Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Kevin Daly

Q: Hagia Sofia, the Byzantine Rite basilica briefly turned Roman Catholic cathedral, then Islamic mosque, now museum, was built 532 – 537 AD. Its construction embodied numerous innovations that revolutionized architecture and it remained the largest cathedral until the construction of the gothic cathedral in Seville in 1520. Considering the great innovations in Hagia Sofia and the intervening age of cathedral building, why did it take nearly 1000 years to surpass it in size? 

A: I'd say several factors were at work here. First, the project was extraordinarily ambitious and a bit experimental in its own right—even in its own day it would have been difficult to match. Second, the knowledge and techniques developed (often by trial and error) in the Greek east were not easily transferred to the Latin west or even to those who invaded from the east. It's not just a matter of language, but also a matter of cultural interaction. With the fall of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire became distant and different (and Greek, a language most folks did not know) from the areas west of Greece—hence something like the 4th Crusade (much later of course) became possible. But that isolation also meant fewer overall resources coming in, and fewer resources (including know-how) going out. Third, apart from not having the same access to engineering and technical ability, not all cultures choose to "surpass" predecessors in the first place—a particular mindset needs to be in place that urges "bigger and better." Here we might want to ask how the building was interpreted by the followers of Mehmed II, and we find it was quickly transformed both ideologically and practically into a building of the Islamic faith. Since the Christians of the world could claim its origin, but the Muslims its possession (indeed its capture was said to be prophesied by the Prophet), there was not so much competition—both sides could be happy. With the rebirth of the western powers and their interaction with the Ottomans ever more intense and competitive, a new sense of rivalry and was born.

Q: Why is the Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul) blue? 

A: The simple answer is that the tiles that adorn its inside follow the Iznik technique, which tends to favor blue as a predominant color. The more interesting (dare I say colorful?) answer is that the Iznik tradition of blue really takes off in the first place because of the extraordinary influence of Chinese ceramics. Ask anyone about a Ming vase, and blue and white will spring to mind. Topkapi has a marvelous collection of such Chinese imports. As the Ottomans increased in trading (and facilitating trade) with China, these imported blue and white wares gained special value. Soon local techniques matched the color of the imported wares, and this local innovation was most famously achieved in Iznik.

Q: Troy. Where do myth and historical fact intersect? How close has archaeological exploration of the past 140 years come to proving the events of the Epic Cycle and the Homeric stories? 

A: One can now conclusively demonstrate that Greek Mycenaean pottery reached Troy and its surrounding territory. Also, one can demonstrate that certain layers of Troy contemporaneous with the import of this pottery show destruction. Connecting the two events so as to "prove" the Iliad or other portions of the Epic Cycle might miss the point a bit. In fact we probably never will find a smoking gun that sufficiently "proves" anything with certainty. However, we do know that Greek (at least in the form of Linear B) was around as early as 1450 BCE or so, and we can see that the society documented by those texts was highly advanced. What is extraordinary is that it seems entirely reasonable that these folks were not just builders, kings, traders, and warriors, but that they may have devoted their time to poetry as well. The stories that have survived of Troy, creation, and the gods may very well reflect these ancient traditions. And where we can push the Homeric texts as to their "accuracy"—for example in charting the Homeric topography and geography alongside the results of modern excavation—there clearly does seem to be more at work than just a random association between text and the archaeological record. So the Homeric texts do reveal a truth of sorts, but that is capacious, multi-layered, complex truth, and it often contains a wondrous admixture of the artistic choices of different ages.

Q: Of all the ancient cities on our tour – Ephesus, Pergamum, etc. – which one intrigues you the most? Why? 

A: I am fascinated by Pergamum, because its awareness of its rivals and of its past comes out so clearly in its physical remains and history. The Great Altar, for example, clearly references earlier works and yet also characterizes the spirit of a new age. When one walks around the vertiginous theater one immediately recognizes how important this building and the events it housed must have been. The tradition of scholarship and learning at the site produced not just a great center of learning, but even a new technology of writing—parchment. In many ways it's also a great spot to reflect on what it means to have a city and what constitutes a city in the ancient world, especially in the intensely competitive world of Greece that followed Alexander's reign.

Q: Regarding the ongoing archeological project in ancient Lycia are the stone writings decipherable or is there hope of discovering a Lycian “rosetta stone”? One can imagine that contemporary technology such as digital photography helps a great deal in the cataloging and later study of specimen stones; what other technological tools extend the capabilities of archeologists today? 

A: No few words and place names in Lycian can be understood, and our understanding of these words help us define Lycian as a language of Indo-European origin. Right now there are some texts in Lycian that appear alongside Greek, but there's not yet enough to "crack" Lycian in the sense of reconstructing a flowing language. On the other hand, as of 2004, we now have a Lycian dictionary, and we can recognize different dialects. So, we know a lot, but there's room for more (or so we can hope!). As an epigrapher, I'm especially interested in the use of newer technologies to words written on stone. Within the Greek sphere, we now are getting close to having software that can recognize the "hand" of an inscriber pretty well, so that a fragmentary text can now be associated with a certain hand known from other stones and (if we're lucky) associated with a particular date or range of dates. New imaging technologies also can help us see letters that have now worn from the original surface by highlighting the changes in the underlying stone that were made at the time of inscription. So, just as ground penetrating radar or resistivity studies can help a field archaeologist look below the surface and see what lies beneath, these new imaging techniques can look below the apparently smooth surface of a stone and see what once lay crisply on the (now eroded) surface.