Tour of the Seven Churches on and near Turkey’s Aegean coast

The Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, is traditionally held to have been written by St John (variously the apostle, the divine, the evangelist) while exiled to the island of Patmos from Ephesus on the mainland. It is prefaced by letters to seven churches* on the mainland. The classical remains, Christian assocations and pleasures of being in Turkey make the sites of these churches a great focus for a visit.

And indeed various tours are offered. For example with the Reverend James Buxton, chaplain of the Anglican church in Smyrna, with Tutku Tours (details here»).

* Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea

Relevant Blue Guides titles:

Lying in state

Paola Pugsley explores the history of this now established custom

When faced with a crisis like the death of a much beloved sovereign, human beings tend to seek comfort in ritual. One of these is the tradition of the lying in state, when the deceased is laid in his or her coffin and mourners are invited to file past to pay their respects. One might think that this was a custom hallowed by the centuries. The truth is rather different.

The procedure refers to the placing of the body in an open or closed casket and displaying this in an opulent or solemn setting, as happened in Westminster Hall in the case of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The coffin stood on a raised plinth, covered by the royal standard and topped by a wreath, with the imperial crown, the golden orb and the sceptre on a purple cushion and huge candle stands all around. A selected contingent kept the vigil, dressed in elaborate unifoms, and a steady stream of mourners, some of whom had been queuing for hours, filed slowly past in complete silence. Only the shuffling of feet was heard.

But just how old is this custom? An early mention of the term ‘lying in state’, in the London Gazette in 1705, refers to Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, Queen Consort of Prussia, who died of pneumonia in that year. But there is no suggestion of crowds of commoners filing past to pay their respects. Her death remained a private matter.

That does not mean that the demise of a powerful leader was always kept private. Far from it. Monumental tombs, intended to endure forever, were a good way to announce the fact indelibly to everyone. One need only think of the pyramids. The populace did not visit them to pay their respects, as such, but they would certainly have stood before them in awe. Another, perhaps more subtle way of manipulating public perception was the use of conspicuous consumption. The target in this case was not so much the ordinary people but rival clans and power centres, who could be led to believe, seeing so much money lavished on a monument, that if so much disposable income was available, then there must surely be plenty more where it came from. This conspicuous consumption could take the shape of immense banquets, or the burial of vast riches with the deceased, as happened in the so-called Midas Tomb in Gordion ,Turkey. The procedure was one involving priests, relatives and officialdom. The populace played its role later, as tomb robbers.

Human sacrifice is also recorded. A man’s entire retinue of household servants might be bludgeoned to death and summarily embalmed, according to the latest research, to join their deceased master and ensure faithful, eternal service in the afterlife (mid-3rd millennium in Ur, Mesopotamia). But this system seems not to have endured. The Egyptians made do with moulded models, and the famous terracotta army was made of clay, not of people. For a long time the death of a ruler remained an affair between the surviving relatives and the religious authorities, but prestige might be lent by the architect of a monument. In Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent had a simple tomb in San Lorenzo, but it was designed by Michelangelo.

The lying in state of a person of authority for the benefit not only of relatives and members of the apparatus of state but also of the common people, seems to have developed in the US, starting in 1852 with Henry Clay, a senator with a long and distinguished political career. In 1865 Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state. The place of choice was the Capitol in Washington, DC. While we know when, however, it is not clear why it came about. Certainly the dramatic circumstances of Lincoln’s death played a part; moreover, as a young country looking for a common identity, the shared moment of grief acquired a momentum of its own in the United States and needed an outlet. The first statesman to be awarded the honour in the UK was Gladstone, in 1898, and from then on the practice spread and has now become routine. The first member of the British royal family to lie in state was Edward VII in 1910.

Abraham Lincoln lying in state in 1865. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Another possible explanation for the custom of placing a body in an open casket is the fear of mistaken death. This encouraged people to delay burial for a few days to make sure that the departed was truly no more. The corpse would be kept in the house while well-wishers would come to pay their respects and comfort the family. While the medically accepted phenomenon of autoresuscitation (or Lazarus syndrome) is rare, the fear of being buried alive was and is very real. One can find all sort of examples on the web, including the case of a person who came back to life during his own autopsy.

Paola Pugsley is the author of Blue Guides to Crete and Turkey

The Twenty-day Sultan

To be a sultan even for only twenty days is an achievement. Cem Sultan paid for it for the rest of his life. Here is his story.

Born the third son of Fatih Sultan Mehmet (the conqueror of Constantinople), Cem could style himself as ‘porphyrogenitus’, being born when his father was an emperor, unlike his two brothers Beyazıt and Mustafa (the latter of whom died soon after and is not part of the story). According to Ottoman tradition, princes were sent out to the provinces while still very young, to learn the ropes. Cem was made governor of Kastamonou at the tender age of five. He took up residence there with his mother, his tutor (his lala) and his court. Later he was promoted to Konya and it was there that he learned of the death of his father. Not yet fifty, Sultan Mehmet had probably died of exhaustion. Already a ruler at twelve, deposed at fourteen and reinstated at nineteen, he went on to conquer Constantinople two years later, embarking afterwards on non-stop wars of conquest in the Balkans and Anatolia. He literally had been burning the candle at both ends.

Mehmet left no arrangements for his succession, which may appear strange since he was well aware of the dangers of civil war. On his accession he had had his one baby brother drowned (or strangled—both methods acceptable as long as Muslim blood was not shed) ‘for the sake of public order’ and had the practice codified in law. The Turco-Mongol tradition leaves to God the choice of ruler from among the males of a specific bloodline. Anyone interfering would be subverting divine will, which equals heresy. But how does God manifest his choice? By granting favour (kut), i.e. the claimant who could maintain himself on the throne could claim divine support. The tradition did not recognise primogeniture of any other form of seniority.

After Mehmet’s death, it was Cem who won the first round. He got himself to Bursa, seized the treasury, minted coins in his own name and was Sultan for twenty days. This was as much time as Beyazıt needed to move from Amasya, where he was governor, gather his troops (the Jannissaries had declared for him) and beat Cem soundly at Yenişehir. Cem fled for his life with his immediate family, all the way to Egypt. While plotting further action, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca (the only Ottoman sultan to have done so) and proposed to Beyazıt that they split the empire. He would rule Anatolia while Beyazıt would control Rumelia, the European provinces. Beyazıt’s answer was unequivocal: absolute power could not be split. ‘Sultans do not have a family’ he said, setting the tone for future Ottoman autocracy.

One last attempt at seizing Konya ended in disaster and Cem had to flee again. This time he did not go to Egypt, where he had left his family, but to Rhodes, the piece of European soil within easiest reach. He was acquainted, moreover, with the local rulers, the Knights of St John, with whom he had been instrumental in negotiating a settlement after his father’s failed attempt to conquer the island. The Order of St John embodied a mixture of military, political, religious aspirations: assisting pilgrims to the Holy Land, checking the advance of the Turks, flying the flag of Catholic Christianity in the East. Cem calculated that the Grand Master of the Order, Pierre d’Aubusson, who lived in Rhodes, would be able to help him gather European support in his quest for justice, or at least a share of the Empire. At the same time, however, d’Aubusson was in touch with Beyazıt, who was geographically his near neighbour and with whom he had to find a modus vivendi. The result of the negotiations was that d’Aubusson would keep Cem well—and well out of the way—and in return the Sultan would maintain friendly relations with Rhodes and help with an annual contribution of 40,000 gold pieces towards Cem’s upkeep. It is difficult to put a modern figure on this sum of money, sometimes described as ducats or florins, but it was certainly a good deal, well in excess of Cem’s needs. There was enough left over to improve the fortifications of Rhodes and later to tempt the greed of a pope (see below).

The Disputation of St Catherine by Pinturicchio, in the Borgia Rooms in the Vatican (1492–5). The figure of St Catherine has long been rumoured to be a portrait of Pope Alexander VI’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia. The young man in the turban is thought to be Cem. Photo ©BlueGuides

Cem, on the other hand, had completely different ideas. He pictured himself at the head of a European coalition to stop the Turks—or at least one particular Turk, his brother. In this he intended to enlist the support of the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus. One has to bear in mind that the Hungarian kingdom had historically reached far beyond the Danube and that it had felt Ottoman pressure right from the beginning. Cem was counting on d’Aubusson to help him make contact with the King of France, gain his support and ensure a safe passage to Hungary.

And so to France! Cem left Rhodes (without his family, who remained in Egypt) with a suite of forty or so ‘companions’; a concubine Almeida, constituting a harem of one; a number of Turkish slaves purchased at the thriving slave market in Rhodes; and an unspecified following of spies and agents sent on the orders of Venice, of the Sultan and of anyone else interested in this up-and-coming ‘hot property’. As a prince of Ottoman blood, pretender to the throne, Cem had become just that.

The passage to the French Mediterranean coast was uneventful, but Cem and his retinue could not land in Toulon because of plague. The company opted instead for Nice, then in the Duchy of Savoy. Here they were accommodated in the castle, on a rocky outcrop between the harbour and what is now the Promenade des Anglais. Cem spent his time waiting for things to happen and whiling away his time with a pet monkey who could play chess and a parrot who could recite suras of the Koran.

Things began to move again in 1483. The party progressed through Piedmont, crossing the Montcenis pass in winter, and arrived in Chamonix to meet the Duke of Savoy, a lad of just fourteen. There was still no sign of the French king, nor of his envoys, nor of the passport to Hungary. This was due not so much to lack of cooperation from the king as to the fact that he had not apparently been informed. D’Aubusson was clearly intending to keep his side of the bargain with Sultan Beyazıt, to keep Cem ‘well out of the way’, to all intents and purposes a prisoner. This was the reason behind the detour into Piedmont, where the knights could count on secure accommodation in their various commanderies (fortified buildings).

From Chamonix the way was due northwest, to d’Aubusson country, la France profonde, skirting the Grand Chartreuse massif into the Auvergne and beyond into the Creuse around Limoges. Accommodation was always in some form of defended outpost (Rochechinard, Monteil-au-Vicomte, Poët-Laval etc), which can still be identified though most are in a sorry state today. Along the way, romantic attachments with various châtelaines have entered local lore. And Cem was not the only male in his party. There were his companions as well as an unspecified number of Turkish slaves. Talk of large-scale DNA testing, searching for potential kinship links, has come to nothing so far.

In 1484 at Bourganeuf, 40km east of Limoges, Cem and his company were offered accommodation in a château at the centre of the fortified village belonging to d’Aubusson himself and where his sister was living at the time. On the pretext that the rooms were unsuitable, but in reality fearing kidnap or the flight of the prisoner, it was decided to build new, secure accommodation while housing Cem and company nearby. More removals, more disruptions. The building process took two years. There can be no doubt that the tower known locally as the Tour Zizim (apparently from Cem’s childhood nickname, or perhaps because the local people could not pronounce his name properly) was effectively a prison: a seven-storey building accessed via a walkway from another tower of the castle. The first opening was 10m off the ground. The tower can be visited. Inside, the seven floors connected by a central spiral staircase included (from the bottom): a cellar, kitchen and stores; the companions’ accommodation; Cem’s own apartment on two storeys, with his harem above it (still a one-person harem); guards on the top floor and more guards on the roof. Rumours of a hamam are unconfirmed. Here Cem stayed for two years and three months. Not so Almeida, who killed herself.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, things had moved on. When the King of Hungary died the focus of a crusade moved to Rome, to Pope Innocent VIII. Negotiations produced the expected result. D’Aubusson got his cardinal’s hat and relinquished Cem and his appanage, who were taken into custody by the pope. In the spring of 1489, Cem and his suite were moved to Rome where he was lodged in the Vatican, occupying the floor above the pope’s apartment in the Apostolic Palace, overlooking the Cortile del Pappagallo. From Mantegna’s correspondence (he was working in the Palazzo del Belvedere) we get an unflattering description of a moody, alien character.

Beyazıt then made a new arrangement with the pope. Not only would the sultan continue to pay the very generous pension, in exchange for which Cem would be ‘kept well and well out of the way’, but as a sweetener he added a relic, the metal point of the spear that had wounded the Saviour on the Cross. Istanbul was awash with relics and the Turks soon realised their bargaining power with the Christian West. Alas, this particular relic proved ineffective in dealing with Innocent’s health problems and he died in 1492. Even so, the item figures prominently in his left hand in his tomb monument by Antonio Pollaiolo, which can be admired in St Peter’s.

There is no evidence that Cem was free to come and go as he pleased in Rome, but perhaps it was more appealing than a prison-tower in the middle of nowhere in France. Mantegna’s testimony, though, may suggest bouts of depression.

When Innocent died, Cem graduated to a tighter regime during the conclave. He was still ‘hot property’ and was confined to a tower for the duration of the conclave. Worse was to come. The new pope was a Borgia, Alexander VI. He was determined to use Cem for his schemes, which included a crusade. It never materialised, partly because of disagreements among the perspective participants, chief among them Venice, who was to have supplied the vessels but was very unwilling to upset relationships with the Porte at a time when the Serenissima was trading happily with the infidels in spite of the papal prohibition.

In the meantime the French king, Charles VIII, had decided to act upon his claim to the throne of Naples and in 1494 crossed the Alps to claim his due. Cem this time ended up with the pope himself in Castel Sant’Angelo, the one-time mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian later turned into a fortress. In spite of his determination to hang on to his precious hostage, Pope Alexander had to surrender him to the French king, who also had the same ill-defined ambition of a crusade. It was a difficult time for the Borgias as they were short of money and Beyazıt’s subsidy was quite handy.

Cem just made it to Naples and died in Castel Capuano, at that time the residence of the King of Naples, who was currently in exile. This was a blow for the French king and his ambitions. In the end his mad cavalcade from Paris to Naples came to nothing and he went back home—though not empty-handed. In his train were 43 tons of booty: carpets, tapestries, books, marbles, furniture, the bronze doors of Castel Nuovo and even a set of stained-glass windows. Not all of it made it to France, notably the doors, one of which was used as a shield in a naval battle and was hit by a cannon ball that is still embedded in it. They were sent back to Naples where they can still be admired.

By 1498 the French king was dead and buried. Things were not so simple for Cem, who had died in February 1495 but had still not been buried in the way that Beyazıt wanted, i.e. with the actual body, very publicly in the Empire, to make sure that every citizen knew that the claimant to the throne was truly dead. The problem was twofold. First it was necessary to ensure that the body was really Cem’s. To that effect his two last companions were tasked to guard it day and night. They had already embalmed it, burying the entrails in the garden of Castel Capuano, and then wrapped it in an emergency shroud, in this case one of their turbans.

The lead coffin now awaited transport to Istanbul but that was not so easy. The last thing the Italians wanted to see were Turkish vessels cruising off their shores. The occupation of Otranto by Mehmet Fatih in 1480–81 was still fresh in everyone’s memory. In the end the transport was organised by the King of Naples: overland to Lecce, across the Adriatic to Valona and then by land to Istanbul. Cem was buried in 1499 with full honours in Bursa alongside his brother Mustafa. The surviving companions were rewarded. There is no mention of what became of the parrot and the monkey.

At 35 Cem had spent seven years and two months in France and six years and two months in Italy, in something very close to captivity in unfamiliar surroundings, away from his family and without advancing his cause an inch. If depression and frustration can kill, this would be a textbook case. The curse extended to his progeny. When Sultan Suleiman conquered Rhodes in 1522, he sought out Cem’s son Murat (now a Christian by the name of Niccolò) and had him killed. According to some he may have killed Murat’s son as well, unless the young man had already decamped to Malta, where the Knights of St John had moved. The curse of the Ottoman blood was apparently unforgiving.

by Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, was published in 2020.

After the frescoes: the rise and fall (and rise) of Ephesus

Visitors touring Ephesus might easily end their visit at the Terraced Houses, with their beautiful frescoes and opulent marble floors. The degree of preservation is stunning. Left to the elements frescoes do not survive undamaged to such a height but as there is no trace of immediate reconstruction as such, one is left to wonder how and why they were protected. Taphonomy (the way artefacts are accrued to the archaeological record) can shed light on the process.

The destructive event is dated to around AD 620, an act either of human aggression (the Sassanids) or a natural disaster (earthquake)—or indeed both. The damage was terminal: the houses were not repaired but nor was the site abandoned. A quick backfill followed and the location was terraced again, at an unspecified time, and occupied by a long narrow building, apparently used for storage. This is Late Antiquity, a time when archaeological evidence becomes quite scarce. Buildings, generally speaking, were flimsier constructions, while early excavators looking for solid Roman and Greek solid stonework tended to clear the surface of any later structure, skimp on recording and sometimes publish nothing. From this period on, archaeology is greatly assisted by historians—eminent among them Clive Foss—who have pondered over any available documentation from archives to travellers’ accounts, to graffiti, to piece together Ephesus’s trajectory from the fateful event in the early 7th century to about 1,000 years later, when the great metropolis truly died.

The next two centuries are in many respects a black hole, but one thing is clear: Ephesus regrouped and took a fateful decision. Defence came to the fore. Ephesus received a new set of walls that halved the size of the city, leaving out the whole of the Embolos and both agoras. All efforts were concentrated on the Harbour. The wall, 4m thick (squared stones filled with rubble), ran from the Harbour to the Theatre, along the Arcadian Way and up to the Stadium, and then back to the Harbour.

Map of ancient Ephesus, showing the new walls that cut the ancient city in half. The locations of the Temple of Artemis and Basilica of St John, to the north and northeast, are indicated.

About a mile to the northeast, the barren hill known to the Byzantines as Helibaton (‘The Steep One’), where Justinian had built the grand basilica dedicated to St John the Apostle in about the mid-6th century, another Ephesus had developed, cashing in on the pilgrimage trade. St John had apparently died here and his grave lay beneath the altar. In addition to this, there was the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, a holy site for pagans, Christians and Muslims alike. And there was always the passing trade of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.

Helibaton, according to the archaeology, was not settled at the time; it was used as a necropolis, the oldest grave being Mycenaean. So, how come its fortune changed? Procopius, the contemporary historian, states very clearly that there was no water. One has to conclude that the aqueduct that made settlement possible dates roughly to the time of the grandiose church, another mark of imperial favour. A wall was built to defend the settlement, using spolia from earlier structures both nearby (the Temple of Artemis) and far away (the Stadium). In these new circumstances, Ephesus fared better than contemporary Sardis (a fortress and some villages) and Pergamon (a small fort). That was certainly the impression of Bishop Willibald, who visited on his way to the Holy Land in 721. After the great havoc of the Arab incursions, the ravages of the plague and other afflictions such as civic unrest, our bishop found Ephesus the capital of a thema (a Byzantine military and administrative district), functioning although diminished. In addition to trade, Ephesus had always had a rich and productive hinterland, not having in its Greek past dissipated its energies in setting up colonies, as Miletus had done.

The next 350 years of Byzantine presence mark a steady decline. By about the 10th century the harbour had silted up, making it no longer suitable for the Byzantine fleet. The fleet moved about ten miles south, to Phygela, an unexcavated Genoese colony also known as Scalanova, now covered over by the modern settlement of Kuşadası. Trade suffered. Tellingly it is about now that the whole of Ephesus started to became known as Hagios Theologos (from which later on it became Ayasoluk for the Muslims and Altoluogo for the Latins).

The time of Lascarid rule was particularly auspicious. This was when the Latins ran Byzantium, in the first half of the 13th century, and the ruling Byzantine dynasty was based in Anatolia. Borders were well defended by the akrites, a sort of elite caste of freelance fighters, and the marauding Turks from the east were kept in check. The walls of Ayasoluk were remodelled, with the building of a separate fortress with pentagonal and rectangular towers, the ancestor of the tower we can admire today. The great basilica seems to have fared less well: according to Bishop John Tornikes, it was full of hedgehogs, bird droppings and fallen mosaics. The atrium was covered in buildings. Indeed, while Ephesus emptied, Ayasoluk was bursting at the seams and expanding beyond the walls. The original trickle of nomads from the east, after the fateful battle of Manzikert 1071, was now turning into a flood down the Meander valley. Recent political developments such as the setting up of the Sultanate of Konya had upset the pattern of trade. Communication with the east was severed.

The incorporation into the Emirate of Aydın (which moved its capital to Ayasoluk) brought some sort of stability. Trade resumed, with Venetian and Genoese merchants looking for raw materials (alum, grain, rice, wax and hemp) in exchange for manufactured products such as the ever-popular brightly coloured cloth. The original harbour, now unusable, was abandoned. The new harbour (Panormus) was at a location four miles due west of Ayasoluk. A map drawn by Choiseul-Gouffier, French ambassador to the Porte from 1784–91, shows the spot just north of the mouth of the Cayster. It is labelled ‘Lake full of reeds’ and was at that time by the sea, whereas the present coastline is two miles further west. Older accounts mention merchants’ houses, docks, churches, a lighthouse and a ‘deep’ harbour around the eastern end of the inlet. Investigations have been sporadic. Merchandise could move by road and down the river. The local emir pocketed the dues and indulged in some piracy to supply the slave market. Times were prosperous. The Isa Bey mosque went up, the first monumental building in the area since the time of Justinian. The court of the emir patronised the arts and sciences.

St John’s basilica was turned in part into a mosque (the frescoes were hidden under coloured marble slabs) and the rest of the building was used as a market for the produce of the fertile hinterland. Locally minted gold coinage imitated that of Florence. By now the fame of St John had acquired an extra twist: not only did the sacred tomb beneath the altar exude a miraculous manna on certain dates, but the saint, it turned out, was not really dead. He was merely asleep, and his snoring could be heard. Pilgrims continued to flock to the sacred site and paid the entrance fee imposed by the business-minded Turks.

This sort of mutually beneficial cohabitation required a lot of delicate footwork, not least because the emir’s authority was never beyond challenge by other members of his family. The intervention of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezıt I (known as Yıldırım, the ‘Thunderbolt’) was as unwelcome as it was inopportune. He plunged the emirate into chaos in 1390. When Tamerlane captured him at the battle of Ankara in 1402, the Anatolian emirs breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the respite was short-lived. The Ottomans returned in 1425, and this time they stayed. Serious decline set in. Trade gradually moved to Scalanova and Izmir. Istanbul was distant and indifferent. Nomadism took root in the hinterland, with serious ecological consequences: deforestation, the neglect of drainage ditches and therefore increased silting. 

Under the conservative Ottoman rule, Ephesus maintained its administrative role as the head of a kaza, an administrative division under a kadı (a judge); the mint still operated. Western travellers attracted by the Classical ruins had to go to Ayasoluk to find lodgings and to pay their respects to the kadı, a process that involved bringing a suitable gift (coffee and sugar were welcomed). Their accounts paint a dismal picture of the place: houses with earthen roofs, lodgings full of fleas, howling jackals; but the Isa Bey mosque was in good repair and was at times mistaken for St John’s basilica. Evliya Çelebi, who visited in the mid-17th century, was certainly not fooled. Finding little reason to rejoice in the present state of Ayasoluk, he berated the locals and their laziness for the sad state of affairs while at the same time conjuring up a mythical, glorious Islamic past when Ayasoluk had had 300 baths, 20,000 shops, and 3,800 mosques, both large and small. The reality was that the place was riddled with malaria, a fact greatly responsible for the misery witnessed by visitors.

By the 18th century the Turkish population had moved into the castle while the Greeks had decamped to the surrounding hills. By the 19th century the castle was in ruins but there was still a kadı; he lived in the village.

The planned railway put Ephesus back on the map as a communication hub, which had been its calling since antiquity. Its construction brought with it a young engineer, John Turtle Wood, who pinpointed the correct location of the Artemision and thereby started the rebirth of Ephesus.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum

The Colour Purple

Empires that tend to be large, and try to unite peoples of disparate ethnicities under one ruler, certainly have a communication problem, more so in antiquity when getting ideas around was a much slower business. The power, the benevolence—indeed the very existence of a new emperor had to be drummed in one way or another. Coinage was pressed into service. Everyone needed coins to pay taxes while soldiers, paid in coins, could see the ruler’s portrait on them.

Colour, as exclusive to the top end of the ruling class, was also used at least from the 2nd millennium BC according to written sources. And the colour used was purple, the colour of a dye extracted from a marine mollusc and developed on the east Mediterranean coast and subsequently commercialised widely by the Phoenicians. The Hittites and later the Assyrians mention it as a tribute extracted from the area. Persia adopted purple wholeheartedly. Such success, apart from personal taste, is probably down to the fact that it was the only colour-fast commercial dye known in antiquity. Empires are not supposed to fade. And besides, it was very expensive, reassuringly so, worth its weight in silver. Wannabes who tried to cheat with a dye extracted from radicchio endives were soon exposed.

When Alexander the Great toppled the Persian Empire, he adopted the Persian style with enthusiasm: purple hat, purple shoes, tunic, mantle and a profusion of purple soft furnishings: cushions, rugs and carpets. He gifted purple things to his entourage as a mark of favour. The chosen few were called the ‘porporati’. As he died in Babylon it was left to his successors, the diadochoi, to bring the fashion westwards. The up-and-coming power of the time, Rome, adopted purple as a symbol of power but in a more modest version, as consonant with a republic that did not wish to be associated with the absolutism and tyranny of the defunct Persian Empire. Senators and other worthies had bands of purple on their togas, of differing widths according to rank. Only a victorious general was allowed a full purple toga embroidered with gold (the toga picta).

As the wheels of history moved on and the Roman Empire became a reality, the colour purple took a new dimension. On 23 July AD 18, at the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, Caius Cominius Leugas discovered the quarries of red and black porphyry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. So says the inscription found in a location some 30km inland from Hurgada on the Red Sea in one of the quarry villages. The date suggests that the province of Egypt was being prospected for mineral resources. After the demise of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt came under the direct control of the Emperor, being too rich and important to be left to senators or equestrians. The Egyptians had been aware of this stone, with its stunning purple hue dotted with white specks, but had not exploited the quarries. They had only used the odd loose boulder, found lying on the valley floor, to make vessels. Perhaps they did not particularly like it, or were defeated by the logistics of extracting and moving large pieces. Not so the Romans. About 50 years later the operation was up and running, roughly at the same time as the exploitation of the granite quarries on Mount Claudianus about 50km to the south. These in due course provided the columns for the front porch of the Pantheon, still there to be admired.

The Roman activity at Mons Porphyrites, which lasted almost without interruption until the 5th century, has recently been investigated by a British team. Another reason for the study is because the site is under threat from nearby tourist development at Hurgada. Access has become too easy: the desert is not what it used to be.

The area is mountainous and the porphyry is present as intrusions in dikes, most of which are vertical. Therefore the quarries are high up and connected to the wadi floor with slipways. Workers lived in villages; the military personnel, indispensable for security and for technical expertise, lived in a fort together with the administrative staff. It is thought that the workforce was mainly Egyptian, as the two temples identified are dedicated to Egyptian gods. The vexed question of slave labour remains difficult to solve but ostraka (pottery sherds reused to write messages on) talk of payments to workers—or at least, to specialists, such as the blacksmith for whom wood had to be found, as indeed it was: oak has been identified, which must have been sourced outside Egypt. A blacksmith was required for the metal tools. Porphyry being harder that granite, it could only be obtained with the use of metal wedges and chisels.

Transport, first to the Nile (some 140km), then down the Nile and finally to Rome, remains a bit of a mystery. If you look at Nero’s colossal monolithic basin, now in the Vatican Museums but formerly in his Domus Aurea, you can see the extent of the problem. The diameter of the basin (some 470cm, never mind the supporting structure which may not be original) suggests a weight of several tons (a cubic metre of porphyry weighs 2.7 tons), quite a job to shift and transport. Eighteenth-century evidence from Carrara in Italy suggests that a wagon load of 18 tons could be handled by 12to 18 pairs of  oxen. But this is a desert area and cattle do not prosper here. Indeed the animal remains suggest the presence of horses (for the military), donkeys, mules and camels. Camels are very strong but also have a foul temper and are difficult to harness in large numbers for a long trek. 

Photo © Paola Pugsley

Somehow or other, however, the stone was moved, starting off from Badia, a nearby fort just out of the wadi in a very fine location (as the picture above shows) to the southwest to Qena on the Nile. It was moved north in such quantities that when the Roman Empire collapsed there was enough porphyry in Rome to adorn the successor capitals from Ravenna (where Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, had a porphyry bath manoeuvred into his extravagant tomb) to Byzantium and beyond. There were enough spare columns to beautify churches and palaces, to satisfy everyone. Only statuary perhaps suffered, as there were no fresh blocks to carve. Byzantium went as far as panelling a whole room with porphyry for the heir to Empire to be ‘porphyry-born’ (Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus). Porphyry sarcophagi continued to be used; a good selection can be seen in the garden of the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul.

These were heady days for the Byzantines: the Arab incursions had been repelled and the Turks were not yet on the world scene. Many years later, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who turned Byzantium into Istanbul, had no time for porphyry: the colour of Islam was green.

By Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey was published in 2020.