a relief it is to be back in a place where you can walk down the street alone - it's nice not to feel like you're on display for sale when strolling down the street. Yikes.

All very pleasant on the surface. A square in Istanbul is adorned with election flags.

Anyways. If you are looking for a SF glimpse of the city that ruled the world just as completely and eternally as old Rome did, go with GGK's Sarantine Mosaic. It much more accurately captures the two-faced nature of Istanbul, but does so in a way that makes Constantinople/Sarantium a major and nuanced character in the book. Think the 'landscape' in the LOTR movies, and then some.

*cough cough* Sand Storm

I left this....
The theatre at Assos, Turkey, a few days ago.
...for this:
The view from Loring, 2pm.
It seems the northerly winds and warm weather have brought another African dust cloud to Greece. Fill up those lungs.

Check out what X-Pat Athens has to say about it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ancient Fanboy: Star Wars in Ancient Turkey

On our last day of touring sites in Turkey (not including Istanbul), we visited the site of ancient Assos.

Outside the enormous and well-preserved city walls, we came to the cemetery lining the main road. There were many sarcophagi, huge and made of andecite and scattered about like broken toys.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Day in Turkey with Asphodel

What did I do today?

I walked through fields of asphodel. It turns out, when you are climbing down a precarious mountainside, asphodel is actually a useful plant to grab on to to prevent unexpected and rapid descent. Not only does it have a pretty name, but it is a tough, strong plant lacking in all things spiky.

I enjoyed the view from Larisa, looking down on the plain where Xenophon and the female satrap Mania hung out.

I looked at a lot of polygonal masonry made in purple andecite. As John Camp has stressed, Aristotle declared that fortification walls should be an adornment to the city, and the walls of Larisa, with their attention to color and pattern, exemplify the idea well.

Check out Pergamon's Red Basilica, a gigantic brick building from the 2nd c. CE.

I saw some pretty wicked 19th century Turkish weaponry.

I got trapped outside the entrance of Pergamon without my ticket, which Yildirim had already taken into the site. John Lee had to save me so I didn't get left behind, running up and down the mountain with my ticket. Here he comes to save the day.

I finally saw the spot where the famous Altar of Zeus was located.

I got to see a crazy round building at the Asklepion at Pergamon. Say hi to Jennifer Neils in this video - several times.

Monday, March 23, 2009

ASCSA Turkey Trip: Cute Overload Meets Archaeology!

Part of travelling is learning to appreciate the local fauna. Sometimes this includes rapacious merchants or the skeezy kamachi (‘spear fisher,’ dudes who sit around trying to pick up women). Usually, however, it’s the non-human variety of fauna that we encounter. Unfortunately, many countries suffer from a lack of televised series’ like Animal Cops.

If they did, they might learn that (the US considers) the neglect of an injured or sick animal to be the equivalent of animal abuse. On the one hand, countries like Turkey and Greece don’t always have a culturally embedded belief that cruelty to animals is a moral failing (although cruelty to chickens and cows is perfectly okay – the U.S. government says so!). On the other hand, many countries do not have the infrastructure, educational programs or governmental support to help animals in need. So travelling involves being faced with a great deal of needy and inhumane-ly treated animals. I’ve gotten used to looking the other way a lot, just to avoid seeing chill-inducing and pathetic creatures. Alas, if only we all had a Sgt. Lucas.

But my blog is 80% sugar-coating, so I thought I’d emulate one of my own favorite blogs, CuteOverload, by documenting all the cute animals we’ve seen gamboling around archaeological sites. Cute animals and antiquities - can it get any better?!

This little darling met us at the tetrapylon (monumental gateway) in front of the temple of Aphrodite at Aphrodisias. He was so adorable that we took him with us throught the whole site so we could make sure he got safely to civilization.
Here he’s hanging out with a Roman mosaic and following me down some steps in the civic center.
He also got a bit rowdy after his manliness was insulted by a much bigger and tougher kitty. I imagine he’ll make a good site guard dog one day.

Definitely prosh; the ancient tiled floor really adds to the ambience.

Turtles! OMG they totally rule.

These crusty dudes were munching on some leafy goodness about 10 feet away from the krepidima (base) of the temple of Apollo at Didyma.

This little guy is hanging with his mother at the top of an ancient Greek theatre (Iasos). Note that he’s scratching his head on the signage, which lays out all the details of the theatre.

This scruffy tramp of a Benji is standing directly next to the tomb of St. John in the eponymously named church in Seljuk (just next door to the Sanctuary of Artemis at ancient Ephesos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). The columns and white pavement behind him mark the tomb of the saint, although which John it is, is a matter of long-standing debate (whether John the Disciple, writer of Revelations, John the Theologian, or all of them in one). Incidentally, three people were buried in the tomb along with coins of Geta and Caracalla (2nd c. CE).

We really don’t see a lot of cows in Greece (mostly goats), so everyone gets pretty excited to see a good ‘ole milk cow now and then. Since we’re always traipsing across pasturage in search of ruins, we see a lot of herd animals these days. Yesterday Eric was happy to see a herd of cows at the site of ancient Magnesia-on-Meander.

On our way to see the Bouleuterion, situated in the backyard of the 'Bouleuterion Lady' (at Herakleia-under-Latmos), we ran into some traffic on the road.

Yes, those are tadpoles. And the white marble blocks around which they’re darting come from the drowned stoa at ancient Miletus.

Turkey sits along the migration path of this part of the world’s stork population, and it is common to see their huge nests atop high platforms.

Here some love-storks hang out in their nest on top of the one standing Corinthian column from the Temple of Zeus in Mylasa. Either that’s a wing, or that stork has a diaper in its beak.
This was a shock. Don Bey was leading us through the Museum of Underwater Archaeology when we saw this guy on the museum display. I felt like I was in Malfoy Manor, since they even had an albino peacock (although I didn’t get a picture, alas).


Saturday, March 21, 2009

ASCSA Turkey Trip: General Intro

Every year John Camp, the Director of the Agora Excavations, leads an optional trip to Turkey. I’ve now been on this trip since Saturday.
The view of Caria from Alinda (the best ancient site in the history of the world).

In some ways, Turkey is everything I imagined it to be and in other ways things have come as a surprise. The landscape, for example, has been a lot more stunning than I reckoned. On only the first day I saw more olive trees than I have ever seen in my life. On the second day, there were rolling hills and bright green flatlands stretching to distant mountains, not an olive in sight. A few days ago, I was sure I had taken a jaunt over to Ireland without realizing it. And now the landscape that meets my eyes through the bus window is pretty much Greek in all ways.

The trip so far has been nearly perfect (I say nearly because I wish it was just a smidgeon on the warmer side). I’ve learned a whole lot about ancient Ionia, Caria, Bithynia, and Lydia. We’ve visited some really huge, well-preserved and amazing sites – the kind that make Greek archaeological sites appear decidedly scrappy.
A column base at Didyma, earlier this afternoon.

Many of the ancient cities we’ve visited have been sprawled along hillsides or in groves and nearly all have been unexcavated. Thus we’ve been clambering up and down mountains in search of fortress walls or temples, sketching our way through grazing fields or hopping over the kind of babbling brooks you hear about in Medieval fairy tales.
The Medieval fortress at Herakleia-under-Latmos, yesterday afternoon.

The wildflowers are in bloom: carpets of white daisies, violet and red posies and pale pink versions of blue bells.
The magic of the flower button.

Our trip leaders, John Camp and Ibrahim Yildirim, are old friends who have been leading this escapade for some 18 years.
Yildirim and John Camp at the Museum of Underwater Archaeology.

You really couldn’t ask for a more relaxed and laid-back pair. Yildirim is a Turkish guide well trained in all periods of Turkish history; he’s got a sweet, gentle nature and I think a pinch of shyness (at least when he’s not wearing his trip leader hat). Yildirim tells a great story in a gravelly but reassuring voice, and he’s really one of the more good-hearted people I’ve come across in a long time. All questions are welcome, whether it’s about Mehmet I or how to order a kebab. Today he saved me from getting run over at Didyma.

John Camp reading to the group members at the 'Tomb of Endymion' at Herakleia-under-Latmos.

His counterpart John Camp is a study in chilled-out. Assured, droll and laissez-faire, he’s the kind of guy you can imagine being unperturbed in the most stressful of situations, like werewolf attacks, alien invasions or missing graduate students. I imagine that when the next major earthquake hits, I’ll shoot out of the hotel in my pajamas, projecting disarray in all directions, only to find John Camp reading Pausanias over a block built into the parking lot. On site, he provides really detailed handouts and a six minute intro, then gently shoos us on our way, with the single commandment to be back in two-hours. Or thereabouts. Then he’s off in his own direction to draw some inscription or record the number of staircases in a theatre or to investigate fresh trenches. Anyone is welcome to tag along, and John Camp has the strange ability to make every new thorn-covered discovery seem like your very own. Even if he’s known it was there for the last five years.

Monday, March 16, 2009

ASCSA Turkey Trip: It Begins

Have a look at Iznik, our first stop on Day One of the Ionia (coastal Turkey) trip. Also known as ancient Nicaea. There's a Creed named after this place. I liked it. The place, not the Creed. Especially my first taste of pide, Turkey's version of pizza.

In Iznik, we visited the Green Mosque, the first I have ever entered. It was pretty and stuff.

I finally learned how to properly use the Flower Button on my camera. I did take pictures of flowers, but made better use of it on coins. I can't believe I actually took this picture of a Byzantine coin in the Bursa archaeological museum. I rule.

We stopped at the River Granicus, near where Alexander of Macedon had a battle with the Persians. There were also the remains of Byzantine bridge along both banks of the river, which reminded me a lot of growing up in Virgina with its ruined bridges from the Civil War era. What I liked most about the river, though, was the trash. Have a click on the picture to see what a river looks like with litter. Oh, and what the sides of every road look like. And basically everywhere else.

Katie poses for a Mom-Shot. One of my favorite things so far was when we hiked the spur of the 13th-14th century city of Priapos. It's never been excavated, but huge bits of the fortifications still stand, looking exactly like rock spires in the American south-west. It was a beautiful day with a beautiful landscape.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

ASCSA Art 2: Edward Lear's Watercolors and Landscapes

We spend a lot of time in the dining room, where the watercolors of Piet de Jong hang in frames from invisible thread. The Saloni, however, is pretty much where everything important happens in Loring Hall: tea, ouzo, after dinner coffee, hang out sessions, Loeb reading, tea talks, etc. So what art decorates the walls? More watercolors, actually. These are not by an archaeologist, however, but are by Edward Lear.

Who was Edward Lear, you ask? Lear (1812-1888) was a famous British comic poet, limerick writer and illustrator. He was, in fact, a lauded writer of ‘nonsense,’ his most recognizable titles being A Book of Nonsense and The Owl and the Pussycat. Literary nonsense, Wikipedia propounds, is a “style or motif in literature that plays with the conventions of language and the rules of logic and reason via sensical and non-sensical elements.” It’s what we expect from Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss. It’s emphasis on the fantastical, unusual and absurd has had quite an impact on the genre of fantasy literature and its champions like JRR Tolkien. It has also been argued that nonsense literature like that of Edward Lear contains a hidden but overwhelming potential for philosophical theory and inquiry.

Lear, when he wasn’t tutoring Queen Victoria, spent his time in Italy and in Greece, producing large quantities of watercolors. In the 1920s, the Gennadion library was fortunate enough to purchase some 200 of his watercolors (for 25 English pounds!). In 1971-2, Lear’s paintings were on exhibit in the US, and when they came back, several of them went on the wall in the Saloni. That is, the prints went up, not just in Loring Hall, but sprinkled throughout the American School’s buildings.

His quick and spontaneous paintings employ a sparse use of color (usually only a few tones) and the squiggly outlines so well-loved in his ‘nonsense’ work.
They depict desolate locations or include strategically placed locals. Antiquities and ruins are rare, and when they do appear, they seem to be regulated to evocative spots in the background (at least in those that I have seen). So what art historical analysis can I come up with about the content and context of these replicas?

1) They are copies of works owned by the American School and therefore reinforce, celebrate and advertise the School’s collection.

2) They depict a topic much beloved by the School’s decorator, the landscapes of historical Greece. After all, both Piet de Jong and Edward Lear did extremely quirky, colorful and amusing work, but it is the muted landscapes that we have framed and hanging up. This subject matter is one of the more popular in the School buildings, for probably many reasons. First, it is a reminder of a simpler, pastoral, more romantic time or place. No pictures of bustling Athens here. Second, a lot of them evoke the experiences of the early Western travelers in Greece, whom many archaeologists see as our discipline’s grandparents. Third, they emphasize the School’s connection to Greece, its appreciation of the country’s recent history, and thus in a round-about way, it’s street cred. I mean street cred in the way 1) a rock n’ roll hipster wears a Johnny Cash shirt to show that she knows her stuff and 2) to emphasize that the School really does LIKE Greece, not just its antiquities (note that I have not yet come across any pictures of the Blue Ridge Mountains or Amber Fields of Grain anywhere in the School artwork).

3) Somehow, the two artists who most decorate Loring’s walls, Edward Lear and Piet de Jong, are British. Curses. Edit: An art historical approach would talk about how the choice of two British artists stresses American ties to the Mother Country while also reiterating the international nature of the archaeological community in Greece, the fluid boundaries between foreign archaeological schools, etc etc. I tend to think, however, that this was purely coincidence.