Inhabitants’ Attitudes to Antiquities and Spolia


What comments we have from travellers about the attitudes of inhabitants to antique monuments do not antedate the foureenth century, but nevertheless give us an essential introduction to what happened earlier. Such comments may well be prejudiced, but they accord well with the richly documented ones from Western Europe. The usual stance is that all the ruins from the past were built by kings (or giants, because of their stupendous size), and were sites for magic or, if one was lucky, rich with treasure (not too different from the characteristic Byzantine superstitions about antique statues and reliefs[1]); the majority, what is more, were castles or palaces (and are thus re-named), often with long subterranean passages. Western peasants seem not to have considered that such remains had been built by their own ancestors ; and the Turks or (most) Arabs, of course, were not in Turkey or North Africa when her Greek and Roman cities were constructed. Thus Western toponyms (such as palatium into Piazza Armerina) can be paralleled in Turkey. At Miletus, Chandler notes[2]- that this is a very mean place, but still called Palat or Palatia, the Palaces - or, in the modern name, Balat[3].


Ignorance of antiquities, ranging from lack of interest to a destructive zeal, struck Islamic and Christian foreigners alike. At Pergamum, Fellows complains that The Turks take you round, and show you all they have not themselves built, calling every ruin by the simple name of the “old walls”. They know nothing of traditions, for they are only conquerors here, and extremely ignorant; and at Assos, whilst examining a road flanked by tombs, he reports that all buildings, whether bridge, bath or aqueduct, temple, theatre or tomb, all “Esky kalli”, “old castle.” [4] Conversely (and once again as in Western Europe), the Turks were puzzled by travellers’ investigation of antiquities, the common belief being that they were hunting for gold and treasure, or wishing to worship the “idols” they unearthed. This is because of strong traditions from late Antiquity of finding treasure in old buildings[5].


But caustic opinions by Europeans about Turkish attitudes to the past are not necessarily exceptional, nor yet applicable only to Anatolia. Similar comments on attitudes to the antique past are provided by the fourteenth-century writer Ibn Khaldun, whose perceptive comments on the reuse of spolia are unmatched by contemporary accounts from Turkey. He characterises the Arabs as being not only child-like in their attitudes to the past, but frequently destructive as well. (which can be backed up by plenty of evidence[6], and by European opinion[7] - although travellers to Algeria were later to deplore the génie déstructeur of the Vandals, Turks and French military engineers[8].) This social realist, who recognizes the inevitable change in human institutions[9], berates them as being generally uninterested in monumental building which, as he remarks[10], attests to the civilisation of earlier nations. The conclusion is inevitably that, since sedentary culture is the goal of civilisation (IV.17), since the buildings erected in Islam are comparatively few considering her power (IV.7, IV.8), and since those that are built quickly fall into ruins (IV.9), then the Arabs are not civilised in Ibn Khaldun’s sense. He also hints at supernatural explanations for the size of antique buildings. Is Ibn Khaldun’s assessment justified? Probably not in the case of the Vandals who, complains Bourgeois[11], have had an unfairly bad press. Nor in the case of the Seljuks, as we shall see. And the Ottomans reuse of spolia both as building materials as well as for their historical value, prestige and size is identical to what happened in the West. But it was just such an assessment of Arab lack of interest in fortresses which informed the French invasion of Algeria in 1830.


His analysis of the building cycle (IV.10) is interesting, because it surely proceeds from his own observations, because it incorporates spoliation as a natural part of the process, and because it accords with what we know of the process during the Middle Ages and later. In the absence of parallel accounts, we may use it as a model for what happened in Turkey. He writes that when cities are first founded, they have few dwellings and few building materials, such as stones and quicklime, or the things that serve as ornamental coverings for walls, such as tiles, marble, mosaic, jet, shells [mother-of-pearl], and glass. Thus, at that time, the buildings are built in Bedouin [style], and the materials used for them are perishable... [But civilization grows and reaches its limit] The civilization of the city then recedes, and its inhabitants decrease in number. This entails a decrease in the crafts. As a result, good and solid building and the ornamentation of buildings are no longer practised. ... Materials such as stone, marble, and other things are now being imported scarcely at all, and (building materials) become unavailable. The materials that are in existing buildings are re-used for building and refinishing. They are transferred from one construction to another, since most of the (large) constructions, castles, and mansions stand empty as the result of the scarcity of civilization [population]. ... (The same materials) continue to be used for one castle after another and for one house after another, until most of it is completely used up. People then return to the Bedouin way of building. They use adobe instead of stone and omit all ornamentation. The architecture of the city reverts to that of villages and hamlets. The mark of the desert shows in it. [The city] then gradually decays and falls into complete ruin, if it is thus destined for it. This is how God proceeds with his creatures.. [12] And he deplores the common belief that the ancients were giants, erecting buildings with their bare hands:  They forget the importance of machines and pulleys and engineering skill implied in this connection..[13]




[1] MANGO, Antique statuary, cit., passim;

[2] R. CHANDLER, Travels in Asia Minor, 1764-1765, London 1971, p. 97;

[3] D. B. OECONOMIDES, Légendes populaires néo-helléniques sur les châteaux en ruines, in Pepragmena: Les fortifications depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’au Moyen Age dans le monde méditerranéen, Athens 1971, pp. 51-4: antique castles often considered the palaces of kings;

[4] FELLOWS, Journal, cit., p. 25,  pp. 38-9;

[5] e.g. C. MORRISSON, La découverte des trésors à l’époque byzantine, Travaux et Mémoires 8, 1981, pp. 321-43;

[6] VRYONIS, Nomadization, cit., pp. 43-71;

[7] Mémoires du Chevalier d’Arvieux, Envoyé extraordinaire du Roy à la Porte, 6 vols, Paris 1735; cf. I, p. 255, near Tyre in 1658: Ils ne songent qu’à détruire et à laisser tomber en ruine les édifices les plus beaux, les plus nécessaires et les plus respectables par leur antiquité;

[8] M. SALINAS, Voyages et voyageurs en Algérie, 1830/1930, Toulouse 1989, pp. 161ff;

[9] A. OOMLIL, La méthodologie d'Ibn Haldun dans ses prolégomènes, Doctorate, Paris IV - Sorbonne, n.d., pp. 2, 106ff;

[10] IBN KHALDUN IV.2, ed. cit. vol II, pp. 239ff.;

[11] C. BOURGEOIS, Les Vandales, le vandalisme et l’Afrique, Antiquités Africaines 16, 1980, pp. 213-228. Cf. p. 217 & note 4: they probably destroyed theatre, odeion and baths at Carthage so that they could not be turned into forts against them – although Genseric was against theatre per se; Sécurité et moralité, donc, mais pas vandalisme;

[12] cf. C.-F. VOLNEY, Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les Révolutions des Empires, in his Oeuvres Complètes, Paris 1821, I., pp. 1-245;

[13] IBN KHALDUN IV.3; ed. cit. vol. II, p. 239;