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  • Arie Amaya-Akkermans

'Antioch is a city geologically and environmentally complex and without parallel'

Güncelleme tarihi: 29 Eyl 2023


The publication of the Routledge book “Antioch: A History” in 2021, by Andrea De Giorgi and Asa Eger, was the most comprehensive survey to date of the city’s material history, incorporating new reassessments of archaeological evidence, updating the state of our knowledge about the city’s long past. De Giorgi, a native of Turin and professor of classics at Florida State University, began his career excavating in the Greek colonies of southern Italy, such as Locri. Over time, his interests gradually shifted towards the Roman colonies in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in the modern territories of Turkey and Syria. At present he is the excavation director at Cosa, in southwestern Tuscany.

De Giorgi has devoted many years to studying the archaeology and culture of the Roman period, with a special interest in the particular features of the city of Antioch and its environs. As a part of the series Antiochene Studies, with Brepols Publishers, in collaboration with other scholars, De Giorgi continues to explore the long-lasting legacy of Antioch, striving to complete the publication of findings from the Princeton excavations in Antioch before World War II. During the first part of our interview, De Giorgi spoke to us about the history of modern excavations in Antioch during the Princeton era, the finding and dispersion of the Antioch mosaics in museums throughout the world and the obstacles faced by modern archaeology in the city.

Interview: Arie Amaya-Akkermans

The Princeton Committee for the Excavation of Antioch on the Orontes, between 1932 and 1939, is an important part of the story that you told in your book “Antioch: A History”, and we learn there that the excavations took place during quite an interesting period that happened to coincide with the annexation of Antioch to the Turkish republic as the province of Hatay; a very turbulent period. Why is it so important for us today to learn about and from the Princeton Excavations?

The history of the Princeton excavations is one of the points that I always bring up when trying to persuade people to work on these archives, not only because you get to cast light on Antioch and its materiality, but because there is also the fascinating history of the committee: You had this group of Americans in Hatay, incredibly ambitious, who were struggling to put a budget together to make this enormous project happen. And then it happened. But think about the period: It wasn’t just the tensions in Europe after World War I, the rampant nationalism in the Middle East, the mess of the Ottoman Empire and its disintegration, which is the recipe for a lethal concoction in the region. It was also what happened in America around the time of the Great Depression. These people were making plans for Antioch in the late 1920s and then the depression hit and the market collapsed like in 2008, and institutions backed out because they didn’t have any money left.

Charles Rufus Morey was the person at the helm, and he was a visionary, a real intellectual and had a vision for Antioch, so he managed to get the operation started in 1932, with an understanding that the situation in Hatay is complicated, but the French Mandate authorities had reassured them that the project was viable. Princeton University, with the blessing of the State Department, said that they can go to Syria, and the authorities of the mandate also said everything is fine, so the whole thing got a head start.

At this time the French Mandate was in the process of developing a museum of antiquities.

Yes, exactly. In that part of the world at the time, archaeology was pretty much in French hands and you had these monumental figures in the field. They were the only interlocutors for the Americans, and the Americans on their part, put together a team, and they were also able to involve the Louvre, and everything looked fine. The problem is that everyone who was giving the go ahead blessings at the time, they had never visited Antioch, they had never done a scrap of reconnaissance, and they had no idea what they were up against.

Hunt Floor Mosaic, Worcester Art Museum, early 6th century CE, excavated in 1936

It didn’t take them too long to become aware of the reality, and already in the first season things were getting very complicated. Colonial excavations were still a thing then (Antioch was perhaps the last grand excavation of the colonial period), so they would show up dressed in white wearing a fedora hat, with a stick and hundreds of workers. There was still that idea of hiring a zillion laborers, and digging without focusing in any area in specific, it was all very 1920s.

But Antioch is a city without parallel, it’s geologically and environmentally very complicated; if one has a sense of where things are, you could make it work. They hadn’t done their homework, or at least they hadn’t done enough surveying, and besides that, they hadn’t built any real relationships with the local population, so they always ended up with this issue of contracts being broken, being infringed, people pulling out, or a situation when the lease is up and you can’t dig anymore. There was no real conversation with local stakeholders.

The Princeton Committee was put to halt in 1939 during World War II and then what happened?

Basically in 1939 the whole world went crazy, and even French archaeologist Lassus, one of the main figures in the region, had to go back to France to serve in the army. It's World War II with all of its horrors. Lassus and William Alexander Campbell had literally promised each other that after the war they would resume the excavation, but by the time the war ended, the stamina had disappeared and no one was eager or willing to confront the new Turkish authorities, to seek a new permit.

Truth being said, the Turkish authorities, especially during 1939, and after the coup in Hatay, showed willingness to work with the Franco-American team. But this team always had their reservations about the Turkish authorities. In their notes, they record their thoughts about what’s happening in the region at time, and regard it as a tragedy. They think that there’s no legal ground for this military coup that is unfolding, right before their eyes, and they’re not happy with the situation. In their eyes, Antakya is mostly inhabited by Arabs, and this whole Turkish takeover, with militias and the army, wasn’t going anywhere good.

Even before the events took place, there were expulsions of Arabs and Armenians from Iskenderun in 1938. I am sure this appeared very threatening in the eyes of the Americans.

Absolutely. In their diaries, Lassus and Campbell write not only excavation notes, but also comment on recent events, and from them we know there were riots happening in the city constantly, with people being chased, or being lynched. At some point, while they write about a number of marble fragments, they also tell the story of an Armenian that was being chased by Turks, and that eventually made it to safety but he had to jump into the Orontes River in order to save his life. The insanity of the times is well recorded. A couple of times they were forced to evacuate the camp, pack their things and go to Beirut. By then it was only Campbell and Lassus who were still active there, while Morey and the others had more or less given up or lost interest. Donald Wilber, on the other hand, was an agent provocateur; he worked for the CIA.

It’s such a part of the history of Western archaeology of the Middle East to be a spy, even though sometimes people think it’s just funny stories.

Definitely. People have no idea about the many archaeologists or people who were connected to archaeological work were in fact official agents of the American government.

After 1939, the Princeton Committee is not there anymore, but in the interim period, there is this spectacular dispersion of the Antioch mosaics that go to Princeton, and then basically everywhere, to many other museums. How did this come about? Did they enter into any kind of agreement with the authorities to divide up the found mosaics or how did the mosaics then travel all over the world?

It all starts with the main institutions involved, who were major stakeholders in the excavation, such as Princeton, the Louvre, or the Baltimore Museum. There are the infamous partage agreements, you can call them looting agreements: We dig out stuff, we put it together, we take photographs of it, we study it, and then we also take it. In the framework of the French Mandate in Syria, they could do basically anything they wanted and it was more than anything a discussion amongst themselves; the conversations often revolved around the quality of the finds.

Antioch excavations, Byzantine Stadium, 1932, Princeton Committee for the Excavation of Antioch

There are significant pieces like the Judgment of Paris, an important 2nd century CE mosaic discovered in Antioch in 1932, which went to the Louvre, and then institutions were asking the Louvre, ok now you got the Judgment of Paris, so what are we going to get? This is how it all started. The sponsoring institutions were funding these expeditions not only because of love of science; they obviously wanted the treasures. This is how you built collections in the 1930s.

The trouble begins as soon as the number of mosaic pavements exceeds the capacity of these institutions. Of course you have some magnificent pavements but you also have more average stuff. And what happens next started at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts: Sometime around 1936 the museum had enough material in storage to put together the first exhibition about ancient Antioch in history, and then the main curator who was also the director of the museum, initiated this unfortunate trend of selling pavements to other institutions, and this situation continued until the 50s and the 60s. I know for example that a local museum in Saint Petersburg, Florida, purchased three panels. At this point the folks in Princeton were in terrible financial deficit after the excavations, and by the 1960s they were still trying to fill all those holes in their budget, and the sale of the pavements ended up being the panacea of all the problems. This is how museums and institutions in America that were active in the 1960s, each one got a bit of Antioch, and you would be surprised if you look at a map of all the museums that have material from Antioch, it’s mind blowing.

I think there is a period in American museums, especially after the 1960s, when all the important periods of classical art had already been collected, and then they start on a second wave of acquisitions in which every museum needs to have the newer stuff, like Cycladic marbles, Antiochian pavements or Assyrian terracottas. You need to keep up with the trends.

Absolutely. It’s exactly that. And that is how the collection of mosaics from the excavations was basically scattered, to the point that even a museum in Cuba has a couple of pavements from Antioch. There was a Jesuit university there that had been established by American missionaries, and they purchased a couple of very good pavements.

Has Turkey tried to claim them back and ask for their return?

AG: The ministry of culture in Turkey has sent letters to various institutions, such as Harvard or Baltimore.

Martyrion, Seleucia Pieria (Çevlik), 1938, Princeton Committee for the Excavation of Antioch

Since there have been some returns from the Met, such as the Kilia idol from the Shelby White and Leon Levy collection, I suppose that Turkey is now emboldened.

The requests for repatriation are of course about flexing muscles but historically and legally, if you think about the whole context of 1932-1939, there’s no scrap of evidence that can be shown that this is a part of Turkish culture that has been taken out of the country without permission. Not even the best lawyer in the world could win such a case.

In your book, there was something very striking for me, and it is that if you happened to go to Antakya, before the earthquakes, and nobody told you that this was Antioch there is no way for you to know where you are. In this sense I think the region is really unique; even in Beirut after all its war destructions there is a physical sense of the past. There is a huge disconnect between the archaeological record of Antioch and the present of Antakya (now past). The literary footprint of Antioch in the classical world is so gigantic, it’s everywhere from the New Testament to Anna Komnene’s Alexiad, which is a text set so far off from Antioch emotionally and intellectually, and yet Antioch takes up entire chapters. But then you go to Antakya, and there’s almost nothing to see. It’s so strange.

It is strange. It’s a part of the mystic of the city, I guess. When you think about other cities in the region, like Beirut or Istanbul, it’s incomparable. No matter how overbuilt Istanbul is, if you’re next to Hagia Sophia, you could spatially visualize things. Antakya is something else, and it’s very unfortunate that although great opportunities arose in the past for resurrecting portions of the ancient city, they weren’t fully seized.

The entire 1930s was a big fiasco archaeologically. Sure, a few hundred mosaics have been found, and that’s great, but where are they from? What is their context? You’re trying to understand what Harbiye is, which is where many of the pavements came from, and when you look at those plans, it’s mind-boggling, there’s nothing left, things have been literally razed off the ground.

When you go to places like Çevlik, and you enter the Vespasian Titus tunnels, and climb above them, you can see the exact place where the Martyrium was taken, the one that is now at the Hatay Archaeological Museum, and it looks like a job made by a plumber. You get not only a sense of the incompleteness of the site, so violently excavated but also that it was done in a hurry. In your book we also learn a lot about the search for the Byzantine churches of Antioch, something that has been tried many times in the past, and how little, or next to nothing has been found. But then I think about the Bronze Age archaeology of the region, and how sites like Tell Kurdu, Tell Atchana and Tell Tayinat, in a way are more transparent to archaeologists historically and materially than the Roman and Byzantine past, and I find this mind blowing.

Of course. Let’s put it this way, the only place in Antioch where any work could be possibly done is the former island at Küçükdalyan, that’s where you could perhaps reveal the picture of what actual Antioch was, but so far there’s not much going on, bits and pieces that don’t really give you the bigger picture and maintenance of what has been already excavated. Perhaps you could excavate on the slope of the mountain, but you would need to excavate 10 or 12 meters before getting to the Islamic layers; the sedimentation has accumulated there for many centuries.

Andrea de Giorgi

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