In May 2015, I was a lecturer aboard the Aegean Odyssey, a 350-passenger cruise ship run by Voyages to Antiquity. The cruise started in Istanbul with several tours round the city itself over two days. The passengers were a delightful mix largely of Americans, British and Canadians, many of whom had come under the guidance of various organizations. The commentary below follows the order of the cruise together with some points I made in my lectures though the notes on Istanbul are at the end.
From Istanbul we sailed to Izmir, which was used as a base for exploring Ephesus and Pergamon. According to Herodotus, Ephesus was founded by colonists coming from the West during the first Millenium. In the 8th century BC, the Cimmerians attacked Ephesus and destroyed part of the city. The 6th century was the golden age of Ephesus and she attracted the attention of Croesus, King of Lydia, who took the city but did not destroy it. Ephesus later joined the Ionian cities in their revolt against the Persians. Ephesus was later ruled by Alexander the Great, then passed into the hands of the Ptolemies and finally became part of the Roman colony of Asia, being named their capital. It thus became the most important metropolis and trading centre of Asia Minor.
In the first century AD all religions co-existed freely in Ephesus and about 53 AD St Paul came to Ephesus and was helped by Timothy to spread Christianity. However, the silversmith artisans, who made silver offerings for the temple of Artemis, were suffering losses and stirred up a riot against Paul who had to leave the city. After the death of St Paul in Rome, St John became head of the church in Ephesus. He was living there with Mary, whom Christ had entrusted to him and wrote his gospel there.
The monumental gateway of Memnius lies at the corner of Domitian Square. The four sides were linked to each other by arches. This gateway leads into the main street, Curetes Street. This street is part of the Sacred Way and runs from Domitian Square to the Celsius Library. It echoes the Via Sacra in the Roman forum itself. Curetes was lined with Stoa covered by a wooden roof under which were accommodated houses and shops. There were several major earthquakes, and each time large parts of the city had to be rebuilt. The pavements were surfaced with mosaics and the road itself was reserved for horses and carts. Some of the shops in Curetes street were two stories. Trade flourished in Ephesus with produce coming from all over the province. Ephesus was also linked by sea to all the major ports of the Mediterranean, so spices, rice, silk, metal and glass objects as well as slaves were obtainable.
Also well preserved are the Celsius Library, Built as the tomb of Tiberius Celsius Polemanus, Proconsul of the Province, during the reign of Hadrian, the building was used as a library with manuscripts and rolls of parchment placed in niches. To protect the manuscripts from humidity, a passage was built in the masonry to permit air circulation behind the niches.
On the slopes at either side of Curetes street were terraces with housing for the rich. They were luxurious, with a central courtyard, central heating, hot and cold water and decorated with frescoes and mosaic floors. The houses were generally built on three floors, although only the ground floors are remaining. The ground floor consisted of a living room, kitchen, bathroom and rooms for servants, with bedrooms at first floor. There are almost no windows, with light and air coming from the courtyard. Generally the houses presented a plain exterior but a richly decorated interior.
The sheer quantity of what has been excavated, recovered and preserved gives a powerful impression of what a Greek city looked like.
The following day we visited Pergamon. Pergamon emerged in the 3rd century BC and is the best preserved late Hellenistic city. It occupies an impressive site overlooking the Caicus Valley and was built on the slopes right up to the summit. Pergamon emerged in the 3rd century BC and is the best preserved late Hellenistic city. It occupies an impressive site overlooking the Caicus Valley and was built on the slopes right up to the summit. This incredible site means that everything, including the theatre, is steep and dramatic. Xenophon mentions it when he captured it in 399 BC, but it did not become important until Lysimachus, King of Thrace, took possession in 301 BC. Until 188 BC the city had covered about 52 acres (21 hectares). Then a massive new city wall was constructed about 2.5 miles long and enclosing 220 acres (90 hectares).
Pergamon was briefly the capital of Asia Minor under the Romans before the capital was transferred to Ephesus. In the second century BC the acropolis at Pergamon was remodelled after the acropolis in Athens. Under Hadrian, a massive rebuilding programme was carried out. Huge temples, a stadium, a theatre, a huge forum and an amphitheatre were constructed. In addition, at the city limits, the shrine to Asklepius (the god of healing) was expanded into a lavish spa. Just like the Greeks, the Romans held their gods in high regard. The fortunes of Rome depended on the favour of the gods.
The city reached its height of greatness under Roman Imperial rule and its library was second only to that of Alexandria. They invented books by using vellum instead of papyrus (hence Pergamon press). It was an early seat of Christianity and is mentioned in the Book of Revelations as a dwelling place of Satan and the location of his throne.
The city suffered badly in the 3rd century AD being badly damaged by an earthquake in 262 AD and then sacked by the Goths shortly after.
The Pergamon altar is a monumental structure built in the second half of the 2nd century BC on one of the terraces of the Acropolis and now in a museum in Berlin. Thousands of fragments were recovered from the site and rebuilt. The base of the altar is decorated with a frieze in high relief showing the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods. There is a smaller relief at the top of the stairs showing details of the life of Telemachus, the legendary founder of Pergamon.
The following day we sailed on to the island of Kos. Here we first visited the Asklepeion, the equivalent of a health spa, dating from about 400 BC. It consists of three main terraces. The lower level contains the medical school, the second level held the temple of Apollo and the thermal baths. On the third and highest terrace, the remains of the huge temple can be seen. All kinds of diseases were treated here, whether physical, psychological or mental. The spring waters were used for hydrotherapy, poppy seeds were burnt to induce hallucinations, snakes were thrown onto patients during the night to induce adrenalin shock and auto-suggestion was used.
We also visited the Roman Odeon built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD and one of the islands best preserved buildings. An odeon is a smaller version of a theatre but with a roof. Its purpose was to accommodate poetry readings and musical performances. In the central square of the town is a huge plane tree under which Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have taught.
Overnight we sailed on to the island of Rhodes, docking early in the morning, which gave us a full day there. The symbol of Rhodes is the deer because the island was once overrun with poisonous snakes and the inhabitants were advised by the oracle of Delphi to import deer to the island and they eventually killed off the snakes. Rhodes lies between the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. One of the Seven Wonders of the World was the Colossus, a thirty three metre high bronze statue erected between 304 BC and 316 BC. It only stood for about sixty years and was then destroyed by an earthquake. It was never rebuilt and the pieces of bronze were left lying around and finally disappeared. The island was the home of the Knights Hospitalers, descended from the Crusaders, until they moved to Malta. It has one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Crete and Knossos
Heraklion is the capital of Crete. There was a civilization, known as Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, based on Crete, which spoke a non-Greek language. The Minoans, lived on the island of Crete from about 2,500 BC. They were traders and ruled the Aegean sea, spreading their ideas. Ideally placed as a staging post between the Near East, North Africa and Greece by 2,000 BC Crete had become the centre of Mediterranean trade. The island was peaceful, there is no evidence of fortifications, and engaged in trade. As well as palaces, there were also wealthy houses. The early palaces and houses were built in the 19th century BC. The largest at Knossos now just outside Heraklion, survived until about 1375 BC. The site was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the 19th century and a new museum has been built to display marvelous treasures and frescoes from the site.
The island of Santorini lies between Crete and the Greek mainland. Around 1600 BC it exploded in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. It threw up 60 cubic kilometres of magna, ash and rock, blocking out light over the Mediterranean for a year and even causing crops to fail in China. The eruption destroyed the island and the resulting tsunami probably wiped out Crete, thus bringing to an end the Minoan civilization. This incident gave rise to the legends of the lost city of Atlantis and the minataur kept in a maze. In 1967, the Greek archaeologist, Spiridon Marinatos, discovered that at the time of the eruption, Santorini had been a flourishing island kingdom, culturally linked to Crete. At Akrotiri, on the south side of the island he found the principle port, its houses and contents preserved by ash and lava. It was the Greek equivalent of the later Roman Herculaneum and Pompei.
The art and architecture of ancient Greece evolved to such a sophisticated degree that it laid down the principles that were followed for centuries in the West. To worship their gods, the ancient Greeks created a sacred architecture regarded nowadays as one of the supreme glories of their civilisation. Greek architects honed and adapted this monumental form, but the essentials never changed. The colonnaded Greek temple constitutes a cultural phenomenon in itself. The Parthenon, on the Acropolis, is constructed of columns of the Doric Order.
Although the Parthenon is a rectilinear building, there isn’t a straight line anywhere. The Greeks were aware that the eye can play tricks. Colour has an effect on proportions. The columns were not straight but bulged slightly in the middle, an effect known as entasis. The platform or stylobate, was curved slight, being about two inches higher in the middle. The columns leaned inwards, with their axes, if projected, meeting about a mile and a half above the temple. It was all very subtle.
As well as the perfect forms of the square and the circle, the Greeks also constructed the perfect rectangle, known as the golden rectangle. Its proportions are in the ratio of 1:1.618, a ratio found throughout nature and they uses this proportion to design the façade.
All the way round the Parthenon was a magnificent frieze by Phidias, the original panels in the British Museum under the name of the Elgin Marbles. Drapery is used to express mood from the swirling folds of groups or even flying figures to the quiet fold-less dress of more reflective subjects. There was a move to grace, delicacy and refinement. The Greeks attempted to fuse life into their sculptures as well as represent perfect types of human beings.
Athens in 5th century BC was a golden age of creativity under the statesman Pericles. As well as the sculptor Phidias, there were also the philosophers Socrates and Plato, the dramatists Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the historians Thucydides and Xenophon. It is astonishing that these nine individuals were all born and brought up within two generations in a city with no more than thirty or forty thousand inhabitants, an incredible concentration of world class talent.
Sited on the slope beneath the Acropolis is the Theatre of Dionysos. You can hear a coin dropped and the secret of the acoustics lies in the seats. The limestone seats filter out low frequencies, minimizing background crowd noise, and reflect high frequencies. The corrugations of the seat surface also act as natural acoustic traps. The listeners fill in the missing low frequency portion by the phenomenon of ‘virtual pitch’, as they do when listing to a telephone.
On the opposite side of the Acropolis is the Tower of the Winds, an octagonal observatory which once contained an Antikythera Mechanism. Sometime between 65 BC and 50 BC, an overloaded Roman trading ship, on its way from Asia Minor to Rome, sank in a storm off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. The wreck was discovered by accident in 1901. It contained amphorae, coins and sculpture. However, the most amazing object was something that appeared to contain gear wheels.
In the year 2000 a team of astronomers, mathematicians and historians was assembled to investigate it with the latest x-ray and imaging equipment. By taking x-rays from different angles and assembling the images by computer a 3-D digital image was put together. The investigation found that there were 27 gears and that probably there were originally 50 of 60 gears and that there were lots of inscriptions which have now been read. The large wheel on the machine had 223 teeth, so the machine could predict lunar and solar eclipses. The inscriptions included the hour and even the direction of the passing of the shadow.
The machine has a Corinthian calendar and shows the Corinthian games so it was probably made in Corinth or its colony Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Syracuse was the home of Archimedes in the 3rd century BC, a brilliant mathematician who calculated the distance of the moon from the earth and worked out the significance of pie and its value. Cicero wrote about such machines. The moon’s orbit round the earth is elliptical, so there is a varying speed. This was accommodated by two gears on different axes with a pin and slot mechanism to mimic this varying speed. The gears also accommodated the fact that the lunar eclipses change slightly over 9 years, with a measurement that requires nine places of decimals.
This machine is so sophisticated that it cannot have been unique but must have been part of the development of a mechanical science that has been lost. By cranking a handle, on the rear were the predictions of lunar and solar eclipses, whilst on the front were the movements of the planets. Ancient Greece was not only gifted artistically, it was also skilled in technology. There were obviously things going on in the 1st and 2nd century BC in Greece of which we had no idea.
Mykonos lies at the centre of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean. It is most famous for its line of 16th century windmills on the hillside to the north of the town. The town itself is a delight to wander through, whether in the main shopping area or in ‘Little Venice’. The winding streets are narrow, the buildings huddled together and finished in render painted white so that there is an intimate and charming unity running through the whole complex with delightful views and surprises around each corner. There are wooden balconies loaded with flowers and small chapels with domed roofs. It also contains some notable individual buildings such as the Paraportiani Church in the oldest section of the town dating from 1425.
Kavala and Philippi
Kavala is a city in northern Greece, the principle sea port of Macedonia. It was founded in the 7th century BC by settlers from Thasos and named Neapolis. These settlers were aware of the rich sources of precious metals, timber and agricultural products of the region. According to legend it was the birthplace of Apollo, the god of the sun, music, light and beauty. The old harbor of Philippi is located some 9 miles from the city. It supported Athens against Sparta in the 5th century during the Peloponnesian wars and was the location of Thucydides’ exile.
Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, captured the city in 356 BC and gave it his own name, Philippi. In Roman times it was connected by the military road, Via Egnatia, which helped it to flourish economically. It was also the site of the defeat of Brutus and Cassius by Mark Antony and Octavian in 42 BC at the Battle of Philippi.
Philippi is the most important archaeological site of eastern Macedonia, preserving monuments from the Hellenistic, Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine periods. Legend says that St Paul was imprisoned here and spoke in the theatre, which is well preserved. All the buildings were constructed in the local marble which is now a depressing grey, but when new and polished it had a lively veined appearance.
The Battle of Gallipoli was a doomed attempt to pass through the Dardanelles to attack Istanbul and take Turkey out of the war to enable the Allies to get round the line of trenches that stretched right across Europe and had produced a stalemate. It was a strategic route from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara and then to the Black Sea. First the navy tried to get through but were prevented because the straits had been sown with mines. Then it was decided to take the Turkish positions with a landing assault, with a horrendous loss of life on both sides. The battle, which lasted 8 months, is seen as a defining moment in the history of Turkey and in marking the birth of national consciousness of Australia and New Zealand.
Both sides lost just over 56,000 dead with Australia losing 8,709, New Zealand 2,721 and Britain 34,072. The remaining dead were from France and India. The visits to the various cemeteries and monuments were a poignant reminder of the dreadful carnage that took place 100 years ago. My own mother lost an elder brother there; she was only eight years old at the time and subsequently lost two other brothers in the war.
An alternative visit that day was to Troy. Troy is the city of legend, the site of the battles between the Achaeans and the Trojans. The epic tales are set out in Homer’s Illiad as well as his Odyssey and later picked up in Virgil’s Aeneid. Ancient Greek historians place the Trojans wars between the 14th and 12th centuries BC.
The story covers the final few weeks of the 10 year siege of the city of Troy, of the quarrel between King Agamemnon and Achilles. Homer was a poet, not a historian and was writing in the 8th century BC, several centuries after the events of legend. Nevertheless, from his description of the location, the site of the city has been located.
In all there were nine cities, each built on top of the other, beginning with the first, dating from about 3,000 BC and the last, the Roman foundation, dating from about 85 BC to 500 AD.
Istanbul is amazing. It started as the Greek city of Byzantion, was then taken over by the Romans and in 330 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine moved his capital to the city an renamed it Constantinople.
During the reign of Justinian, the population had nearly doubled from 400,000 to 700,000. Defence of the city became a major problem so Theodosius had already built a new wall to enclose the enlarged city. In case of a siege, there had to be a store of provisions, particularly water, so Justinian also built a number of cisterns or reservoirs.
The covered cisterns were all supplied by aqueducts from open reservoirs in the forests to the north of the city. The largest of these is an amazing piece of engineering. It was built underneath the Stoa Basilica, a porticoed public square. The builders constructed the vaults with groins and thin bricks. This resulted in lighter vaults without the need for heavy buttressing. They could also be shaped in complex forms. There are 400 shallow domical brick vaults carried by columns set in twelve rows of 28 columns each, i.e. 336 columns. Some columns have 5th century acanthus-leaved capitals, which were probably the surplus stock of a marble yard. Others have plain cushion capitals, which seem to have been made for the purpose. Though never intended to be seen, the interior is as impressive as the multi-bayed interiors of the great covered mosque prayer halls of Cairo, Cordoba and Isfahan. In places, where the re-used columns were too short, previously carved blocks of stone were used as bases. The blocks were just placed at random, irrespective of whether they were the right way up.
The cistern was fed by the Valens aqueduct which was completed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Valens and was part of a huge system of canals and aqueduct built over centuries to feed the city.
In the 6th century, Justinian built the Hagia Sophia, with its huge domes, symbolizing the unity of the Christian religion with the power of the state in the Byzantine Empire. The exterior is largely plain and devoid of decoration, it is the interior that is covered in decoration; the interior is considered more important than the exterior. Justinian’s church was designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isodorus of Miletus, men with a deep knowledge of the mechanical science of the day.
The central dome sits on a square. To the east and west the main dome and square is buttressed by two semi-domes, equal in diameter to the main central dome. Below these are smaller semi-domes again, all taking the thrust of the main dome. To the north and south are huge piers taking the thrust of the main dome. The plan is notable for the way in which the longitudinal emphasis of a basilica is combined with the centralising emphasis of the dome.
It is the masterly ordering of the space and vaults that is most apparent in the design of this highly original structure. There is an amazing interplay of the main dome and the supporting semi-domes. This remarkable building was constructed on only 5 years. In structural terms, the transition from a circular dome to a square base was made possible by the invention of the pendentive – a curved triangle. As a result of this interlocking structure, one has the feeling that the building is not built of walls, but is carved out of the solid, like a cave.
The historian Procopius tells us that in addition Justinian built a further fifty Christian churches in the city. For over 1,000 years, Constantinople remained a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire until it fell in 1453 AD. The Muslim Ottomans were so impressed by the Hagia Sophia that they spared the building and turned it into a mosque. It then became the prototype of all subsequent Muslim mosques.
Soon after Sultan Mehmet II had conquered Byzantium in 1453, he founded the Topkapi Palace which symbolizes the power of the Ottoman Empire. It is a complex of buildings and has been extended and altered for the next four hundred years. He established the basic layout of the palace. He used the highest point of the promontory for his private quarters and innermost buildings. The complex grew down the promontory to the shore and is surrounded by a wall. Most of the changes took place during the reign of Sultan Suleyman from 1520 to 1560.
There is a ritualized hierarchy and sequence. Specific groups were admitted at specific times to certain areas to perform prescribed duties. There is a hierarchical layout reflecting this sequence. The Gate of Majesty leads into the First Court with the Imperial Mint, warehouse and armoury. The Gate of Salutation or Middle Gate leads into the Second Court, the gathering place for courtiers and audiences. Everyone but the Sultan had to dismount. The Gate of Felicity or White Eunuchs leads to the Third Court surrounded by the Throne Room. This room, with its adjacent rooms, is the area where the Sultan would spend his time when he was not actually in the Harem.
The Library is in the form of a Greek cross with the books stored in cupboards in the walls. It is raised off the ground level, sitting on a basement, to protect the books from moisture. Opposite the entrance is a small reading area for the Sultan. Within the third court are also located the Mosque, Kiosk of the Conqueror, the Dormitory of 39 Pages and the Harem. The Sultan was the only non-eunuch allowed into the Harem. Erotic fantasies have been combined with stories of brutality. In reality it was more of a school for ladies than a den of lust
The Fourth Court was reserved for the Sultan, with the Baghdad Kiosk. It was built to commemorate the Baghdad campaign in 1658. The façade is covered in marble with strips of porphyry. The interior is an example of the ideal Ottoman room. The recessed shelves and cupboards are decorated with green, yellow and blue tiles. The blue and white tiles are copies of the tiles in the circumcision room. The Circumcision Room is a summer kiosk dedicated to the circumcision of young princes. Its interior and exterior are decorated with a mixed collection of rare re-cycled tiles, the most important being the blue and white panels. Here a new Sultan’s brothers were executed so that no competitors would appear.
When the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, they were so impressed by the church of Hagia Sophia that they spared the building. Not only did they spare the building, but they turned it into mosque and added four minarets to the exterior. Then something quite extraordinary happened. They began to copy the Hagia Sophia and mosques following the form of the Hagia Sophia began to spring up not just in Constantinople, but across the Ottoman Empire. There were some 45 Ottoman mosques constructed in Constantinople alone. Suddenly, the Ottomans had completely changed the design concept of a mosque. Until now mosques had been simple flat roofs supported on columns, a solution we call a hypostyle hall. Now the Ottoman Turks were using a centralized plan. The main engineering problem had now focused on how to support a huge hemispherical dome.
Forty five mosques were built in Istanbul alone, all tackling this central engineering problem. The greatest exponent was undoubtedly the great architect Sinan. Sinan was the most important architect in Constantinople and his long career spans the reigns of three sultans from the early 16th century to his death in 1588 at the age of 98. He was 15 years younger that Michelangelo. This marks the classical period of Ottoman architecture. He was a cross between a civil engineer, an architect and a minister of public works with a portfolio of hundreds of buildings across the Ottoman Empire. Sinan was revered even in his own lifetime.
Sinan’s masterpiece is the light-filled, delicately detailed Selimiye Mosque built in Edirne. With this mosque he claimed to have surpassed Hagia Sophia in building a larger dome. In the Selimiye Mosque, Ottoman architecture had truly surpassed its prototype, pushing the capacity of building materials and geometry to their limits.
The visits to these places vividly illustrated how this area became the cradle of Western civilization and culture.