Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 2015
Henry Matthews Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey: History, Archaeology, Architecture Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2014. 370 pp.; 300 color ills. Paper $34.95 (9786054701414)
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Architectural historian Henry Matthew’s Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey: History, Archaeology, Architecture is intended to be an educated layperson’s detailed travel companion to the archaeological sites of western Turkey. Given Turkey’s popularity as a tourist destination for history buffs, it is surprising that such a book has not been written previously. As such, it fills a lacuna and is a welcome addition to the genre of guidebooks in the vein of Freya Stark’s Ionia: A Quest (London: John Murray, 1954), George Ewart Bean’s Aegean Turkey: An Archaeological Guide (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), Ekrem Akurgal’s Ancient Civilizations and Ruins of Turkey: From Prehistoric Times Until the End of the Roman Empire (trans. John Whybrow and Mollie Emre, Istanbul: Mobil Oil Turk A.S., 1970), and Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely’s Strolling through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City (Istanbul: Redhouse Press, 1972). While Bean went off the beaten path as an explorer with firsthand knowledge of classical sites, Matthews instead judiciously summarizes the results of recent research. This much-needed and updated book is a testimony to the intensive period of sustained archaeological work that Aegean Turkey has undergone during the past half-century, and Matthews accurately and systematically documents the immense fruits these labors have born.

The book consists of an introduction and twenty chapters on Greek and Roman cities, and is lavishly illustrated with over three hundred color photographs, architectural plans, restorations, and city plans. The full-page, glossy photographs, many of which Matthews himself took, act as a visual guide to each city’s most important buildings, sculptures, and finds.

Matthews tells the reader that he was drawn to Aegean Turkey because he felt “intense links with the life of the region in ancient times” (11). His introduction is a sweeping and cinematic overview fitting for this beautiful and storied landscape. Individual sections in the introduction—“What Does Greek and Roman Culture Mean to Us,” “The Extent and Character of the Hellenic World,” “Architecture and Towns,” “History,” “Greek Religion and Mythology,” “Architectural Principles and Styles,” and “City Planning”—contextualize the Greco-Roman cities investigated in the rest of the book.

Geography is the organizing principle for the sequence of chapters. Matthews takes the reader from north to south, beginning with Troy and ending at Halicarnassus. Unsurprisingly, the longest chapters are devoted to the major urban centers of Asia Minor with well-established programs of excavation, such as Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Hierapolis, Miletus, Pergamon, Priene, and Troy. Smaller towns like Claros, Mylasa, Notion, Nysa, and Stratonikeia are omitted. This is likely to appeal to the priorities of a traveler interested in the largest, most accessible, and evocative places.

Each chapter begins with an account of the site’s history, rediscovery, and archaeology as well as practical descriptions for visiting the major monuments. The historical overview deals with the complicated power struggles between competing empires and generals before, during, and after the arrival of the Greeks and the Romans. Matthews pays special attention to the array of fascinating indigenous Anatolian and Greco-Roman cults and foundation myths unique to each city. The sanctuary sites of Didyma and Labraunda receive their own chapters. No book on Asia Minor would be complete without examination of the region’s role as a conduit for the spread of Christianity and its thriving Jewish population. Architectural descriptions of early synagogues and accounts of the many famous apostles and martyrs pepper the chapters. As the author of Mosques of Istanbul: Including the Mosques of Bursa and Edirne (Istanbul: Scala, 2010), Matthews clearly understands Turkey as a bridge between East and West and treats the Seljuk and Ottoman eras in equal measure.

The sections in each chapter on rediscovery and the history of early excavations link classical archaeology to European colonialism, and it is a delight to have these histories in a single volume. The thrill of discovery is conveyed in the chapter on Assos by exuberant quotations from European explorers to the city, where subsequent excavations influenced the U.S. architect Henry Bacon’s design of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. In the chapter on Troy, an account of Heinrich Schliemann’s strong-armed excavations based on Homer’s Iliad, to which Matthews devotes a separate section, is compelling, and it demonstrates how the field of archaeology has developed since the nineteenth century. Up-to-date information on the state of current excavations at each site is also included. In particular, the emergence within the archaeological field of Laodicea on the Lycos, the second largest Roman city in Asia Minor, only within the last decade underscores Turkey’s extraordinary richness in classical ruins.

Chapters read like a veritable who’s who of the ancient world, as famous gods, mythical heroes, kings, princesses, philosophers, poets, performers, architects, artists, and freedmen reappear in their hometowns. Matthews has an ability to bring ancient cities to life, and both Pergamon and Miletus are highlights in this respect. In the chapter on Pergamon, he captures the uncertain times of the Hellenistic period by describing the andesite balls, left onsite at the arsenal, which a catapult siege engine hurled at enemies, providing a striking contrast to the more familiar Attalid thirst for learning and their patronage of Pergamon’s great library. Readers also hear of the physician Galen, who while working in the Pergamene Asklepeion in service to gladiators pioneered significant advancements in medicine. Perhaps the best example to encapsulate one city’s remarkable journey through time is Miletus, which was variously occupied by the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Hittite empires; launched the largest number of colonies of any Greek city; was the birthplace of Greek philosophy and natural science; had a major role in instigating the Ionian revolt to overthrow yoke of Persian rule; produced Hippodamus, the father of rational city planning, and Isodorus, an architect of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Matthews’s primary goal—“to make architecture accessible and enjoyable” (7)—is achieved as he guides the reader through the standing remains, offering practical advice and suggestions for the best routes of exploration. Most of the attention is paid to Roman-period civic monuments, which were funded by the patronage of emperors and wealthy local aristocrats, but domestic architecture also receives its due. Original vistas are verbally recreated so that readers can visualize the splendor of Greco-Roman architecture and understand how the ancient inhabitants would have experienced their cityscapes. Matthews serves both a general audience and professional archaeologists well when he discusses current techniques used in conservation and anastylosis (rebuilding), helping the visitor understand the need for sustainable tourism and make sense of the modern stainless steel and glass structures, exemplified at Ephesus’s Terrace Houses, as the agreed upon solution for preservation.

He also highlights the region’s famous marble-carving traditions, reuniting virtuoso sculptures now in Turkish and European museums with their original architectural settings. He provides information on visiting local museums, especially those physically located within an archaeological park. Since much of the artwork referenced throughout the book is housed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, its inclusion as the subject of a separate chapter would have been an added bonus.

One criticism that might be made of this book is that the historical narrative is based primarily on literary sources and recounts a somewhat traditional point of view. Recent scholarship on classical urbanism, art, and architecture has incorporated a much wider range of available evidence and methods, and offers a more complex view on the results of cultural exchange in this multi-ethnic region. Throughout the book, some of these nuances are lost. For example, it is a mistake to call the Greek and Roman hybrid form of the bath-gymnasia, unique to Asia Minor, “thermae,” a complicated term itself, reserved for luxuriously appointed private or imperial public baths in Rome (Garrett G. Fagan, Bathing in Public in the Roman World, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, 14–19). Ongoing debates such as these are glossed over or not mentioned at all. Specialists will find some of Matthews’s interpretations bereft of the anthropological, theoretical, and scientific perspectives provided by recent and exciting developments in postcolonial theory, regional survey, archaeobotany, and geoarchaeology. Yet the book was never intended as a summation of the state of the field; as a result it capably fulfills its aims and is an important contribution.

The end matter includes a glossary, index, and texts for further reading. A brief and practical guide to transportation, accommodation, and food pithily condenses the joys of travel in Turkey. The last pages are a folded map of Bronze Age and Archaic migration along with a historical timeline that covers prehistory to the Byzantine Empire.

More than a guidebook, Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey is for readers interested in broadening their horizons on the classical world. It is also appropriate for use as a reference book in undergraduate courses on Greco-Roman urbanism and architecture. I hope Matthews will follow up on the Greco-Roman sites of central and southeastern Turkey in similar fashion to Bean’s series, Turkey Beyond the Maeander: An Archaeological Guide (London: Ernest Benn, 1971), Turkey’s Southern Shore: An Archaeological Guide (London: Ernest Benn, 1968), and Lycian Turkey: An Archaeological Guide (London: Ernest Benn, 1978). Until then, the interested traveler will have to wait for news of the flourishing archaeological activities happening beyond the Aegean.

Leah Long
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.