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A Byzantine Travel Tale Brings History to Light


By John Ash

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Random House,

330 pp., $25

Travel writing, like a horse-drawn carriage ride, betokens tranquility. It takes time to shape texts that inform both sightseers and armchair travelers. If history were merely logical, then the bustle of late 20th-century life would have terminated carriage rides, travel writing, and the audience that appreciates them.

Yet carriage rides persist, and travel writing is thriving, perhaps because few of us can spare the moments, especially when touring, to perfect word-images and historical narration as John Ash has done.

Ash has a palpable enthusiasm for the Byzantine Empire, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, which began in Constantinople in the 4th century and persisted until the middle of the 15th century. He lauds the Byzantines as conservators of culture, noting that of the extant 55,000 ancient Greek texts, 40,000 owe their survival to Byzantine scholars and scribes.

Again and again, one is made to feel the effects of the Venetian Crusaders' conquest of Byzantium, when cities, churches, and libraries were looted and burned, extinguishing in a few days half of Europe's artistic heritage.

Yet even Ash's descriptive gifts cannot keep readers from getting lost in historical complexities so convoluted that they have been dubbed Byzantine. The accompanying list of emperors and brief chronology are helpful, but they fail to show how major political events and cultural achievements flowed together. Ash is best appreciated as a raconteur, whose many polished chapters and sparkling asides resemble a Byzantine mosaic, rather than a seamlessly woven tapestry.

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Though Ash frequently steps off the beaten path, his circuit from Istanbul through western and central Turkey to Cappadocia is one that many tourists will recognize. The trip may be familiar, but Ash is no smooth-talking tour director. Encountering Hagia Sophia, Istanbul's monumental 6th-century church, he finds it ''emptied of significance, as if it were merely the shell of an abandoned railway station.'' From a distance, though, he finds it spiritually restored. Observing its massive domes and the neighboring Blue Mosque, he remarks that they ''resemble clouds pinned down by the enormous needles of their minarets.'' Travel directors seldom brandish such tart depiction, nor do they wax poetic.

Fortunately, it is impossible for Ash to focus only on Byzantine cultural remnants. At Iznik (ancient Nicea), he is drawn to the town, with its brightly painted houses, congenial street life, and ubiquitous storks. Noticing new apartment complexes in the city of Karmen, built where quaint, though shoddy thatch and brick houses had picturesquely clustered around a citadel, Ash reminds readers that the needs of modern residents of historic places must be observed.

When he reaches Cappadocia, the much-visited region of central Turkey, where the soft stone of slim rock pinnacles was hollowed out into painted chapels, Ash makes an entertaining diversion from the lunar landscape into the history of pastrami. The cured beef that the Turks call pastirma is a Byzantine legacy and specialty of the Cappadocian area. Other Byzantine bequests may include oil-and-vinegar salad dressing, caviar, forks, and clean table linen.

Behind the slow pulse of his prose, one senses the contemporary tug of a schedule, and the pressure of one more bus to catch. Although Ash used some material from earlier trips, the book records a journey of just five weeks. In the end, Ash's writing leaves one with the bittersweet recognition that the world made more reachable by jet travel is simultaneously less accessible in terms of time.

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