Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity: a building’s connection to the end of an era and the beginning of another

Garrett Ryan, “Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity” (2018)

Part of a series about ten Roman / Byzantine-era buildings built in the territory of modern Turkey, this video initially focuses on Mren Cathedral, a 7th-century Armenian church in the abandoned site of Mren, once a town in the region of Kars in far north-eastern Turkey, and in particular on a stone at the cathedral’s entrance celebrating the return of the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610 – 641 CE). This stone not only establishes the age of Mren Cathedral – it was built during the 630s CE – but also tells us something about the involvement of Armenia as a state in the long border wars between the Roman Empire and its Byzantine imperial successor on the one hand and the Persians (whether Parthians or Sassanids) over several hundreds of years to the 630s CE. The stone and its inscription become the basis for an interesting story told by Ryan in voiceover narration of the war between the Byzantine Empire (which Ryan calls “Roman”) under Heraclius and the Sassanid Empire under Khosrau II (reigned 590 – 626 CE): as the title of the video bluntly states, this war was the last major war fought by two imperial powers of the Classical World just before the eruption of Arab armies inspired by Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula in the same decade that Mren Cathedral was built in Armenia.

Ryan sets the scene by explaining the role Armenia played as a buffer state between the Romans / Byzantines and the Parthians / Sassanids since Classical times. Both superpowers wooed and bribed Armenian princes and rulers to their side and the western and eastern borders of Armenia seem to have changed quite frequently over the centuries. Some time in 590 CE, in a fortress town in Armenia, the young Khosrau II, newly acceded to the Sassanid throne but usurped by rebels, sought refuge with the Byzantine commander; the Byzantines agree to help him regain his throne in Persia. For a decade afterwards, the Byzantines and Sassanids were on friendly terms and respected one another’s territories but with the assassination of Byzantine Emperor Maurice Tiberius in 602 CE, Khosrau II seized the opportunity to overrun Byzantine territories in Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. The Byzantines under Emperor Phocas were unable to stop Khosrau II’s forces as their own armies were tied up battling Avars and Slavs coming into their European territories. Among the booty that the Persians captured in their conquests was the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reputedly the cross on which Jesus Christ died.

In 610 CE, Heraclius became Byzantine Emperor and spent the next decade rebuilding his treasury and army. In 622 CE, he set out to reconquer the territories lost to the Sassanids with the help of the Khazars (Turkic-speaking tribes who would later establish their kingdom on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and convert to Judaism) and of Armenian and Georgian princes. Basing his army in Armenia itself, Heraclius achieved a series of stunning successes against three Persian field armies and entered Persia itself. Finally in 626 CE, at the Battle of Nineveh, Heraclius smashed Khosrau II’s army and Khosrau II ended up being executed by his own nobles.

As a result of Heraclius’s victory against Persia, the Sassanids gave up all the territories conquered by Khosrau II and Heraclius was able to return the True Cross to its Jerusalem home. On his way to Jerusalem from Persia, Heraclius passed through Armenia and one of the Armenian princes who had accompanied Heraclius on his campaigns in western Asia commissioned the Mren Cathedral to be built with the commemoration of the Byzantine Emperor’s restoration of the True Cross.

Ryan does not say very much about the fortunes of Mren Cathedral or of Armenia itself after Heraclius’s victory over the Sassanians, except to observe that with the passing of time and the shifting of trade routes through Armenia, the town of Mren became insignificant and was eventually abandoned. The few photos of the cathedral shown in the video, which is otherwise illustrated with colourful maps showing the campaigns of Heraclius and Khosrau II, show the building to be in a parlous state, neglected by the Turkish government. Grant might have said something about post-Ottoman Turkish government attitudes (especially those of the current government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) toward the Armenians and their buildings and monuments in eastern Turkey but then I guess he’d never be allowed back in Turkey.

The video concludes by observing that, while Mren Cathedral was being built in Armenia, Arab armies began conquering the Arabian Peninsula and spread into western Asia (claiming Syria) and thence into Persia, destroying what remained of Sassanian power. Under the Umayyads and Abbasids, and then later under the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Islam would come to threaten the Byzantine Empire’s eastern territories just as the Zoroastrian Sassanians had done before them. Although Ryan does not say so, Heraclius’s victory over Khosrau II and Khosrau II’s execution surely created a vacuum within Sassanian politics that could be exploited by a new dynasty or by foreigners. Just as the World Wars of the West in the 20th century restructured Europe and changed the course and nature of Western civilisation, so too did the Last World War of Antiquity as Ryan calls it ended up changing civilisation in the Middle East and Persia – and would change the course of the Byzantine Empire in its later centuries.

The video is very entertaining if rather rushed in its narration with facts being thrown at viewers continuously right up to the end. Viewers may need to see it at least twice to absorb all the riveting information about Mren Cathedral’s connection to one of the most significant wars in the history of the world, one that would close off the Classical Era of Greek and Roman civilisation, and lead to the Mediaeval Era of Byzantine and early Islamic civilisation. There were some things though, that stayed the same: among them, Armenia would continue to be a buffer state between the Byzantines (and later the Ottomans) and the Persians, on whom the Armenians would end up relying for protection and much of their culture.

A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia: a visually sumptuous guide and introduction to a famous building and Byzantine civilisation

Garrett Ryan, “A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia” (Told in Stone, 2020 / 2021)

Even as a short film, this video tour of Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya, the most famous site in Istanbul (the former Constantinople before 1453) and the pinnacle of Byzantine imperial civilisation as a place of religious worship, political life and artistic achievement, is a visually sumptuous affair. As usual with Dr Ryan’s short videos for his Told in Stone Youtube channel, he gives running commentary on the building’s history and the reason for its construction, and points out the most important parts of the building, its mosaics and the figures they portray, and the messages those mosaics may convey which demonstrate aspects of Byzantine belief and values.

As viewers might expect, Dr Ryan’s voiceover narration, while speedy, starts with a general survey of the building’s importance to the Byzantine Empire and the context in which Hagia Sophia was first conceived by Emperor Justinian I. The building replaced a church, itself a replacement for the original Hagia Sophia built in 360 CE, when that church was destroyed during the Nika revolts that started in the Hippodrome and quickly spread to the rest of Constantinople, burning or destroying most of the city and leaving 30,000 dead in the space of a week in early January, 532 CE. The building was completed in 537 CE.

From there, the video focuses on particular aspects of Hagia Sophia’s architecture. The building complex features a massive dome built on four spherical triangular pendentives (construction devices that allow a circular dome to be built over a square room) which curve into and support the dome, and spread its weight down into the rest of the building. Other features of interest are the exonarthex which houses the sarcophagus of Empress Irene; the narthex; the Vestibule of Warriors; the Imperial Gate which features a mosaic of Emperor Leo VI doing penance before Christ for marrying more than three times in his quest for a male heir; the galleries where the Empress and her court sat to observe Masses and participate in public life; and the Tomb of Henricus Dandolo, a Venetian doge who led the Fourth Crusade (which never went near the Holy Land but instead concentrated on pillaging Constantinople). Mosaics of interest include those of Empress Zoe (reigned 1028 – 1050 CE) and her third husband Constantine IX (reigned 1042 – 1050 CE) whose face appears to have been changed at least once, perhaps to replace the face of one of Zoe’s former husbands: this juicy piece of information is one of many that Ryan spices his commentary with in his usual disingenuously neutral tone.

Brimming with photos and film of Hagia Sophia’s interiors, all done from as many angles as possible, this video is incredibly immersive and viewers can feel something of the long, deep and rich history of the building complex, its architecture, paintings and mosaics. At the same time, details such as the mosaics of the penitent Leo VI and Constantine IX with his cosmetic surgery, and the graffiti left behind by a fellow called Halfdan, most likely a member of the Varangian bodyguard corps employed by Byzantine Emperors after Swedish Varangians began appearing in Constantinople, help to bring a very human and humorous dimension to Hagia Sophia’s long history.

There are some references to Hagia Sophia’s history after Constantinople’s downfall in 1453 when Mehmet II entered the building and declared it a mosque. After hundreds of years doing sterling duty, the mosque was declared a museum by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk in 1935. Beginning in the early 1990s, parts of Hagia Sophia were repurposed for use in Muslim religious worship and after the new millennium began, there came increasing calls for the building to be reconverted into a mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Hagia Sophia a mosque in 2018.

The video serves as a good introduction to Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine civilisation it represents for tourists and students of classical Greek and Roman history. Those wanting more detail or information about Hagia Sophia’s post-Byzantine history will be disappointed with the sketchy details provided in the video and need to investigate other Youtube videos on the building complex.

The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943: detailed sketch of darkest episode in ancient Roman city’s history

Garrett Ryan, “The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943” (Told in Stone, 25 September 2021)

Not too many popular histories and documentaries on Pompeii and Herculaneum mention that over August and September in 1943 the Allied forces (primarily UK and Canada) dropped about 170 bombs over the archaeological site of Pompeii. Garrett Ryan’s short video gives a quick blow-by-blow sketch of what happened, starting with the reason why the bombing campaign was begun: US, UK and Canadian troops landed at Salerno near Naples, beginning in September 1943, but encountered resistance and counter-attacks from German forces along the coast so Allied bombing missions to cut German supply lines began dropping thousands of bombs. The archaeological site of Pompeii was close to railway yards and important transport links leading to Naples so bombs that were supposed to hit those sites landed in Pompeii instead.

Every part of the Pompeii site was bombed and a number of important historical locations in the site including the amphitheatre arena; the House of Sallust (an important Roman mansion) which held a life-sized fresco detailing the myth of the hunter Actaeon, punished by being turned into a deer and torn apart by his hounds for accidentally seeing the goddess Diana bathing in a pool; the House of the Faun which contains the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating Persian shah Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331BCE; and the House of Trebius Valens, a modest building with significant graffiti on its walls that were destroyed by the bombing. The Antiquarium Museum, which housed thousands of artefacts from the sites and casts of victims of the Mt Vesuvius volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE, was also bombed and lost nearly 1,400 artefacts as a result. The Museum was restored but many items in its collection remain shattered.

After World War II, many of the destroyed buildings and locations in Pompeii were rebuilt or restored but much damage caused by the bombing is permanent and there are still unexploded bombs at the site.

Ryan passes no judgement on the Allied forces who bombed the Pompeii site. Some online digging by Yours Truly turned up information that the Allies believed that German forces were hiding in the site and storing ammunition there, and even the Allied Military Command fell for this belief. This is confirmed by another, much more detailed video presentation by Dr Ardle MacMahon in July 2021 about the Allied bombing of Pompeii. Both videos agree that British and Canadian forces were responsible for the most of the bombing. Contrary to most current popular opinion about differences between American and British cultures – in which Americans are seen as boorish and ignorant and British as refined and cultured – the British seem to have been much more viciously gung-ho about destroying other people’s cultures and heritage during World War II, as evidenced by the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 by UK-led forces.

Even in a short video as this, the visual presentation which features archived photographs of pre-WWII Pompeii and informative maps is stunning. Ryan’s rapid-fire voice-over narration packs in fact after fact after fact and the video needs a couple of viewings to be fully savoured. Possibly much more could have been said about the fragile nature of the Pompeii site: Mt Vesuvius is still an ever-present threat to the site’s survival as are also mass tourism and the continuing economic woes of Italy itself and the impact they make on the country’s ability to fund archaeological research and restoration projects.

Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome: a lively video on the use of narcotics and hallucinogens in classical society

Garrett Ryan, “Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome” (Told in Stone, 17 September 2021)

An intriguing little video, this episode in Garrett Ryan’s ongoing Told in Stone series that centres on classical civilisation explores what is known – and what is guessed at – about the use of narcotics, hallucinogens and other drugs by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The video starts with an investigation of a kurgan (burial mound) by archaeologists in Stavropol in southern Russia: among the treasures found were two golden vessels whose insides were coated with the remains of a sticky black residue. Analysis of the residue by a lab revealed the residue to be a mix of opium and marijuana. The kurgan had been built by Ancient Scythians, a nomadic horse-riding people well known to the Ancient Greeks: the golden vessels may have been made by the Greeks themselves and the Greeks may have even supplied the opium-marijuana mix since they knew the Scythians’ predilection for mind-altering substances.

This little story leads the way into a survey of the Greeks and Romans’ use of opium and hemp, and how much these substances were incorporated into their cultures. Not surprisingly, the ancients used opium as a medicine, primarily as a pain-killer, a relaxant and a soporific; mixed with honey, opium could be used to treat a range of health problems from skin infections to coughs. They appear not to have appreciated the addictive properties of opium but did know that overdoses of opium could be fatal. As with opium, cannabis had many medicinal uses though doctors tended to use the hemp seed and cannabis resin as medicines. Some evidence found in the grave of a Roman woman who died in childbirth suggests that the more potent leaves and buds were used to relieve labour pains.

The second half of the video investigates the use of opium and hallucinogenic drugs in Greek and Roman religious ritual. One might assume that opium, marijuana and hallucinogens were used in the Eleusinian mysteries and by the maenad followers of the Greek god Dionysios but no firm evidence that these cults included drug use has been found. Likewise, evidence for the use of opium, marijuana and others as recreational drugs by the Greeks and Romans is scanty. Indeed the use of substances for purely recreational mind-altering purposes seems to have been quite limited in Greek and Roman cultures.

The video limits itself to exploring how the Greeks and Romans used a small range of substances known to be addictive in modern Western societies on the basis of material evidence found so far. It does not say very much about what historians, playwrights and other commentators among the Greeks and Romans thought and wrote about these drugs, and how much. That the Greeks and Romans seem to have used opium and marijuana mainly as medicines and food items may indicate that these peoples put far less emphasis on individual hedonistic or escapist pleasures than modern Western societies do. The Greeks and Romans may have experienced fewer stresses in their lives and had more outlets for the release of individual and communal tensions, through religious festivals and mystery cults, than are allowed in contemporary societies.

Perhaps the fact that not much appears to be known about how the Greeks and Romans used drugs in ways that would be familiar to us says much more about how we Westerners view drugs like opium and marijuana and their use, than about what the Greeks and Romans thought about these substances and how they used them. If we could go back in time and ask these societies what plants, fungi or other foodstuffs they had that they might have used in ways we would recognise recreational drugs to be used, the Greeks and Romans would probably point us to herbs, seeds and other items we might not realise have psychoactive properties.

Illustrated with photographs and stills of Greek and Roman art, this video is lively and straightforward in its presentation.

The Lost Greek Cities of Central Asia: a lively and brisk introduction to ancient Greco-Bactrian kingdoms

Garrett Ryan, “The Lost Greek Cities of Central Asia” (Told in Stone, 4 September 2021)

In light of current events in Afghanistan, with the Taliban reasserting its governance of the country after nearly 20 years of US-led Western domination with its attendant violence and corruption, a look at a past period of ancient Central Asian history, spanning some 400 – 500 years from the time of Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) to the reign of Kanishka (about 127 – 150 CE) of the Kushan Empire, might be in order. The reason is that during this period, in spite of Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia to establish his own mighty sprawling empire from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River, followed by its break-up among his generals, the area of Central Asia covering much of today’s Afghanistan along with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan received considerable cultural and political Greek influence, blended with elements from Anatolian, Persian and local cultures. This part of Central Asia was ruled by the Seleucid Empire, heir to Alexander the Great’s empire – the Seleucid dynasty was descended from Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals – which relied on local leaders to defend the Seleucid Empire’s north-eastern border regions against the Tocharians and Xiong-nu farther north and east in the Eurasian steppe region. Over time these local leaders and their descendants declared their independence from the Seleucids, established their own kingdoms and maintained diplomatic relationships with the Mediterranean region and India farther south. These kingdoms maintained Greek / Hellenistic culture and the Greek language, and built cities with sophisticated urban cultures.

Ryan’s video is a very good introduction to a period of ancient history perhaps not well known to the general public: the video is a collage of photographs showing the ruins of past Greco-Bactrian cities and some of the archaeological artefacts found in these ruins, and colourful maps of Alexander the Great’s empire, the extent of the Hellenistic world in 281 BCE when the Seleucid Empire was at its height and the changing polities in Central Asia from Uzbekistan south to northern India over time. Ryan’s voice-over narration concentrates on facts: while it’s easy to follow, the brisk narration rarely pauses for breath as it bounds from the historical setting for the spread of Greek / Hellenistic culture across Central Asia to the founding of Ai Khanoum, its ethnic mix and culture; to the depredations of barbarian tribes who set themselves up as rulers and allowed the Greco-Bactrian cities and kingdoms to continue with their traditions; to the establishment of the Kushan Empire who patronised Buddhism and encouraged a unique mix of Greek / Hellenistic culture and cultural influences from India and China. For this reason, audiences might need to watch the video a few times to absorb as much of the information as they need to know.

Ryan goes into some detail as to why Greek / Hellenistic influence declined in Central Asia after the beginning of the first millennium CE: the decision of the Kushan Empire to replace Greek with Bactrian as its administrative language distanced the Greco-Bactrian cities from their cultural motherland, and the Greek-speaking communities (probably always small) in this part of the world lost their special status and gradually assimilated into the general population. Greece’s absorption into the Roman Empire and the rise of the Parthian Empire in Persia to rival Rome may have disrupted the Greco-Bactrian cities’ ties to their motherland. Influences from India and China, especially after the arrival of Buddhism, became stronger and more prominent in the mixed culture of the Kushan Empire.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the video comes in the last couple of minutes where the narration roams over the ruins of a number of ancient cities in remote parts of Afghanistan and viewers are treated to astonishing photographs of the lost cities among bare hills and mountains. Ryan laments that many ruined cities are being plundered by treasure hunters using bulldozers and other heavy equipment; the plundering robs the cities not only of the heritage that belongs to Afghanistan but also disrupts their layers of history that archaeologists need to date them and reconstruct the cities’ histories.

This period of ancient history, in which past Western conquest of Central Asia and part of Afghanistan was followed by centuries of cultural contacts and mixing with this part of the world being a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East on the one hand, and India and China on the other, and all cultures being treated equally, surely serves as a stark rebuke to recent Western arrogance and brutality in Afghanistan – and as a model to Russia, China, Iran and other nations surrounding Afghanistan to follow.