Athenian Monument Turned Sufi Lodge






by Emily Neumeier
published 28 April 2013

Buildings have many lives, and over time can serve many purposes. For the Ottoman Empire, it is common enough to read about Byzantine churches converted into mosques, but there were actually many types of buildings that ended up being re-purposed for different communities and uses. 

This is especially true in Athens, where, in the Ottoman period, the monuments of ancient Greece were utilized by the local population. We know from old engravings, for example, that there used to be a mosque, a converted Byzantine church, located within the sanctuary of the Parthenon itself. 


[1] Tower of the Winds, first built c. 50 BC
Another interesting example is the Tower of the Winds [1], today located in the ancient agora of Athens. Allegedly built by Andronicus of Cyrrhus  around 50 BC, it was originally built essentially to be a glorified, 12-meter-tall clock, with sundials, a water clock, and a wind vane at the top. The frieze located at the very top of the monument features the eight wind deities, representing the cardinal directions. At some point the tower fell into disuse, and by the Byzantine period, it had been converted into the bell-tower for a church. In the Ottoman period, the Tower of the Winds became a Sufi lodge (tekke). 




[2] Tower of the Winds, idealized view,
 from The Antiquities of Athens (1762)
At least by the 18th century, it seems that a local group of the Mevlevi order (the so-called "whirling dervishes") co-opted the monument for their meetings and ceremonies. That's how the British archaeologists James Stuart and Nicholas Revett found the site in the 1750s; they published both idealized and contemporary views of the tower in their book The Antiquities of Athens (1762), which essentially jump-started the Greek Revival in European architecture [2,3]. There is a stark contrast between the idealized view, which strips away the changes to the tower over the centuries and restores the building back to the pristine, "original" Classical period, and the contemporary view of the monument as the archaeologists encountered the tower themselves in the 18th century, the scene brought to life by the local villagers and the walls and roofs of the Ottoman neighborhood. The theme of re-use is continued in the bottom-left corner of the contemporary view; pieces of a male nude sculpture and an ancient Ionic capital are embedded into the wall of a village garden. From this engraving, it is apparent that in the 18th century the tower was half-buried after centuries of urban life, and one probably had to descend to the doorway via a flight of stairs from the street level. 




[3] Tower of the Winds, contemporary view,
from The Antiquities of Athens (1762). 

Another British traveler, Edward Dodwell, visited Athens in the beginning of the 19th century. This is what he saw: 


To the south-east of the Agora is the octagonal Tower of the Eight Winds; the Clepsydra of Andronicus Cyrrhestes, described by Vitruvius; called Horologium by Varro, and was the waterclock, or chronometer, as well as weather guide of ancient Athens. It is worthy [of] admiration more from its peculiarity than beauty. It escaped the observation of Pausanias, while Stuart, in numerous plates, renders justice to so considerable and perfect a remain of antiquity.


[4] Tower of the Winds, Entrance to the
Sufi Lodge, Views of Greece (1821). 
Over the lintel, which faces the north-east, upon a red-ground, is inscribed the Arabic La Illah, Allah, Mahamed u resoul ullah--declaring there to be no God but God, and Mahamed to be his prophet. [4]

The wooden floor of the interior rests upon the lower cornice, many feet above the ancient pavement. The marble walls are washed with an uniform white. The Mihrab, painted in perpendicular stripes of green and red, indicates by its position the direction of the Kaaba, or oratory of Mecca; each side of this is a wax candle, and the green flag of the prophet has also its place. The Koran is deposited within this niche, and an imitation of the two-edged sword of Ali is attached to the adjoining wall. 



[5] Tower of the Winds, "Dance of the
 Dervishes", Views of Greece (1821).  
Before these is performed the circularly whirling dance of the Dervishes, [5] witnessing which, the spectator will find it as difficult to remain serious, as it would be dangerous to appear otherwise. Dervishes are not alone the actors in this piece of mummery, as other Turks mix with the party. In a circle, sitting upon the floor, they begin with the praises of God and the prophet; their heads and bodies by their motion backwards and forwards indicating the fervency of their devotion, as well as keeping time in unison with two small drums, the only instrumental accompaniment, until the paroxysm of enthusiasm animates the whole congregation, who simultaneously start up and whirl in ceaseless frenzy around the apartment, while the sheikh or chief, attired in the sacred green, and wearing a large white turban, incites them by his voice and the sound of his larger tambour. This curious ceremony bears a strong resemblance to the festivals of the Corybontes, who, in honour of Cybele, danced to the sound of their cymbals until they became delirious; of which dance the description furnished by Apuleius and Strabo is remarkably applicable to that practiced by the modern Athenian Dervishes.

Although the text is rife with Orientalist commentary (referring to the ceremony as "mummery", for example), this passage and the accompanying engravings nevertheless can serve to help us understand how the dervishes adapted the ancient tower into a lodge space. It seems that in this period the tower was half-buried, with the wooden floor of the lodge being several meters above the original ground level of the tower, which is now again exposed due to modern excavations. We can also see from the engravings that the walls of the tower were decorated with calligraphic panels, many probably figurative. In image 4, Dodwell depicts the entrance of the tower, with an inscription in Arabic of the shadiha ("There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God") having been affixed above the doorway. Although the inscription is not exactly accurate, it is still very legible in the engraving, meaning that Dodwell, presumably not knowing Arabic, very carefully sketched the letters by sight. The ceremony that Dodwell describes witnessing, represented in image 5, is the sema, or the famous whirling dance of the Mevlevi order. 

DODWELL, Edward. Views in Greece. London, 1821. 
STUART, James, and Nicholas Revett. The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece. London, 1762.




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