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Probing a town’s past

LMU team “reassembles” Old Vize

Munich, 06/07/2013

An ongoing video journal allows visitors to the Gerda Henkel Foundation’s website to follow the work of LMU archaeologists in the small city of Vize in Turkey. The researchers are resurrecting the town’s Byzantine past.

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Photo: Holger A. Klein

Sitting at a table on a raised platform in Vize, a small provincial city located 120 km to the northwest of Istanbul, Ayça Beygo, a doctoral student at LMU’s Institute for Byzantine Studies, History of Byzantine Art and Modern Greek Studies, is explaining her project to a large audience of townspeople. The locals are clearly pleased that Ayça and a research team led by art historian Professor Franz Alto Bauer (LMU) and Professor Holger Klein (Columbia University, New York) have come to learn more about the eventful history of Vize. The planned investigations will no doubt help to make their home town better known. Ayça appeals to her listeners for their active cooperation. “Don’t be shy,” she says, “come and put questions to us, come and visit us at work. As residents of this town you have always lived in the shadow of these ancient walls. You know them better than anyone else. No one can learn to see this place without your aid.”

Discovering Vize
Ayça Beygo is a trained architect and she is well aware that, to really see Vize, you have to keep your eyes peeled, pay close attention and carefully record your observations. The town has a long and turbulent history. It was once the capital of a Thracian kingdom, it had its own mint in the days of the Roman Empire, and it was the fortified residence of a bishop in the Byzantine era. All of these stages in its history have left their mark on the landscape in and around Vize, but one of them is at the focus of attention for Ayça, her PhD supervisor Franz Alto Bauer, and the other members of the team: “We want to know what the Byzantine town looked like – and so reconstruct how people lived here at that time,” Professor Bauer says. The heart of the walled Byzantine city of Bizye lies on a hill that overlooks the modern municipality and now forms part of a relatively thinly populated suburb.

Photo: Holger A. KleinBauer himself is especially interested in the building at the center of Bizye, the former church of Hagia Sophia. Erected in the 9th century, it was later converted into a mosque, which is no longer in use. Urban transformations such as this are what Franz Alto Bauer wants to understand. – How was the transition from the Byzantine to the Ottoman era actually accomplished? How did the shift from Christianity to Islam affect the town and the lives of its inhabitants? Indeed, how do urbanized communities in general adapt to hostile takeover? “Our studies here in Vize help us to find new answers to these questions,” he says.

A video record of research on site
The team has carried out fieldwork in Vize over the past two summers, performing a comprehensive topographical survey of the whole area of interest. During these campaigns, the researchers noted down all the surface traces of buildings dating from the Byzantine period, including materials and architectural elements that have been re-used in later structures. On the basis of the finished map, they were able to generate a three-dimensional model of the Byzantine town. The survey, which required four months of concentrated work on the ground, was undertaken with the help of an interdisciplinary team including building engineers, architects, art historians, archaeologists. – And with the aid of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, it was also documented by a film team. On 5. June 2013, the first chapter of the resulting video diary appeared on L.I.S.A. , the Foundation’s online portal, which is designed to inform the public about the progress of the projects it supports.

The journal currently consists of nine chapters, which will be successively made available for viewing, allowing interested online visitors to discover Vize for themselves. One can watch Ayça Beygo, Professor Bauer and Professor Klein at work with their Turkish colleagues and with local people. One can look over their shoulders, as it were, as they assess their finds and piece together a picture of the town’s layout – a map that allows them to comprehend how its various elements interacted with each other and shaped the lives of the Byzantine community that once lived here.

The two faces of field research
Photo: Holger A. KleinOver many weeks, team members have cleared away the scrub and charted the course of the town walls. They have surveyed watchtowers and bastions, documented the surviving frescoes in Hagia Sophia, conversed with local politicians and accepted invitations to visit residents in their homes to hear local stories and legends that might throw light on Vize’s past. The topographical survey of Byzantine Bizye has been successfully completed. The team now has a pretty good idea of what Vize then looked like. On this basis, a great deal can be inferred about how intellectual, religious and economic life unfolded in the town.

Back at their home universities in Munich, New York and Istanbul, the collaborating researchers have since spent months analyzing the data gathered on the ground. Franz Alto Bauer, for one, would jump at the chance to return to Vize to dig deeper. “Of course, we would love to excavate,” he says, “but in recent years it has become extremely difficult to obtain permission to dig.” Anyway, the immediate priority is the publication of the results of the surface survey. This will involve intensive and painstaking work at one’s desk, and is at least as important an element of archaeological research as fieldwork. “Reading, reflection and writing is what occupies most of our time, far more than we spend actually excavating,” says Professor Bauer. “But it is not the kind of thing that makes good video material,” he adds, with a smile. Never mind. At all events, this next phase of the project promises to bring us some interesting reading matter.

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