John Ash planned his five-week trip to highlight the history and cultural achievements of the Byzantine Empire, the state that succeeded the Roman Empire and that survived until 1453. While the empire extended for most of its history beyond Asia Minor, the site of modern Turkey, this great peninsula was always its stronghold. And while Ash begins his journey in European Istanbul, he proceeds eastward across the Anatolian plateau into the very heart of Asia Minor.
Ash visits the idyllic Princes’ Islands, where powerful individuals dangerous to the empire were often exiled; the sleepy city if Iznik (ancient Nicaea), where much of the cultural legacy of Greece was preserved; and Afyon, whose ancient citadel is built within the blackened cone of an eroded volcano. Further east, he reaches Cappadocia, the location of immense underground cities and exotic geologic formations so bizarre as to beggar description.
Each site on Ash’s journey takes him deep into Byzantine history. By the time he returns to Istanbul via an arduous bus ride, he has described the Eastern Roman Empire’s transformation into the Byzantine Empire and the course of its survival some thousand years beyond the collapse of Rome itself.
Emperors and empresses figure prominently in Ash’s account, as do instances of great bravery and incredible cruelty. But perhaps the most memorable figure to the modern reader is a Muslim mystic who came to live among the Christians and Jews of the empire. Celaleddin Rumi taught that “Though the ways are various, the goal is one.” Despite his goal of winning converts, he was deeply respected by his non-Muslim neighbors, and was mourned by all when he died in 1273.
Since Ash proceeds geographically rather than chronologically, readers my often find themselves at sea. But those willing to follow his lead will find him a personable guide through a fascinating period of history.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, June 1, 1995, p. 1721.
The Christian Science Monitor. July 27, 1995, p. B3.
Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, April 15, 1995, p. 520.
Library Journal. CXX, June 1, 1995, p. 146.
Los Angeles Times. October 22, 1995, p. L9.
The New York Times Book Review. C, July 16, 1995, p. 14.
The New Yorker. LXXI, July 24, 1995, p. 89.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, April 24, 1995, p. 54.
Smithsonian. XXVI, December, 1995, p. 128.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 25, 1995, p. 1.