Spolia Churches and the Classical Past


Of course, not all re-use of spolia in Turkey was in fortifications; a large amount was in Byzantine churches, the majority of which are now in advanced states of ruination. An exception, because of the veneration in which it continued to be held, was the church of S. Nicholas at Myra – Father Christmas’ church. Myra is a Roman site (now largely occupied by cold frames for tomatoes), and its port of Andriake is 2km distant; both sites still boast substantial antique remains, conspicuously the theatre in the former, and a huge and very well-preserved Hadrianic granary in the latter. The building of the church of S.Nicholas at Myra provides an early and significant example of the consistent, bulk reuse of spolia. The quantities employed are so large as to suggest a deliberate aesthetic campaign, since the church is largely of rubble construction, but antique blocks are employed to square up the corners, and the fittings and furnishings are almost completely antique (and some splendid column shafts lie in the couryard to the north). Door frames, cills, entablature blocks, columns, veneer, mosaic tessera- all are lifted wholesale from the ancient city, and cut down or packed in somewhat crudely to make them fit their new location. The only reason for this can be the prestige offered by the qualities and perhaps source of the marble used.


Such complete spolia churches are not rare in Turkey, There was little compunction there (or indeed in Greece[1]) about building a church directly onto a temple – see Uzancaburc[2], Side, or Sardis. At Kadirli (ancient Flaviopolis), the blocks of Ala Camii began as a temple; the structure was then converted into a church with some rearrangment of the blocks and use of only part of the podium of the antique temple. The south entrance is a Roman door (perhaps from the temple); the north door has a Christian lintel but old jambs. The flanking west doors are antique and complete, whilst the larger central door (which retains its threshold) uses an antique lintel, and make-and-mend antique blocks roughly matched together to form jambs. Since the church sits square on the antique podium, and is arguably 100% spolia, are we entitled to conclude acclaim of the numen of the classical past, or simply convenience? Appearances certainly come into play, since the bossed masonry of the antique (temenos?) wall, reused for the church walls, has been turned around so that a suave outer face is presented to the outside wall – so was the bossed interior then plastered? The mosque does likewise, and adds some marble blocks for good measure.


But the rearrangement is minor at Kadirli compared to Aphrodisias, where the columns of the temple were actually moved in order to suit Christian ideas of layout. Cormack dates the conversion  tentatively  to  the middle or late 5th century.  He also notes the misplaced corner Ionic capital, thereby reflecting the massive scale of the Christian reworking, and strikes a very  positive  tone by emphasising the engineering skills displayed, and suggesting that reuse underlines not continuity, but rather the triumph of Christianity over paganism.[3] At Antalya we find the same –temple-church-mosque transition, with high-quality Byzantine capitals, in the church of the Panaghia,[4] as we have already seen.


The range of spolia available for such church-building in the early Middle Ages was immense, but it would be perfectly possible to build a spolia church of the size and sumptuousness of S. Nicholas at Myra even today. For example, 20km from Silifke, on the road to Uzancaburc, are the inhabited villages of Ovaqcik and Tekkadin, both on the sites of antique cities. At Tekkadin, the village sits mainly on the necropolis, and many of the antique houses, as one walks through the city on the antique selce, stand to three metres and more: I counted sixteen complete sets of door jambs plus lintels and thresholds. Distance from the sea (and poorish communications – unsealed road from Tekkadin to the Uzancaburc turning) has ensured this site’s survival. But the vogue for marble doorframes is very long-lasting, as El-Bekri, writing in the 11th century, noted for Carthage and Tunis[5], retailing a word-play in the process: Les portes de toutes les maisons sont encadrées de beau marbre; chaque montant est d'un seule morceau; un troisième morceau, place sur les deux autres, forme le linteau. De la vient le dicton La Tunis, les portes de maisons sont en marbre (ROKHAM), mais à l'intérieur tout est couvert de suie (SOKHAM). This may have been a common practice, since Edrisi notes the use of complete sets of spolia door furniture throughout the city of Constantine, in Algeria .[6]


(The use of spolia in mosques and other Islamic religious buildings lies beyond the scope of this paper, but it is a rich subject. Some structures, such as the Alaeddin Medresesi at Korkuteli, the antique Isinda, reuse classical spolia with taste and discretion[7], as does the extremely sumptuous Eljas Bey Mosque at Miletus, built from a wide choice of spolia[8]; hence it is common to find some Islamic decoration derived from classical friezes, especially maeander motifs[9], and especially by the Seljuks.)




[1] J. M. SPIESER, La christianisation des sanctuaires paiens en Grèce, in Neue Forschungen in griechischen Heiligtuemern, Tubingen 1977, pp. 309-20 – on the avoidance of systematic destruction of temples, and their conversion into Christian use if in good condition; F. GANDOLFO, Luoghi dei santi e luoghi dei demoni: il reuso dei templi nel Medioevo, in Santi e demoni nell’Alto Medioevo Occidentale, Spoleto 1989 (Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo XXXVI), II, pp. 885-916; J. VAES, Christliche Wiederverwendung antiker Bauten. Ein Forschungsbericht, in Ancient Society 15-17, 1984-6, pp. 305-67 with large bibliography;

[2] HILL, The Byzantine Churches, cit., pp. 252ff;

[3] R. CORMACK, The temple as the cathedral, in C. Rouech‚ editor, Aphrodisias Papers. Recent work on architecture and sculpture..., Ann Arbor 1990, pp. 75-88;

[4] GASSI, Scultura architettonica, cit., pp. 90ff for reuse of spolia in Southern Asia Minor;

[5] EL-BEKRI, Description, cit., p. 87;

[6] DOZY & DE GOEJE, Description, cit., p. 112;

[7] D. FRENCH, editor, Studies in the History and Topography of Lycia and Psidia in memoriam A.S. Hall, Ankara 1994, p. 57ff & Plates 4.5 – 4.7;

[8] K. WULZINGER et al., Das islamische Milet, ((Milet: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen und Untersuchungen seit dem Jahre 1899, III.4), Berlin & Leipzig 1935, pp. 11ff.;

[9] S. MULAYIM, Anadolu Turk Mimarisinde Geometrik Suslemeler, Ankara 1982;