Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.31

Pamela A. Webb, The Tower of the Winds in Athens: Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Muslims: Two Millennia of Continual Use. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 270.   Philadelphia:  American Philosophical Society, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 172.  ISBN 9780871692702.  $65.00.  


Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou, The University of Texas at Austin (papalex@austin.utexas.edu)

In the last two decades visitors to Greece and other Mediterranean countries have been confronted with the proliferation of the now ubiquitous and unavoidable wind farms. The towers of these aeolic parks have punctuated cherished landscapes— once impenetrable and accessible only to the admiring human gaze— that now, totally, and perhaps irreversibly, have been surrendered to the quest for cheap and sustainable energy. The hardware of these towers exceeds any sense of measure: stilt-like supports carry turbines equipped with humongous rotor blades of ca 80 feet in length. Always craftily shaped like swords aimed for fights with superhuman giant beings, these blades provide a contemporary standard for assessing the power of the invisible forces of the winds, by contrast, the ancient conceptualization of these divine beings was graphically expressed on the elegant Athenian structure that is the monographic subject of Pamela Webb’s book. Vitruvius and Varro, our extant ancient textual sources on the octagonal Horologion, assumed their readers’ familiarity with it. Likewise, in this review I assume that the monument is well-known to BMCR readers. Unlike the oversize wind machines of today, throughout its life the Tower was integrally embedded in a vibrant civic space whereas in the beginning its functions were cognitive and aesthetic. Webb weaves an engaging and often insightful narrative of its rich biography.

The Tower dates from an era when weather phenomena were predictable in their recurrence, behavior, intensity, and effects. This is no longer the case. The last few decades have witnessed the disruption of age-old weather patterns. As everywhere in the world, in Greece storms have grown so ferocious and unpredictable that weather authorities have been giving them names—as I type these lines an “Okeanis” is ravaging the country. It is perhaps ironic that the last decade has also witnessed a remarkable wind of change in scholarly attention to the Tower of the Winds in Athens. In 2014 Herman Kienast published an admirable archaeological study that is commensurate to the quality of the Tower and its original technological sophistication. This will be the standard source of reference for a long time. Meanwhile the monument underwent systematic conservation and opened—for the first time ever!—to the public in 2016. This momentous development yielded new evidence (e.g., remnants of medieval frescos) and coincided with the similar handling of the Fethiye Mosque (“of the Conqueror” but also known as “mosque of the grain market”) slightly to the northeast of the Tower and immediately to the west of the latrine building northwest of the Tower’s north façade. Like the Tower, this seventeenth-century mosque had been used as storage space by the Greek Archaeological Service since the foundation of the modern Greek state. Now its domed interior is accessible and affords visitors a rare and very instructive comparison with that of the Horologion.

Webb’s book provides a careful assessment of the Tower that often takes issue with or expands upon Kienast’s and other scholars’ interpretations of various aspects of the monument. More importantly, it attempts to assess its social life on a programmatically diachronic basis. Separate chapters scrutinize the evidence for the Christian and then the Muslim usage of the Tower until the establishment of the modern Greek state when, as Webb argues, the structure ceased to be functionally operational and became an archaeological site. Her analysis is careful, clear and eloquent and pivots around a main argument: at its very beginning (ca 140 BCE), the octagon also served a cultic function that somehow remained constantly ingrained in its operational DNA until the nineteenth century. Despite the severe lacunae in the available evidence and Webb’s tendency to overstress circumstantial or insufficient evidence, this bold and interesting argument is well presented and worthy of scholars’ attention. It will surely generate discussion and debate within the wider framework of the long overdue attention to the post-antique life of classical monuments and sites in Greece and elsewhere.

The first chapter (pp. 9-50: “The Hellenistic and Roman Tower”) contextualizes the building during its earliest phase when an east-west street on its south side directly connected it with the Athenian Agora. The construction of the Roman Agora in the first century BCE and the so-called “Agoranomion” a century later surely altered our understanding of the original setting of the building. Webb stresses its relationship with an important but poorly known Hellenistic stoa at a slightly higher elevation to its southeast. A thorough analysis of all main aspects of both the exterior and interior of the tower includes Webb’s points of contention with previous interpretations which will surely reinvigorate discussion. For example, she disagrees with Kienast on the dating of the chancel screens that once surrounded the centrally placed mechanism of the interior. Kienast wants it contemporary with the original construction whereas Webb finds it discordant with the consistent attention to “exactitude” of its geometric design (19-20). In the same chapter, of more import is Webb’s iconographic and stylistic analysis of the sculptural complement of the Tower. Following Karanastasi, she stresses the affinities of the reliefs with the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon and suggests for them the rather high date of ca 140 BCE—a chronology connected to her argument that the patron of this building was Attalus II of Pergamon. This is an interesting and plausible suggestion and it will remain so until more corroborating evidence comes to light.

Webb’s discussion of the Tower’s interior water-run mechanism is fascinating but by necessity inconclusive given that the surviving evidence is sadly incomplete. Scholars have proposed a water-powered chronometric device or, as Kienast proposes, a celestial globe (“orrery”)—the latter interpretation is definitely more in harmony with current understandings of the building as a wondrous cosmographic planetarium of sorts. Webb argues that this complex building also accommodated a religious function “…as a cult site of Boreas (and to a lesser extent his brothers) and commemorated his role in the Athenian defeat of the Persian Navy in 480 BC” (38). The supporting evidence, however, is circumstantial at best. The representation of the winds per se does not necessarily point to a cultic function. Webb discusses in detail the affinities between the type and morphology of the exterior and interior of the Tower vis-à-vis other centrally planned structures of Hellenistic date whose function was “cultic and commemorative” (42). These comparisons show only that the Athenian building conformed to the most sophisticated design traditions of the Hellenistic koine. Neither its civic context, however, nor its surviving apparatus point to anything more than a civic function. Webb’s reconstruction of a boat-shape support of the mechanism in the interior of building (44) rests on very tenuous evidence and does nothing to strengthen the argument for a cultic function. The same holds true for the two boat-shaped graffiti in the interior—the longest is substantial in size (126 cm long: see Kienast 2014, 150)) and points perhaps to moments of fanciful story-telling inside the Tower, somewhere between the second and the fourth centuries CE. One can’t help but agree with Webb’s assessment of these graffiti as “…another curiosity in this monument rife with curiosities” (46).

After the Tower suffered some damage during Sulla’s attack, it was restored but yet again the contents and precise function of its interior remain elusive. The construction of the Market of Caesar and Augustus in the late first century BCE largely affected the physical accessibility and visibility of the Tower. The subsequent addition of the latrines northwest of the Tower undoubtedly impacted the sensory ambience of the space that the Tower inhabited as long as the latrines functioned. A cultic usage of the Tower, as proposed by Webb, would have been incompatible with the presence of the latrines right at its northern foot. This book should have tackled this important problem face on.

Webb argues throughout that the Tower continued to function until its conversion to a Christian building. However, there is no evidence about the nature of this function. Neither is there any evidence about the date and nature of its conversion to a Christian use, the subject matter of chapter 2 (“The Christian Tower,” pp. 51-76). Webb proposes that it functioned as a martyrium, perhaps in unison with the early Christian phase of the “Agoranomion” at some point in the early seventh century CE. In this early phase, however, the Christian usage would have been incompatible with the bold figural apparatus of the building, which does not bear any signs of intentional mutilation (e.g. the Parthenon’s east, west, and north metopes). In a footnote Webb tentatively suggests that in this period the figures of the winds could have been interpreted as angels—one would have expected a rather lengthier discussion of the interesting possibility of a Christian interpretatio for these bold and powerful images. What responses did they generate in the local community around it? It may not be a coincidence that just a block to the east of the Fethiye mosque stands the parish church of the Taxiarchs, the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The Taxiarchs may be a successor of the three aisled church underneath the Fethiye mosque, an edifice now dated to the middle Byzantine period—was this cult localized here as a response to the appeal of the ancient reliefs? However this may have been, there is archaeological evidence (e.g. remnants of frescos that have yet to be dated precisely) and textual testimonies, amply discussed by Webb, that by the 15th century the Tower was used as a church. Webb accepts Evliya Çelebi’s testimony for the cult of a certain “saint Philip the Greek” inside the building. The evidence she uses for reconstructing the characteristics of this cult draws from models of the first millennium that would not necessary apply to 17th century Athens.

By the time Stuart and Revett witnessed and studied the Horologion (1751), the Christian usage had been abandoned and the octagonal edifice served as a tekke for the Mehlevis, a Sufi sect of whirling dervishes (chapter 3, “The Muslim Tower,” pp. 77-86). The two Dilettanti excavated the significant amount of debris that had been brought inside by the Muslim users. Their report of human bones inside this fill prompts Webb to associate them with Christian saints’ relics—this is very problematic as the bones could have been mixed in the fill, especially if this soil had been collected from the immediate vicinity of the Tower, which has yielded a number of archaeologically documented graves. On the basis of this questionable evidence Webb argues that it was the memory of the Tower as a martyrium that attracted the Sufi ascetics to this significant building.

The book is complemented with three useful appendices (on the first Christian churches in Athens, on their conversion of Classical structures for Christian use, and on the conversion of Classical heroa) that will enable readers to contextualize the long life of the Tower under Christianity. Despite the criticisms expressed above, this study deserves attention and close reading. The medieval and post- medieval archaeology of Athens have yet to catch up with that of its antique past. One hopes that new discoveries and continuous scrutiny of the building and its context will enhance our understanding of the Tower and its life throughout the ages.

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