Spolia Reliefs in a 15th-Century Fortress: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus


The enthusiastic use of spolia continued in Turkey, not only amongst the Turks, but also amongst Europeans. The most important use of spolia for structure and decoration is of the large quantities of the building blocks and reliefs of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by the Knights of Rhodes, although this reuse is too late fully to be considered here[1]. Nevertheless, it is important because it offers the first semi-documented and datable reuse of Hellenistic relief sculpture by the Renaissance, and near to the source site as well. Hence it is worth mentioning here as a measure against which we may set earlier instances of reuse, such as on the Gate of Persecutions at Seljuk.


The Mausoleum was almost certainly largely intact and hence visible throughout much of the Middle Ages; and reuse by the Hospitallers is not in doubt – although it is likely that at first the original constructors of the castle, in 1404, did not know it was the Mausoleum, or even that there were spolia on site, since we are told that squared stones (a usual shorthand for spolia blocks) were taken there in ships for the construction[2] when Bodrum (Halicarnassus) was captured. The Castle of St. Peter was built on a new site, some distance away, but its extension and repair meant hunting locally for spolia. The reuse and aesthetic display of Mausoleum reliefs (arguably not before 1494[3]), together with large quantities of building blocks, indicate that the Knights were interested in and knowledgeable about Antiquity and the prestige the display of its remains could offer to theirt endeavours. We may wish to believe that they probably knew precisely what it was that they were reusing, although there is no evidence for this beyond the tangential account of Michelozzi and Bonsignori, who visited Turkey in 1497/8, and who tended to go around attempting to square what they saw with what the ancient authors wrote. At Halicarnassus, following the ancient authors, they naturally expected to see the famous Mausoleum, where were to be seen the great ruin of the Mausoleum [...] and in this same place there is now the Castle of Saint Peter.[4] Although there is some vagueness in the phraseology, it is possible that what they actually saw was the Mausoleum, or perhaps what they identified as the Mausoleum, namely the castle of S. Peter (as did Beaufort in 1818). For how would they have known what such a structure looked like?


But could the superstructure of the Mausoleum still have been visible in the 15th century? If we accept the well-known account of the Commandant de la Tourette (who was in charge of the 1522 repairs to the Castle), the tomb chamber was actually discovered leading from a room containing much marble decoration and bas-reliefs. It went the way of the rest: having at first admired these works, and entertained their fancy with the singularity of the sculpture, they pulled it to pieces, and broke up the whole of it. The account makes it clear that the sappers were digging downwards for stone and not therefore dismantling any remaining superstructure; indeed, the characteristic grey- green stone of the foundation blocks also appears in the 1404 building (in all, to a calculated 6,000 cubic metres) - which surely means that parts (at least) of the superstructure had by then disappeared. The likelihood is therefore that, possibly after being severely damaged by earthquake, the Mausoleum was dismantled in two stages (1404, and again in 1523) by the Knights – symmetry, as it were, for the nearby Colossus of Rhodes, another of the Seven Wonders, also fallen in an earthquake, was carted off by the Arabs in the seventh century, apparently together with sculpta saxa.[5] However, because much of the surviving sculptural decoration from the Mausoleum also appeared in the castle walls, and placed so as to be as decorative as possible [6], it is possible to argue that the tomb stood almost complete before the first castle was begun: for the reliefs (in excellent condition, and therefore probably still in place) would have to be stripped before the builders could get at the structural blocks.


The Knights certainly appreciated the sculptured relief pieces of the tomb, for some of them were placed prominently in the walls of their castle - just as discovered antiquities were exhibited on city walls back home in Europe. They probably took others abroad with them. Thus the fragment no. 1023 now in the British Museum was found in a Turkish house on Rhodes, only a few hours’ sailing away, and possibly taken there before the Turkish conquest of 1522; It was probably cut for easy transport, carefully leaving intact the figure of an Amazon which it displays. Another piece, fragment 1022, reached Genoa, perhaps in the same manner. Sufficient sculptures remained visible later in the century to prompt the enterprising project of Fra’ Sabba da Castiglione to take the whole tomb to Italy, to beautify Mantua; unfortunately, the Turks got in the way. Sabba appears to have acted as the Cyriacus of his generation, importing two little heads of Amazons into Italy, and sending to Isabella d’Este sculptures from Kos, Naxos and Delos[7].


But we should beware of suggesting that the Knights took over the Mausoleum sculpture wholesale, when all they reused was the reliefs. For the sculptural load of the structure was enormous, and the great majority of it has disappeared. Waywell[8] estimates 5 statues in the chariot group, 56 or 72 lions at the base of the roof, 36 portrait statues between columns, 56 colossal statues in groups on upper step of podium, 72 heroic portraits on middle step of podium, and 88 life-size groups at the base - plus the reliefs. Their main interest was in the greenish squared blocks of the Mausoleum as building materials, few of which now remain on the Mausoleum site, but they also used some lions, and a Centaur frieze slab. Whilst acknowledging that The Amazon frieze slabs, which were on the outside as well as in the interior of the castle, must have created a unique and impressive gallery of classical sculptures , Luttrell sees no iconographical significance in their reuse,[9] although surely we may at least accept their subject-matter as appropriate for a fortress.


But whatever the appearance of the Mausoleum in the Middle Ages, it seems certain is that even the very tradition of its site disappeared when the Knights evacuated the area. Why was this? If there is one litany of the antique well known to the Renaissance, it is the Seven Wonders of the World. So can we attribute the slow re-learning about the Mausoleum to the exclusory attitude of the Turks? This is in fact likely, once we accept that people did indeed believe (wrongly) that the Castle was the site of the Mausoleum - and the Castle being a military installation, was very difficult of access for non-Turks even to the end of the 18th century. Even Beaufort, who is very perceptive about antiquities, surmises that at Bodrum the Mausoleum occupied the land where the castle now stands but, like many others, could only admire the reliefs outside. He believed Thevenot, in 1656, was the last to get inside.[10]




[1] A. LUTTRELL, The Maussolleion at Halikarnassos, 2.II: The later history of the Maussolleion and its utilization in the Hospitaller castle at Bodrum, Aarhus 1986, pp. 115-222;

[2] Ibid., p. 150.

[3] B. ARBEL & A. LUTTRELL, Plundering ancient treasures at Bodrum (Halicarnassus): a commercial letter written on Cyprus, January 1507, in Mediterranean Historical Review, II.1 (June 1996), pp. 78-86;

[4] BORSOOK Travels, cit., p. 169, note 169;

[5] W. GODELEVAEUM, Aulae Turcicae Othomannicique Imperii, Descriptio, Basle 1564, pp. 126-7: aes abduxit, ex quo Colossus factus fuerat, deiectus, cum cauus esset, inter sculpta saxa collocatus era - but what were the sculpta saxa and were they carried off as spolia as well?

[6] cf. Luigi Mayer’s drawing of 1797, reproduced in S. LLOYD, Ancient Turkey. A traveller’s history of Anatolia, London 1989, p. 170;

[7] G. GUALANDI, Sculture di Rodi, in Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene, 54 (1977), pp. 7-259: see cat. 3; p. 42, n. 2; and p. 19, & n. 3;

[8] G.B. WAYWELL, The free-standing sculptures of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in the British Museum: a catalogue, London 1978, p. 57;

[9] J. JEPPESEN & A. LUTTRELL, The Maussolleion at Halikarnassus (Reports of the Danish Archeological Expedition to Bodrum), II, the written sources and their archaeological background, Aarhus 1985, pp. 167-8;

[10] BEAUFORT, Karamania, cit., pp. 97-8;