Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Byzantine Travel Tale Brings History to Light

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Byzantine Travel Tale Brings History to Light

Article excerpt


By John Ash

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.

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. …

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