The Geography and Chronology of Spoliation


Although it is impossible to draw chronological charts of spolia usage in Turkey or North Africa, [1] and although some spolia received a new lease of life during the industrious fortification of the Crusades, we can be certain that the Middle Ages had even more remains at their disposal than now survive, but perhaps less confident than the 19th-century French that the Arabs had left spolia alone. The extent and the time-frame of such use has been addressed by Siraj, who has argued most ingeniously[2] that the difference in  those sites that al-Bekri (11th century) and Leo Africanus (15th century) consider to be antique is a direct result of el-Bekri actually seeing antiquities ( - les témoignages de la période préislamique étaient encore nombreux), whereas Leo simply listened to oral traditions ( - quoique les ruines antiques n'avaient pas complètement disparu). Accepting this argument means we must accept that many spolia were reused between the Crusades and the beginning of what we might call a second period of European influence. Indeed, in spite of Ibn Khaldun's strictures about the usual lack of interest of Arabs in the past, such large reuse of spolia by Muslims is easy to demonstrate, perhaps not inferior to that of Christians in the West, conceivably for similar reasons practical, aethetic and ideological - witness Siraj's discussion of Tangier's loss of her antiquities.


To take Carthage, the most famous site of North Africa, and conveniently located on the coast next to a good harbour, we find it first plundered by Africans, not Europeans: El-Bekri asserts a high level of spoliation in the 11th century, because Le marbre est si abondant à Carthage que si tous les habitants de l'Ifrikiya se rassemblaient pour en tirer les blocs et les transporter ailleurs, ils ne pourraient pas accomplir leur tache - the implication is that many people did indeed come from far away, but the quantity of spolia defeated them. Subsequently, Edrisi noted that les fouilles ne discontinuent pas, les marbres sont transportés au loin dans tout le pays, et nul ne quitte Carthage sans en charger des quantites considérables sur des navires ou autrement; c'est un fait très connu.[3] Accordingt to Ibn Sa'id Gharnati (died AH 673 or 685), at Carthage se trouvait des idoles de marbre représentant toutes les espèces d'animaux, des hommes  [presumably mosaics he saw in the theatre?], but that the ancient city was destroyed in the time of Abd El Melik Ben Merwan (reigned AH 65-8], who transported materials thither to Damascus. There was enough left for Ahmed Ben Qali Mahalli to write, in the 10th century, that La construction en est belle et l'arrangement remarquable: des palais de marbre blanc y étaient surmontés de statues coloriées representant des hommes et toutes sortes d'animaux … aujourd'hui en ruines[4] , and Et-Tidjani emphasises[5] that there was a large population there in the early 14th century - although by 1832, Falbe finds the remains pitiful[6].


One further reason why the chronology of spoliation can be difficult to determine is that cities in both the East and the West have pulled down their walls over the last 150 years, usually for similar reasons: partly because they were now useless for defence purposes (not least because of expanding populations), but also because they were a symbol of the old-fashioned past and could easily be sacrificed for needs like roads and boulevards. Sheer lack of interest may have been the reason for Antioch’s loss of what was still in the last century a splendid set, although a serious earthquake in 1906 did not help; but the walls of Konya and Ankara, and most of those of Antalya, have gone. In East and West, spolia from the late antique or mediaeval walls have been used to make museums (e.g. Konya and Narbonne).


The pace of spoliation in Turkey is generally obscure, but certainly increased greatly in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as growing cities needed immense quantities of building stone. Beaufort described the rich remains of Soli in 1811 (i.e. Pompeiopolis) as containing a theatre, city walls, tombs and aqueducts, describing nearby Mersin as a small hamlet with a few houses, called Mersyn, on the foundations of an unfinished fort, and two iron guns lying in the sand (just down the coast, Silifke once had a recognisable amphitheatre[7].) Since little now remains on site[8] beyond the fine colonnade, we may assume Mersin grew at least initially at the expense of Soli: but what need had Mersin for columns, except for a few mosques? Of the colonnaded street, for example, some 450 metres in length, only thirty-seven columns remain; perhaps the rest were carted off much earlier by sea to help build Korykos down the coast, which uses columns of similar girth and coarse stone as tie bars in several of its towers (in thinner walls, they might more properly be called headers; but columns are so long that they tie together skins that are wide apart). Supposedly destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century, Soli is called in Turkish Viransehir - that is, city of ruins - a common appellation[9], as is eski kale. Again, when Beaufort visited Antalya, the circuit of walls was still complete; little now remains. He believed that Anamurium (now completely denuded of veneer, and with very few columns indeed) lost most of its spolia well before his visit, being carted off to Cyprus (there being no viable roads along the coast at that date, but plenty of excellent anchorages); and he perceptively compares its style to that of  some of the antient castles of Great Britain. Other Turkish sites clearly made less sense in the 18th century, because they were covered in later constructions or detritus. They have been dug since Morritt’s day; so that his description of the acropolis at Pergamum as having been used by the Genoese and Turks, is now one hodge-podge of fine remains jumbled pell-mell into walls and fortifications[10] is no longer relevant; instead, such sites have been sanitized down to much earlier layers of little interest to us spoliatori. And at Lindos (Rhodes), Morritt says that a Turkish castle occupies the situation of the ancient Acropolis, and contains nothing remarkable: the area has now been cleared, and the colonnade of the classical acropolis re-erected.


Geography and convenience frequently join hands for the acquiring of spolia, with islands and sites by the sea being targetted. There are plenty of narrated instances from the 17th century onwards where columns made convenient ballast[11], as well as being highly prized back in Europe – a combination of immediate utility and later meaning, so to speak. The French were scouting for spolia perhaps on government orders[12], and certainly with government encouragement[13], and it seems highly likely that they dismantled late-antique and mediaeval walls in various parts of Greece to get at the bas-reliefs they contained. Thus we have the expense accounts of Michel Fourmont, Professor of Syriac Languages, during his travels. Was he after spolia in fortress walls? He was Au monastere de S Cosme et Damien near Tiryns for 2 days; at Tiryns itself, he payed for 12 men for 13 days qui ont travaillé à la démolition du château - which suggests a Byzantine fort on top, perhaps; at Damala, he payed for 8 men to dig for 5 days; and at Argos, he spent money for la fouille des temples. [14]


Geography and geology also played their part on spoliation, and the very artificiality of some of the ancient cities of Turkey, some of which existed almost as a conjuring trick of marble and water, clearly led to their demise. The water they needed to survive was impossible without maintenance to the infrastructure of harbours, aqueducts or cisterns, and watercourses, the resultant silting and marshes provoking malaria and abandonment[15]. This point is relevant for spolia, because water is an antique version of conspicuous expenditure, and any systemic breakdown released large quantities of spolia, as can be seen from the fate of Perge[16], Aspendos and Side. The elaborate water system at Perge is furred up spectacularly, as can be seen both in the fountain under the acropolis, and in the baths by the south gate. At Side, Beaufort remarked nearly 200 years ago [17] that There is no stream of water here and therefore no inhabitants; no fire-wood is in the immediate vicinity; and the harbours are now too shallow... At Aspendos, the demise of the spectacular aqueduct, with its inverse syphon, left the acropolis of the city literally high and dry, and ripe for spoliation from nearby Antalya.


Earthquakes may also have prompted the reuse of spolia, by conveniently dismantling classical structures. There are plenty of examples of earthquake damage throughout our area. At Berenice, for example, Stucchi demonstrates that excavations show the 249 AD earthquake damage not only unrepaired for a century and a half, but the town was also ransacked for useable materials. The extraurban sanctuary of Demeter at Cyrene was destroyed in the 262 earthquake, and never rebuilt; and spolia appear in Christian basilicas at Apollonia, as well as in three fountains at Cirene and one at Tolemaide. In all cases, the appropriateness of the reuse bespeaks aesthetics, and not mere convenience, per un amore per  il  passato  glorioso,  forse anche nell'illusione di rinnovarlo . But what about quality? Stucchi cites the base of the minaret of the Giama Sahnun at Agedabia (no longer extant), stato ritenuto a lungo un monumento romano[18]. However, this assessment may be unnecessarily sunny and optimistic. William of Tyre, for instance, also cites earthquakes as occasioning the need for rebuilding, but specifically mentions the mediocrity of some of the results[19].


As for typology, there are so many fortifications of various periods in Turkey that we look in vain for anything like a comprehensive catalogue, even of the classical period. A start has been made on typology, in a Survey of the Medieval Castles of Anatolia, which began in 1981, sponsored by the British Institute of Archaeology, Ankara. The series begins with Clive Foss, who believes that the type of spolia used can help dating[20]. If work on our period is under way in Turkey, it has scarcely even begun for North Africa. Duval[21] gives a good bird's-eye summary, but deplores the lack of digs on truly Byzantine work in N. Africa.




[1] L. TEUTSCH, Das Roemische Staedtwesen in Nordafrika, Berlin 1962, for a survey and chronological account of Roman cities and forts in N. Africa; for a survey of North Africa before the coming of the French, cf. the plentiful remarks in MARMOL, Affrica, cit., passim, e.g. fol. 235v for Constantine, or fol. 211r for Sargel; cf. O. ZHIRI, L’Afrique au miroir de l’Europe: fortunes de Jean Léon l’Africain à la renaissance, Geneva 1991, pp. 165-172 for the context;

[2] A. SIRAJ, L'image de la Tingitane. L'historiographie arabe médiévale et l'antiquité Nord-Africaine, Rome 1995, pp.241ff: Evolution des connaissances archéologiques chez les géographes arabes; ibid., pp.491ff for Tangier;

[3] DOZY & DE GOEJE, Description, cit., p. 133;

[4] E. FAGNAN, Extraits inédits relatifs au Maghreb, Algiers 1924 (reprinted in Islamic Geography, 141, Frankfurt-am-Main 1993), pp. 9, 155;

[5] Sheikh ET-TIDJANI, Voyage dans la Régence de Tunis pendant les années 706, 707 et 708 de l'Hégire (1306-1309), trans A. Rousseau, Paris 1852, reprinted as vol.. 186 of Islamic Geography, Frankfurt-am-Main 1994, p. 254 note 1;

[6]  FALBE, Danish Consul-General: cf. Service Historique de l'Armee de Terre,Vincennes, France [hereafter SHAT] MR 1675: description du Plan de Tunis et de Carthage,, MS 1832, fol.165ff; this provides a comprehensive militgary and naval assessment of the fortifications around Tunis;

[7] RAMUSIO, Delle Navigationi, cit., vol II.98r ff for Viaggio di M. Josafa Barbaro nella Persia, begun in 1471; cf. fol 100v where Appresso questo monte e un theatre nel modo di quel di Verona, molto grande, circondato di colonne d’un pezzo con li suoi gradi intorno;

[8] BEAUFORT, Karamania, cit., p. 248: sketch-plan of Pompeiopolis, and description of the remains of the city at pp. 259ff; Beaufort's MS is in PRO ADM7/847, with the ancient cities keyed to his charts; Mersin is at p. 137;

[9] cf. Kherbat RumanRoman remains – as a toponym in Syria: I. PENA, The Christian Art of Byzantine Syria, Eng. Trans. London 1997, p. 28;

[10] J. B. S. MORRITT, A Grand Tour. Letters and journeys 1794-6, ed. G. E. Marandin, London 1985, p. 135;

[11] For the general context cf. S. MCGRAIL, The shipment of traded goods and of ballast in antiquity, in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, VIII.3 (1989), pp. 353-358, table 1;

[12] H. OMONT, Missions archéologiques françaises en Orient aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, 2 vols, Paris 1902, consecutively numbered. As well as fishing expeditions for antiquities, usually by command of the King, a lot of manuscripts and natural history items were brought back;

1037ff: Memoire by LE MAIRE, Consul at Tripoli 1705-6. Cf. p.1045: at Lepcis j’ay tiré d’un seul temple plus de 200 collonnes ou morceaux, de 18 pieds de long et de 21 poulces de diamettre. Il y en a une trantene à la porte de la Conférence a Paris; elles sonts toutes vertes et blanches ondées et de marbre greq; les autres sont sur le port à Toulon;

[13] Paris, Archives Nationales, Marine B/4/122 Levant: Relation de ce que j'ai vu a Athènes, by L. Taulane, Athens, commanding Le Sultane, 20 May 1774 - an exclusively archaeoloogical account addressed to the Minister of War; he regrets he cannot report in detail on the Parthenon, because it is in le château, on l'on ne permet pas d'entrer depuis le commencement de la guerre; instead, he views it through a telescope;

[14] OMONT, Missions archéologiques, cit., pp. 1126ff;

[15] - and led to chronic problems: cf.  PRO WO106/63, for Colonel F. R. Maunsell's Notes on the Geography of Asia Minor, dated 23rd August 1917, to which the War Trade Intelligence Division points out that in malarial valleys this is not a natural state of things, but is a result of the suspension of proper irrigation works, and caused mainly by the breaking down and cessation of the system of irrigation employed by the ancients, which systems became blocked up…. (NB Maunsell had produced a Military Report on Eastern Turkey in Asia for the War Office in 1893);

[16] FELLOWS, Journal, cit., pp.192-3: the very heavy deposits in the aqueducts have furred up water supply to an opening or bore left not larger than a quill; these were probably rendered useless during the existence of the town;

[17] BEAUFORT, Karamania, cit., MS in PRO ADM7/847, p. 125;

[18] S. STUCCHI, Architettura Cirenaica, Rome 1975, pp. 234-5, pp. 333-4 & notes; pp. 363, pp. 558-9 & fig. 577; p.483 for second quote;

[19] WILLIAM OF TYRE, Hist. Rerum Transmarin., J-P Migne, PL CCI, Paris 1903,- XX.19 (cols 796-7) for a description of the earthquake in 1179, with, at Antioch, which were ad statum mediocrem reparari;

[20] C. FOSS, Survey of medieval castles of Anatolia, I: Kutahya (BAR Int. Series 261), Oxford 1985; cf. p.82: 9thC. He believes that, generally,  the better the spoils, the earlier the wall - 7th or 8th century;

[21] DUVAL, L'état actuel des recherches, cit., pp.150ff;