Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great City

One of the neat things about living where I do is the absolutely insane wealth of antiquities you can find in the museums. If you're dabbling with Byzantium and the Ayyubids - as I am in Hero's Army - you can just walk into the BGAM - Big Giant Art Museum - and boom! There's an exhibit on the Kingdom of the Greeks (that's what the Franks called Byzantium) and the Saracens (the Moslem states, from the Umayyads to the Abbasids.) If you've been researching entirely from books and the Internet, it's an almost physical shock to see actual, tangible objects from that time.

In fact, the more you look, the more you realize that nothing appears exactly as you imagined. Take the coins. You know, intellectually, that gold was even more valuable then than it is today; still, you have this image of pirate-sized gold coins as big as your palm and thick as a slice of cheese. Then you get to the BGAM and actually see Byzantine solidi: Each one is 24-karat gold, able to buy a month's unskilled labor - and no larger or thicker than a thumbnail.

Or the architecture. You hear "Greek" and you instantly imagine white marble, but that's hooey. The reality is that there was lots of painting going on - in eye-watering color schemes. Not to mention silk hangings in twisty patterns of brick red, leaf green, and blue and gold - the disco polyester of the Middle Ages, enough to make the Ayyubids on the other side of the border look positively restrained in their decor. If the black-velvet Elvis painting had existed a thousand years ago, it would have been worth its weight in solidi.

But for some reason, it's the more humble stuff - the carved wood and bone, the potsherds (ostraka) - that really convey just how distant it all is in time. With wood and clay, it's easier to imagine the hands of the men who shaped it.

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