This week we leap forward in my past to February 2018 when, somewhat unexpectedly you may think, I was in Ankara. Actually the reasons for this have been piling up in our narrative: firstly the post held by my good friend Luca Zavagno at Bilkent Universitesi there; secondly the grant we got together; and thirdly, reported here only implicitly, our not managing despite our best efforts to spend as anticipated on the workshop and seminars we had run from that grant in Leeds. The result of this was that what had originally been supposed to be a small seminar at Bilkent to round off the project became a full-blown international conference, which Luca gleefully organised. The programme of events ran over several days, took quite a lot of shuffling of my teaching timetable and involved two public lectures as well as the actual conference, which I will report on, but next post. But in between those two phases we got to have a good look around Ankara with local guidance, and so of course there are photographs.
Now, Ankara is probably known to most people now only because since 1922 it has been the capital of Turkey, but it has been going for quite a long time. There are Hittite remains, even. To Classicists it is important because its Temple of Augustus preserves one of the fullest texts of Emperor Augustus’s Res Gestae, a monumental declaration of all the conquests he had made and honours he had received, as well as many which he refused, and when he had that put up here the city was a long way from new.
Subsequent Roman emperors also sporadically expended patronage upon the city, including the (in)famous Julian II, the so-called Apostate.
But the principal surviving bits here are Byzantine and Ottoman, the former because the Byzantines substantially rebuilt the place as a frontier bulwark against Islam in the ninth century, demolishing quite a lot of what had stood before, and the latter of course because of the five or six centuries of post-Byzantine occupation under Ottoman Islam.1 Nonetheless, it wasn’t an especially important town in those periods, a regional capital but no more, and that may have preserved its surviving features, because for most of the Ottoman period it just wasn’t worth sinking serious money into redevelopment. So there still stands a substantially Byzantine citadel and several quite early mosques, of the Seljuk period onwards, and the citadel and one of the mosques were the star attractions of this tour.
Because of how the castle sits in the city, and because of its considerable size, it’s hard to give an adequate visual impression of its whole. You just have to kind of circle round the exterior walls, which were once the middle set of three, and take in the general impression that it would do to keep people out.2
And when you’ve done that, getting to this high point reveals that, wait, this wasn’t even very much of the circuit as it once was…
But we were touring the counterfort, the Şarc Kale. (I don’t know if the other citadel, the Ak Kale, is accessible, or how much of the rest of what lies between, but at the time of writing I certainly haven’t accessed it.) And the first impression I got of it, really, other than sheer solidity, was the fact that really any old stone going had been used to build it.
To get here, you have now to enter via the gateway I already showed you, the Hisar Kapı, which is some way before the actual entry to the citadel; you would potentially be under fire for quite a while before you reached it if someone didn’t want you there.
Then, you turn right again onto the stairwell I already showed above, and that, finally, takes you to the gateway into the Şarc Kale. Once inside, there is a central courtyard space, and easy access onto the walls round it for the defenders (or visitors).
There are all kinds of little chambers set off this whose purpose is now lost, at least to the casual enquirer.
And there is also a kind of causeway out onto a kind of advanced fighting platform. You have no photo of this because there is really nothing to stop one falling off the causeway at all, no railings, nothing. It’s broad enough for two people to pass each other very carefully, but there was no way I was going to risk it. So I got carefully down from there, and made our way outside and I believe we all sat down to eat something and thus I was able to bring my heartrate down as near to normal as Turkish coffee will allow. And just by the site, there is this mosque.
The Arslanhane Camisi is not the oldest mosque in Ankara, which is twelfth-century whereas this one is only thirteenth-century (details, I admit, that I learn from Wikipedia), and in places on the outside where it’s had to be maintained it looks rather newer than that.
But you can’t make that mistake once you’re in it, because unlike the later domed ones of which we saw so much from Istanbul, this one’s roof is held up by venerable wooden columns.
In fact the interior is mainly wood, but the Seljuks were not above a bit of spoliation either, and let’s face it, we’ve already seen that reused stonework was a venerable local practice anyway.
I should probably have some deeper point to make here than ‘this is the oldest mosque I’ve ever been in, it has a cool wooden roof partly held up by Roman column capitals and I liked it’ but I don’t, really. Subsequent trips to Ankara have broadened my sense of the city’s past a bit, too, but those photos will come some other time. Meanwhile, I hope you have enjoyed these ones!
1. Here my best reference is Clive Foss, “Late Antique and Byzantine Ankara” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 31 (Washington DC 1977), pp. 27–87.
2. For the castle I would have been a bit lost without Julian Bennett, “‘The Powerful and Fortified Ancyra'” in Bilkent University Archaeology Department Newsletter no. 1 (Ankara 2002), pp. 28–32, online here. There is local signage, which I’m sure is fine in Turkish but in English starts paragraphs with phrases like, “The castle have witnessed some periods,” and takes few prisoners to lack of historical knowledge thereafter. It certainly doesn’t help you work out which bit of the building you’re standing in…
I visited Ankara in 2015 but completely missed all this. Very jealous. I get the impression that the builders scrounged every piece of stone they could find in and out of the city. High probability some inhabitants woke up one morning to find bits of their homes missing.
Very much my impression also; it reminds me of the way Victorian cemeteries are occasionally ploughed over in London to make more room, except that then I assume that the headstones are at least broken down into gravel. On the other hand they build so few castles in London these days; perhaps if the current government gets really panicky we’ll see the same there… As for missing this, well, there is plenty else to see in Ankara, that’s for sure; had we not had a local Byzantinist guide, I don’t know that this would have been something we found near the top of anyone’s suggested itinerary for us.
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