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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Byzantine City of Amorium

Amorium is an archaeological site in ancient Phrygia, part of central western Anatolia. It is located at the modern Turkish village of Hisarköy, near Emirdağ, Afyonkarahisar. Excavations began in 1988 under the direction of Professor R. Martin Harrison from the University of Oxford with the intention of investigating the size and nature of the Byzantine city (sixth–eleventh century). Amorium was one of the largest and most important cities in Anatolia during the early Middle Ages, becoming in the second half of the seventh century the capital of the Byzantine province or theme of Anatolikon. The archaeology of Byzantine Anatolia and of the Byzantine Dark Ages (mid-seventh through early ninth century) is relatively unknown. The work at Amorium over the past twenty years has provided a wealth of information about the site, as well as some remarkable individual finds, that have shed new light on the economic and social history of the Byzantine world. In addition to excavation, there is an extensive program of conservation, aimed at the long-term preservation of the site and its monuments.

Amorium is a large site with a long history. The urban area, comprising an Upper City or citadel, located on a prehistoric settlement mound, and a much more extensive Lower City, measures over 160 acres (65 hectares). Both areas are enclosed by fortification walls; the perimeter of the Lower City walls, constructed no earlier than the late fifth century, measures some 1.875 miles (3 kilometers). In addition, cemeteries, together with ancient stone quarries, stretch over a wide area around the city. The cemeteries provide the best evidence for the size and status of Amorium in Roman times, since little now remains of the Roman city itself. It was, however, an important provincial center, part of the original Roman province of Asia, established in 133 B.C. As well as coins that were minted intermittently from the first century B.C. through to the reign of the emperor Caracalla (211–217 A.D.), the excavations have provided evidence for the existence of a Roman bath and at least an interest in Roman gladiatorial shows (part of a terracotta figurine of a gladiator was found during the excavations). Like many other provincial cities, its existence is barely recorded in contemporary Roman historical sources. The first real mention and description of the city is found in the Life of Saint Theodore of Sykeon, written at the beginning of the seventh century.

Amorium became a place of major strategic importance when it was chosen to be the headquarters of the Army of the Anatolics in the mid-seventh century. This was the largest Byzantine army unit stationed in Anatolia to ward off the Arab invasions. The first recorded Arab attack on Amorium took place in 646 A.D. Thereafter, the city and its thematic troops played a central role in the defense not only of Byzantium but of the Christian world as a whole. In addition, several generals used their power base at Amorium to challenge for the imperial purple and the throne in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. One such successful claimant was Leo III (r. 717–41), the first of the Iconoclastic emperors of Byzantium. Another was Michael II (r. 820–29), who was a native of Amorium itself. He was succeeded by his son Theophilus (r. 829–42), the last Iconoclastic emperor, and his grandson, Michael III (r. 842–67). These three emperors are known today as the Amorian dynasty. The most famous episode in the history of Byzantine Amorium took place during the reign of the emperor Theophilus, when in August 838 the massed armies of the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Muctasim laid siege to and sacked the city. These events are recorded in some detail by both Byzantine and Arab writers, but the excavations have revealed actual physical evidence for the destruction of the city.

In recent years, excavations have focused on two sectors of the Lower City. One is in an area known as the Enclosure where a sixth-century public bath has been found. There are very few surviving examples of Byzantine bathing establishments, and this example in central Anatolia is important evidence for both the continuity of bathing in the Byzantine empire and the transference of such customs to the Islamic world. In addition, during the Dark Ages (seventh–eighth century), the area around the bathhouse was filled with a number of separate installations for pressing grapes. It is clear that this was a major industry, producing considerable quantities of wine. It is highly unusual to find such activities in an urban context; most ancient wine and oil presses were located on farms in the countryside. The evidence at Amorium has been preserved only because the installations continued to exist until they were buried by the destruction of the city in 838.

The destruction layers are widespread and have preserved, as well as buildings, numerous small finds, including coins and precious personal possessions such as a gold, pearl, and emerald earring. The finds of pottery, glass, and metalwork from these sealed destruction deposits are of great significance since they provide a clear and precise date for whole groups and types of objects. Moreover, in 2008, the remains of two victims of the sack were uncovered. One, probably a man, was found with a large gash through his skull, lying on his back in the main street. It would seem that he was struck down as he tried to flee, and it is likely that he was an innocent civilian since no weapons or armor were found on the body.

The other sector in which work has concentrated for several years is an ecclesiastical complex just to the south of the Enclosure. The church was originally built in the early Byzantine period (fifth–sixth century) as an aisled basilica, complete with a baptistery on its northwest side. The whole complex suffered considerable damage in 838, when the wooden roof of the church probably caught fire. Remarkably, the church was not then abandoned (as was the bathhouse in the Enclosure), but was completely rebuilt and given piers and buttresses to support a large dome over the center of the nave. The new church was elaborately refurbished. A new marble opus sectile floor was laid, glass mosaics were set into the ceilings, and the walls were furnished with frescoes depicting saints and other holy figures. Many tombs were also added, some of which contained well-preserved silk textiles and leather shoes as well as pendant crosses and items of jewelry. The finds demonstrate not only the piety but also the wealth and sophistication of some of Amorium’s inhabitants in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

In conjunction with the excavations at the church, a program aimed at the long-term conservation and restoration of its surviving fabric has been energetically carried forward. A stone yard has been created to the south of the church, where fragments of columns, windows, door sections (jambs, lintels, etc.), and other pieces could be identified and prepared for reassembly. A gantry for lifting and holding heavy marble blocks during the repair work has been supplied by a local Turkish businessman. Eventually, it is hoped to be able to enclose the whole complex and turn it into a visitor orientation center.

In addition, the archaeologists at Amorium are aware of their duty to publish their findings. Monographs on various aspects of the research undertaken at Amorium have been published, and preliminary reports appear in both English and Turkish in scholarly journals and more popular magazines. The Amorium excavations are sponsored by the British Institute at Ankara and are currently funded by generous grants from the Adelaide and Milton De Groot Fund at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Leon Levy Foundation, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, and other donors.