Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.07

Philipp Niewöhner (ed.), The Archaeology of Byzantine Anatolia: From the End of Late Antiquity Until the Coming of the Turks.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 464.  ISBN 9780190610463.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Scott Redford, School of Oriental and African Studies, London (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This book aims to serve as a primer on Byzantine archaeology in Anatolia from approximately the fourth through the eleventh centuries. Its editor is Philipp Niewöhner, who also contributed the introduction and five of the essays. As readers will be able to see from the table of contents at the end of this review, the volume is divided between 14 brief topical essays, called “syntheses,” and 24 brief site overviews, called “case studies.” The topical essays are mainly concerned with architecture, an interest that continues in the site-specific essays, although other topics are also covered.

The book that results from these short essays lies somewhere between the very short entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (3 vols, 1991) and a fuller-length comprehensive study of the topic, something that is certainly needed, especially due to the sometimes hermetic world of archaeology in Turkey and the general lack of knowledge of Turkish language scholarship among students of Byzantium. However, more than introducing Turkish scholarship to an English-speaking audience, through its thirteen German and Austrian authors authoring over half of the essays the volume serves as an English language introduction to largely German language scholarship on Byzantine archaeology of the early and middle periods in central and western Turkey.

The result is not only a generally good, brief introduction to some excavations and (to a lesser extent) surveys carried out in these areas of Turkey, it is also a good introduction to the kind of historical archaeology of the early and middle Byzantine periods undertaken by scholars trained in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe. The authors of the essay on the site of Sagalassos note “the traditional focus of Byzantine archaeology on church architecture…” (p. 308), and this is certainly the case here. Indeed, ecclesiastical and other monumental urban architecture (including fortifications) constitute a core interest of many authors, as do chronology, numismatics, epigraphy, and detailed stylistic analysis of architectural ornament. This reviewer found only one author, Eric Ivison, who, in his essay on funerary archaeology, attempted to situate Byzantine archaeology in relationship to larger archaeological debates of the past half century. With all of the discussion of monumental architecture and urbanism, it is striking how rarely one encounters words such as “stratigraphy” and “mudbrick” in this volume. Marica Cassis’ essay on the rural site of Çadır Höyük is a notable exception. And the rock-carved nature of much architecture in Cappadocia allow Robert Ousterhout and Fatma Gül Öztürk to address larger issues of settlement and social organization, and to propose relations between ecclesiastical and domestic architecture, based not on lesser structures built of mudbrick and excavated stratigraphically but on stables, chapels, audience halls, dovecotes, kitchens, and domestic architecture carved from the living rock, broadening significantly the sources of archaeologically derived information for the Byzantine period. In the Ephesus essay, Sabine Ladstätter, quite literally moves away from the Roman core, giving many reasons for changes in settlement patterns.

The primary interest in monumental architecture and its modification in the Byzantine period does not stem solely from archaeological interest in elite cultural production. The Turkish authorities, based in a ministry that combines culture and tourism, have traditionally placed great emphasis on the development of sites to encourage tourism, a fact that reinforces traditional interests in monumental architecture in stone and baked brick. The change in focus of the Austrian excavations at Ephesus from Roman to Byzantine moved in tandem with a more recent interest by Turkish authorities in examining the Turco-Islamic past of the site, in and around the medieval settlement at Aya Soluk.

Stratigraphy comes to mind when one thinks of the chronological parameters of the book, especially but not exclusively its endpoint, which is called in the title “the Coming of the Turks.” In his introduction, the editor justifies ending the book where he does with the following extraordinary sentence: “What followed [the collapse of Byzantine rule in the late eleventh century] is beyond the scope of this volume, because the Roman tradition had already lapsed earlier on during the early and middle Byzantine periods, in the countryside as well as in most cities, and because the latest period of Byzantine-Turkish coexistence would require a different approach and expertise” (p. 4). What this different approach and different expertise is remains up to the reader to discover. The interest in Byzantine civilization in Anatolia primarily through its relationship to “the Roman tradition” will be taken up later in this review.

The editor hews to traditions of historical archaeology in choosing a textually attested historical event with which to conclude the book. But what is fascinating in this volume is the multiplicity of ways in which the authors of various site overviews address this endpoint, offering evidence of abandonment and changes in settlement patterns, but no ash and body-bestrewn destruction levels worthy of Byzantine historical descriptions of “the coming of the Turks.” (The historical pairing of the Abbasid sack of Amorium in 838 and the destruction uncovered and dated by Chris Lightfoot’s team there constitutes one compelling pairing of historical and archaeological data.) The authors of the Sagalassos entry offer the most nuanced view of the late eleventh-century period (and the twelfth-thirteenth too), combining as few others do extensive survey and excavation data. The essay on Ephesus is particularly striking in noting continuity in settlement. Indeed, for the events of the eleventh century, archaeological data should cause one to question the use of historical events to define archaeological periods and the continued primacy of textual over archaeological data.

A second issue relates to geographical and cultural hegemony and a definition of what the term “Byzantine” means. Geographically, the book limits its coverage to the Anatolian plateau and Turkey’s western coast, the heartland of Byzantine power in the eastern half of the Empire. While the Byzantines ruled much further to the east, northeast, and southeast than the Anatolian plateau, the geographic, ethnic, linguistic, and religious map there was different and Byzantine rule was of shorter duration. What do the marginal areas tell us about the Byzantines and their empire? Are the stories they tell different from the ‘central’ lands?

The editor excludes these areas by using the historical definition of Anatolia as pertaining to the western coastal regions and the central plateau, and choosing sites that show continued settlement for the period that he has chosen (a choice not always followed). One major focus of the past decades of archaeology in Turkey has been excavations in the Euphrates river valley in advance of flooding by dam waters. Many of the sites excavated there had layers dating to the period of Byzantine expansion in this area in the tenth and eleventh centuries, not to mention the early Byzantine period. Their exclusion largely limits the scope of the book to classical cities that were transformed in the medieval period.

This interest in studying medieval Byzantium mainly in relationship to the pagan Roman period that preceded it is rendered explicit by the editor. On the first page of his introduction, the editor names “the uniqueness of Anatolia as the only surviving part of the Roman Empire.” One consequence of this approach is the viewing of the medieval world of Byzantium through the lens of classical archaeology. Several authors, including the editor, make seemingly pejorative references to settlements that “lacked urban planning” (p. 53) or had “a dense jumble of diverse buildings and crooked alleyways” (pp. 262-263). This unsympathetic view of medieval Byzantine settlement in comparison to the “planned” great cities of the Hellenistic and Roman eras is expanded to the state itself when the editor claims that “Byzantium seems to have survived for another half-millennium mainly because it was small enough not to be in anybody’s way” (p. 3). The author then refers to “the marginalized and impoverished Byzantine rump state [that] was the weakest player in the region” (p. 3). To my mind, this view of the medieval period in any part of the former territories of the Roman Empire is beyond outmoded. And because the major foes of the Byzantines in this period, the Abbasids and the Seljuks, were Islamic polities, a consideration of Byzantine archaeology in relation to its Muslim neighbours, say through a chapter on the Tarsus excavations, or even the eleventh- century Serçe Limanı shipwreck, would have added to a picture of Byzantine-Islamic relations that did not solely consist of invasions and wars with “the Arabs” and “the Turks.” But this is a point of view to be expected from a reviewer who specializes in Islamic archaeology, and on interactions between Christian and Muslims in medieval Anatolia.

The third issue concerns nation and ethnicity in the modern sense. Ending with “the coming of the Turks,” this book, not doubt unwittingly, accepts a modern Turkish version of the history of the territories of today’s Republic of Turkey. In the nationalist Turkish historical narrative, the Byzantines came before the Seljuks, who came before the Ottomans, with the latter and the last of these dynasties ethnically Turkish. While no doubt many ethnic Turks speaking Turkic languages were involved in the conquest, rule, and settlement of Anatolia in the eleventh century and the setting up of states there in the twelfth century onwards, when medieval Islamic sources use the work “Turk” it is in relation to Türkmen nomads. In a medieval context, what do ethnonyms such as “Turk” and “Turkish” (and in the Abbasid context, “Arab”) mean? The use of the phrase “the coming of the Turks” jibes with modern ethno-nationalist scenarios of a complex and ill-understood set of cultural, economic, ethnic, and religious transformations in the eleventh-fourteenth centuries that characterize the history of the lands that comprise today’s Turkey. By using Romanitas as a measuring stick, and finding the Byzantines lacking, the editor does not permit an exploration of ways in which different Byzantiums arose, and, even after “the coming of the Turks,” continued to evolve.

The book is well and thoughtfully illustrated, and its extensive bibliography will give easy access to wider literature on the complex urban and social transformations of the eastern half of the Byzantine Empire in the early and middle periods, allowing for more comparative study with other parts of the Mediterranean basin at this time. This reviewer wishes that the editor had decided on a larger, more inclusive definition of Byzantium and Byzantine, but his interest in the transformation from the Roman to the Byzantine and in monumental architecture, informed the chronological and geographical parameters and the contributors he chose.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Philipp Niewöhner
1. Historical Geography: Johannes Koder
2. Transport and Communication: Klaus Belke
3. Urbanism: Philipp Niewöhner
4. Human Remains: F. Arzu Demirel
5. Coins: Cécile Morrisson
6. Rural Settlements: Adam Izdebski
7. Fortifications: James Crow
8. Houses: Philipp Niewöhner
9. Monasteries: Philipp Niewöhner
10. Churches: Hans Buchwald and Matthew Savage
11. Rock Cut Architecture: Fatma Gül Öztürk
12. Funerary Archaeology: Eric A. Ivison
13. Ceramics: Joanita Vroom
14. Small Finds: Andrea M. Pülz
Case Studies
15. Nicaea: Urs Peschlow
16. Assos: Beate Böhlendorf-Arslan
17. Pergamon: Thomas Otten
18. Sardis: Marcus Rautman
19. Ephesus: Sabine Ladstätter
20. Priene: Jesko Fildhuth
21. Miletus: Philipp Niewöhner
22. Mount Latmos: Urs Peschlow
23. Aphrodisias: Örgü Dalgıç and Alexander Sokolicek
24. Patara: Urs Peschlow
25. Olympos: Yelda Olcay Uçkan
26. Side: Katja Piesker
27. Sagalassos: Jeroen Poblome, Peter Talloen, and Eva Kaptijn
28. Binbirkilise: Mark P. C. Jackson
29. Çanlı Kilise Settlement: Robert Ousterhout
30. Aezani: Fabian Stroth
31. Amorium: Christopher S. Lightfoot
32. Germia: Philipp Niewöhner
33. Ancyra: Urs Peschlow
34. Boğazköy: Beate Böhlendorf-Arslan
35. Çadır Höyük: Marica Cassis
36. Euchaita: John Haldon, Hugh Elton, and James Newhard
37. Amastris: James Crow
38. Sinope: James Crow
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