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The Road to Pergamon

Don McCullin and Barnaby Rogerson set out to capture the brooding beauty of Roman Turkey

A shared fascination with the Roman Empire impelled Britain’s greatest photographer, Sir Donald McCullin, to join the writer Barnaby Rogerson on a foray to the Troad to capture Rome’s Aegean legacy. After marvelling at the fabled ruins of Troy and Assos, they set out for magnificent Pergamon, driven by an eye for beauty and an ear for history

  • Temple of Trajan, Pergamon, 2nd century AD, photographed by Sir Don McCullin, September 2019. Overlooking ancient Pergamon from the centre of the acropolis, the Temple of Trajan was ringed by Corinthian columns (six to the front, ten on the sides) on a high podium in the middle of a fine courtyard towered over by three colonnades. It was built over part of the old Hellenistic palace of the Attalids, which stood right beside the Temple of Athena, believed to house the royal library of Pergamon with its 200,000 books. The shrine to Trajan was completed in the reign of his successor, the Emperor Hadrian (117–138)

During the four days I spent at the Istanbul Biennale, urban walks and the openings of brand-new museums – old buildings housing lavish contemporary exhibitions – were interwoven around a succession of ever more glamorous and vibrant parties beside, beyond and above the Bosphorus. I drank deeply, danced a lot and slept very little, and now really needed a rest. On my last night out, I looked at my watch as I collapsed into bed. It was well before 4am, so I had three hours before I should be up, looking chatty and keen. I had an early breakfast date with the legendary photographer Don McCullin. He is a busy man and this meeting had taken months to plan. We were to spend ten days on the road hunting down Roman ruins. How was I going to cope? I had travelled with Don before and knew that the days would be packed, that they would start before first light and only finish when it was pitch-dark.

We had originally been brought together by a shared fascination for the Roman frontier. We had had some wonderful successes in Libya and Algeria – finding the frontier fort of Bou Njem before a Saharan dawn and catching the mausolea at Ghirza as they cast long shadows before dusk. Don had first been set off on this quest by Bruce Chatwin, chasing a story that started with some unexplained shootings in Marseilles and then led them south into Algeria. That particular Pied Noir murder mystery was never solved, but it did have the side effect of introducing Don to the bewitching qualities of Roman imperial architecture. We have yet to identify the haunting lone temple Bruce Chatwin had taken him to see. But this chance encounter had slowly incubated into an obsession, which eventually crystallised into Don’s book Southern Frontiers, which covers most of the great classical sites of North Africa and the Levant.

Don has been very busy in recent years. There’s been a documentary about his life, an exhibition at Tate Britain (the first ever solo retrospective given to a photojournalist), a knighthood and umpteen international honours and shows. I gather that there is also a Hollywood script on the table. But whenever we met he would only want to plan more work. Our trip to Turkey had been brewing ever since I started comparing the ruins of Roman North Africa with what can be found in Anatolia. I had been telling Don about the work of my hero George Bean, who spent half a lifetime exploring the classical ruins of western Turkey on the ground and mapping them out in four fat volumes of detailed scholarship. On a large map on our circular kitchen table I had traced the best sites with my finger, using three much-beloved books, Rose Macaulay and Roloff Beny’s Pleasure of Ruins, Freya Stark and Fulvio Roiter’s Turkey and Patrick Kinross’s Europa Minor, as references. But Don has an uncanny knack for marrying a man to a mission. He gave me a steady look and asked what I hadn’t seen, “which would make it more interesting for you”. I then realised that what I had not seen was what George Bean had not written about, which was the Troad of northwest Turkey…

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Issue 61, Summer 2020 The Road to Pergamon
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 61
  • Emigré’s Escape

    In 1919 the Ukrainian artist Alexis Gritchenko fled Russia for Istanbul. Here he befriended Turkish artists and walked the streets, keeping a diary and making sketches, then applying ‘dynamos’ of colour. A new exhibition throws light on his stay in the city

  • Norman Stone

    Roger Norman looks back over the life of the late historian and writer Norman Stone – always unconventional, sometimes difficult, frequently mischievous – who, after less-than-happy times teaching at Oxford and Cambridge and a stint as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, chose to make his home in Turkey

  • ‘Health to the Body, Food to the Soul’

    Centuries ago, travellers to Turkey were amazed by a new, uplifting taste sensation: the sherbet, flowery or fruity, and served with ice. Berrin Torolsan traces the history of sherbets and the sorbets made from them, and serves up an irresistible array of cooling summery treats

  • Café Come Home

    Istanbul without coffee houses is a day without sun. It was here that they were born, and they are still as individual and interesting as their clientele. Savour them while you can, says Andrew Finkel. Photo essay by Monica Fritz

  • Where the Wild Things Are

    The botanist Andrew Byfield relives the happy days on Bozdağ, in the Taurus Mountains. Flowers thrive there in the harsh climate on bare limestone cliffs and in fractured gullies, and cedar of Lebanon and black pine brave all that nature can throw at them

  • Vanishing Villages

    Can ingenious new ideas coupled with old country wisdom stave off the long-predicted death of the Anatolian village? We sent two keen conservationists to Turkey’s lake district. The writer Nicholas Haslam found reasons for hope. The photographer Paul Veysseyre captured the poignant beauty of its tumbledown houses

Buy the issue
Issue 61, Summer 2020 The Road to Pergamon
£12.00 / $15.24 / 504.31 TL
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