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After 40 years exploring the southwestern corner of Turkey (by gulet, boot, minibus and car), I had thought that I was beginning to know my way around. This fine book proved otherwise. Each of the three dozen essays (commissioned from leading historians and working field archaeologists) proved a revelation. Time and time again the places I thought
I knew all about were turned on their head – like an adult game of snakes and ladders. And due to the generous number of plans, diagrams, maps and colour photographs, the book is both an intellectual entertainment and a pleasurable browse.
I found the varied tones, styles and interests of the contributors to be a fascinating cross section, like a gala display of the theatrical skills of scholarship – some grave and measured, tweaking out a version of a summary of a subject that they have been working on for decades, others bursting with youthful energy at the discovery of a whole new field of art history, such as Neolithic folk art (perhaps wedding day celebrations) daubed in natural rock shrines. Some writers concentrate on charting what has been clearly established, others seem to chuckle at how little has yet been achieved, while others show a barrister’s zeal for that which is contentious.
The Carians embraces a vast timescale, from the Neolithic to the 15th century. It also reflects a 300-year patina of scholarship that includes 18th-century antiquarian travellers as well as the work of the pioneering Ottoman archaeologist Osman Hamdi. There is hardly a site in which new scientific discoveries have not been made in the past few decades. Some of these are highly topical, like the discovery of the gender-shifting cave where the first hermaphrodite was fused, alongside 60 lines of original poetry. Those, like myself, who have glowed with pleasure at identifying the cave- shrine of Endymion at Heracleia-under-Latmos (and rifled their memory for a line from Keats to celebrate the moment) will also have to face up to the fact that there is absolutely nothing historical or archaeological upon which to base this identification.
The romantic walls of this ancient city – like a fragment from the Great Wall of China draped over a Cornish tor – have still not been firmly dated, allowing travel writers to continue with their speculations as to whether this is the work of Alexander the Great or one of his successors. The best guess is that “it was a hot spot during a very short period of time” and probably a military base.
Caria might look just a small province within the national borders of Turkey, but under this sort of close attention to detail it expands to become a cultural universe of its own. Civilisations in Caria have always been formed from the creative friction between the coast and the hinterland. So on the one hand you have some of the greatest cities of antiquity cross-threaded with connections to Egypt, Crete, Macedonia, Athens, Rhodes, Phoenicia and Sparta. Yet the highland culture of the interior Carian villages is empthatically Anatolian, strongly linked with the Hittite, Persian and Parthian empires.
The frontiers of Caria have often been fought over but they have never been doubted. The Maeander valley was the northern frontier, while the independent-minded city state of Caunos watched the eastern borderland. Such neighbouring states as Lycia and Lydia were often fought against, but they were also seen as distant kinsmen who worshipped the same gods and spoke an allied tongue. Caria not only had its own language but its own script. They had a 48-letter alphabet (containing five unique sounds) but seem less interested in carving strict translations than in catching some unique poetic sound on the wing. So the “Caunus Bilingual” inscription is not proving as decisive as the Rosetta Stone, allowing the graffiti left by Carian soldiers on Egyptian temples to become a vital second source. Caria exported metals, sculptors, salt and a couple of famous philosophers, but its chief trading item was its mercenary highland warriors sporting their distinctive shields and helmets with horsehair cockscombs.
The fine details of Carian history will frustrate any foolish generalisations. A traveller might presume that the great classical monuments come from the famous period of liberation from the Persian Empire, after the series of events following the Ionian revolt. This is the backstory to such proud temples as the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. But in Caria there is precious little archaeological evidence from the Athenian Empire. There is copious monumental evidence from the period when Caria was reintegrated into the Persian Empire, after the King’s Peace.
It is impossible not to salute this period – ably directed by a local dynasty (the Hekatomnids) who served as satrap-governors – as a high-water mark of Carian culture. This is the period that gave us the half-Carian father of history, Herodotus, the splendid highland shrine to Zeus at Labraunda, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the prototype mausoleum that stood in the centre of the great city of Halicarnassus. A fountain thundered from the east wall of the complex, watering the market square for 500 years.
The Goths might have left the port cities of Caria such as Cnidus in ruins in AD260, but this only seems to have confirmed the further rise in prosperity of such inland cities as Aphrodisias. You might have been tempted to blame Arab Muslim armies for the final death of the statue-rich city of Aphrodisias, but the evidence now points to a Persian army. You must also step carefully in Caria before inhaling any waffle about a cultural war between Greek Byzantium on the coast and Turkic Anatolia. For at Miletus, at Milas-Beçin, Iasos and Stratoniceia, an observant traveller will catch the echo of the Menteşe emirate, which in the late Middle Ages threatened to revive the prosperity, frontiers and cultural fusion of Levantine Caria.
Anyone who wishes to write about, know or explore the region needs to digest this handsome monument of a book, even though it is doomed to be a work in progress. For it seems clear that each of the three dozen contributors is determined to continue to expand our frontiers of knowledge.
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