A Byzantine journey

Published 28.09.2017 19:42
Updated 28.09.2017 19:43
A Byzantine journey

The Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople and lands and vassal states spread through the Mediterranean and Anatolia, is relegated to a very ambivalent place in both European and Turkish histories. In his 1995 book, John Ash, while introducing us to the wonders of Byzantine architecture that can still be seen in Anatolia today, manages to bring to life the centrality that Byzantine culture had in the development of both European and Turkish culture as we know it today

John Ash's "A Byzantine Journey" (1995) starts with a quote from Mark Girouard of what it must have been like to catch one's first sight of Byzantine Istanbul: "When the first view of Constantinople exploded on their vision, it must have filled them with the same kind of awe and amazement as it filled immigrants from Europe when they approached Manhattan from the sea." This sense of wonder does not wane one little bit throughout Ash's gem of a book detailing his travels from Istanbul to Capadoccia, following a Byzantine route. Chronicling his own responses to the Byzantine art that he manages to see on his journey – some sites are better preserved than others – he also marshals in the praise of other enthusiasts like Girouard, or indeed, praise of enthusiasts from earlier ages.

It is no wonder that New York City should be likened to Constantinople. Many cities and empires have been considered to be the reincarnation of Rome. However, when that Roman connection is invoked, the Byzantine period is largely ignored, or at best treated as an addendum. Ash's book, then, is one of these efforts to reinstate Byzantine politics and culture back into the history of Rome, or indeed the history of civilizations. Rather than making an "academic" case, Ash takes us with him on a very leisurely drive from Istanbul down toward the Marmara and then to Konya: A route he makes sound so enjoyable and full of wonders that I dare anyone not to want to replicate it when they have the time and money. Ash's is an account where the current occupants of Anatolia are given almost just as much attention as the Byzantines and where the needs of the dead – the preservation of antiquities – are never considered more important than the needs of the living.

Ash's effort to stay away from orientalist tropes when traveling through a Muslim land is aided by the weather, as he has to start his ramblings in Istanbul in torrential rain. Then, leaving the capital on the boat, he makes his way to Nicaea which served as capital when the crusaders invaded Constantinople in 1204. He tells us the way it changed hands a number of times between the Turks and the Byzantines, both sides taking care not to ruin the city in what seems to be a ceremonial "changing of the guard," much to the chagrin of the first wave of crusaders who wanted to go in and plunder as they would do some time later in Constantinople. In Ash's narrative, the "beef eating" (in Anatolia/Diyarı Rum we only eat lamb, thank you very much) crusaders are depicted as much more antagonistic to the Byzantines, and the Turks as taking over a polity that was no longer able to run itself.

Giving equal weight to the Byzantines and the Seljuks, Ash also manages to include acute observations about modern Anatolia through İznik, noting the "astonishing number of pharmacies" in small towns which remain a mystery to Turkey's native-borns as well. Although it is supposed to be a journey through Byzantine locations and history, by the very nature of the two entities' relations, we also get an exciting, ersatz history of Seljuks – a history that is usually eclipsed and relegated to second place by the attention given to the Ottoman past. By the time Ash is done with İznik, with all the account of Turkish-Byzantine intermarriages and gentlemen's agreements between the two sides, I am convinced there needs to be an overhaul of the way we are taught Turkish history in Anatolia as "against" the Byzantines: Between the lines, he advocates a Turkish history in Anatolia "with" the Byzantines. When that old rascal Timur comes on the scene, Ash points out that with all the intermarriage in Seljuk ranks, the central Anatolian warrior king was probably more Turkish than Beyazid.

The book is a celebration of Byzantine art, and with that celebration comes naturally the Byzantine tradition of nostalgia and lament, which is very familiar to Turkish readers. He peppers his own text with these Byzantine laments. One by Metochites, describing the Turkish advance in Anatolia, has the following dictum: "And these events occur in an alternating fashion according to chance of both time and tyche (luck). Nor is there anything constant in human affairs nor unchangingly eternal." Although Ash quotes this to point to the remaining Hellenistic world view – use of Greek concepts like tyche- despite the Christian character of the empire, it also, for the Muslim reader especially, reads very much like a verse from the Quran. Ash is insistent on the pagan traces in a Christian empire, as he encourages us to look for the Christian traces in the Ottoman. It is also redolent of a melancholy, a turn of phrase that the Turks lamenting the end of the Ottoman Empire seem to have directly inherited. There are Byzantine references to Anatolia as "nourishing mother," a depiction that is even more resonant in the Turkified version of the word "Anadolu" (full of mothers). In Bursa, he waxes lyrical about the quality of time that calls for the preservation of the city in amber, sounding like he is taking his cue from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. He considers the Persian and Greek influence on the Muradiye tomb; an aesthetic that is Hellenic and yet makes you feel like you are walking inside a Turkish miniature.

After Bursa, the Byzantine sites become a bit more difficult to access, and yet when he stops to ask for directions, as he himself admits gratefully, there seems always to be young boys or taxi drivers that are willing to take him to his destination. In fact, he adds, when the taxi drivers suggests a second or a third place to take you to, though you may have misgivings about the importance of the location, almost always these "extra" stations on the journey reveal gems that leaves Ash very happy to have trusted the locals. As he walks through abandoned temples and towns, he thinks of the Greek who have had to leave their homeland through several exoduses spread out through time. There are references to World War I, but even then, rather than point to the Turks as the baddies in the story, he refers to the spirit of the time, and how the Greeks were encouraged and made promises by the Western Powers to annex Anatolia to Greece, to which the Turks, understandably, did not take very kindly to.

Now and then, very subtly, he takes issue with orientalists such as Getrude Bell – yes, that famous Turkey enthusiast whose intelligence operations in the Middle East and Turkey made it into Ottoman records-, – concerning the way they described central Anatolia as returning to its "natural desolation." He rejects the idea of Anatolia as a wasteland as he goes and discovers the most colorful of mosaics and ornamented of columns with which he reconstructs Byzantine worldview and stories of intrigue in the heart of this "desolation." The important thing he wants us to understand is that these are not isolated blossomings of beauty in nothingness, but part of the Byzantine artistic vision that is often ignored in these travel accounts. Nevertheless he concedes that Bell's account of the Byzantine sites, particularly the 1,001 churches near Karaman, are useful in understanding the effect of time on these monuments. In Alahan, he goes in search of the style that gave birth to the Haghia Sophia, and its immediate predecessor, the Church of Polyeuctus.

Ash's Byzantine journey unravels the links that made the Byzantines what they were: The Greek pagan heritage they hung on to despite Christian religious fervor, a sense of empire they inherited from Rome and that they loathed to relinquish to the much more dynamic Turks that appeared on the scene. The book is lush with description and states of immersion and ecstasy that can only be brought about when face to face with Byzantine art. It is a book that does not let go of the present when relating the stories of the past. It is a call to get to know the Byzantines more closely, as both the height of sophistication in medieval Europe, and the forefathers of style of aesthetics and daily life of those living in Anatolia today.

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