Stories in Stone: Exploring the Eastern Mediterranean and its Byzantine heritage

My project, The Byzantine Legacy, aims to make the heritage of cities and monuments around the Eastern Mediterranean more accessible. It showcases Byzantine cultural heritage on a website that documents various sites using my photos, accompanied by plans, historic images, and texts reviewing academic literature. While it is mainly focused on Istanbul’s medieval monuments, it also involves me traveling quite extensively around the region. This was fundamentally disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic – something, of course, we all experienced in one way or another. Last year, 2022, gave me the opportunity to return to my travels.

It was an interesting year to reflect on my project, since I revisited cities that inspired me to start it, including Ravenna, Venice, Mystras, and Thessaloniki. Retracing my steps helped me see how much I learned while developing it, from noticing various architectural details to considering the history of the places in terms of the longue durée (rather than simply romanticizing a limited moment of time). I was also reminded of the primary reason I started The Byzantine Legacy: to provide accessible information on historical monuments and the stories they tell.

In many ways, this project was quite an accident, slowly developing as I researched the monuments and sites of the region. The first steps came shortly after my first visit to Rome in 2014. While planning the trip, I made an extensive list of places I wanted to see in Rome, and I began learning more about Roman architecture and archaeology. Even though I was only there for a couple of days, I was finally in Rome – a place I had wanted to see since I was a child. As I was wandering around the city, trying to see as much as I could in a limited amount of time, I began to ask myself why I had not already done this in Istanbul, where I live. So while in Rome, I decided I would search for the New Rome in old Istanbul.

When I came back and began to explore Istanbul, I quickly realized it can be quite difficult to make the list I had made in Rome. I slowly added sites to a map I created, noting how important sites, such as Boukoleon Palace, lacked signboards at the time. I also realized how Istanbul’s numerous inscriptions in Latin, Greek, and even Ottoman Turkish were quite inaccessible to the public. During this process, as I learned more about Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments and studied the relevant academic literature, I began to visit other cities I had learned were vital to understanding Byzantine material culture. At the same time, I saw that there was a significant gap in public outreach on Byzantium in general – and I thought others might be interested in an overview of what I was learning.

My travels last year put all of this into perspective. Perhaps this was the most obvious during my second visit to Venice – my first since I began the travels that led to my project. The main focus of my research before my recent short visit there was on the spolia of San Marco. Still it was quite astonishing to realize, while photographing the various reliefs on its façade, just how much I previously missed. The Tetrarchs, the vastness of its gold mosaics, the Quadriga, the Treasury – all of it distracted me from seeing other remarkable details. Even for scholars, there are noteworthy monuments in Venice, such as the Lion of Piraeus in front of Venice’s Arsenal, which could be easily missed if they happened to be on the periphery of one’s research. While the organizers of the Byzantine Congress in Venice certainly had limited time to prepare, the organizers of the congress originally scheduled to be held in Istanbul in 2021 mapped out 85 Byzantine sites and museums on their website. This is yet another reason why it is important to continually create new tools and methods to help members of both the public and academia know what is where.

My recent visit (in January 2023) to sites along the Black Sea to the east of Istanbul again reminded me of the importance of providing accessible information. The Black Sea city Amasra is one of the nine sites that comprise the UNESCO tentative list of Genoese trading posts and fortifications in Turkey. While its fortifications are quite accessible and its recently restored museum could be counted as one of the better regional museums in the country, some of the Genoese slabs on its walls are not so accessible to the public (or in some cases, they can even be very difficult to find). Yet they are intimately connected to Genoese history in the 14th and 15th centuries, as can be seen in the slab with the coat of arms of Milanese Visconti who occupied Genoa from 1421 to 1435. Güzelcehisar, located near Amasra, is noteworthy for its rare lava flow estimated to be 80 million years old. While its signboards discuss the remarkable geology of the area, its crumbling castle, which gives the site its name (meaning “Beautiful Castle”), is not even mentioned in the overview of its history.

These recent travels have again underlined the need to continuously develop various ways to provide accessible information on historical monuments and the stories they tell. The Byzantine Legacy was developed for this very purpose – to create links between academic research and material culture, particularly in the form of cultural heritage sites, in order to give reliable information to non-academic and even academic visitors. After all, it is sites like these, even when in ruins, which tell a fragmentary yet important part of the story of the lands on which they lie.

David Hendrix

is the creator of the Byzantine Legacy, a website and social media project on the Byzantine Empire with a particular focus on Istanbul. He extensively travels around Anatolia and the Balkans, researching and photographing dozens of cities, archaeological sites, and museums for this project.