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The vestigial glories of Byzantium and its world return to life in this superbly written travelogue by poet Ash (The Burnt Pages, not reviewed). In recent decades, Byzantine studies have come into their own and the empire in which Greco-Roman culture flourished for a thousand years after the fall of Rome is no longer considered as a synonym for decadence and intrigue. Ash makes no claim to be a professional Byzantinist, but his familiarity with the literature is apparent on every page as he takes us from Istanbul (once Constantinople) through dusty and dilapidated towns of Asiatic Turkey, such as Nicaea and Amorion, which were once splendid cities. Ash's text is divided into brief chapters that are replete with absorbing historical detail and anecdote as well as with his own consummate aesthetic sense and unrelenting curiosity. He describes his encounters with Turkish tourist officials and the caretakers of forsaken mosques and churches that eventually reveal their treasures to his keen eye. We hear of the eccentricities of caliphs and emperors, of how 13th-century Christians and Muslims united at the funeral of their beloved poet Rumi, and of the relentless destruction at the hands of the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and not least, the Turks in 1922 after defeating the Greek invaders at the Battle of Dumlupinar. Ash is most at home describing works of art, such as the frescoed cave churches of Cappadocia, and the vagaries of human beings, but he neglects the profound influence of religion on Byzantine culture and politics. A master of prose, he artfully combines richness of metaphor with an unpretentious and attractive immediacy. A joy for lovers of Byzantium, travel, and the English language.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Random