Thursday 2 December 2010
Source: Unreported Heritage News.
Thanks in part to research conducted by Robert Mason, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, we know that medieval Corinth was involved in long distance trade throughout the Middle East. These imports include rare and complex ceramics from places as distant as Kashan Iran, more than 2,500 kilometres away.
Mason is an expert in the pottery of the Middle East. By studying the minerals the pots are made out of, and the decorations on their surface, he is able to determine where and when they were created. After him, Corinthians started this long distance trade almost as soon as they got back on their feet. In the 9th and 10th centuries, as Corinth was beginning its expansion, the city imported pieces from Basra, a centre of pottery production located in southern Iraq, near the Persian Gulf.
He emphasized that Corinth wasn’t the only city importing goods made in Basra, far from it. «The trading networks of some of these pottery production centres are quite colossal», he said. «Basra, for instance, covers the full extent of the Old World as found in China, in Spain, South Africa.»
Basra’s pottery was in demand for a good reason. Mason explained that they used a complex technique to create them. «You have a finished vessel and you paint it with this metallic paint which then fuses to the surface in another firing.» However «if you don’t fire it properly the second time you’ll end up with a complete mess.»
Basra wasn’t the only Middle East city that Corinth imported from. All together from 800 AD to 1200 AD the people also brought in ceramics from Damascus, Fustat (in present day Old Cairo) and Kashan.
In classical times the ancient city rivalled Athens and Thebes in wealth, based on the Isthmian traffic and trade. Until the mid-6th century Corinth was a major exporter of black-figure pottery to cities around the Greek world. Athenian potters later came to dominate the market. It was once believed that Corinth housed a great temple on its ancient acropolis dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite; yet excavations of the temples of Aphrodite in Corinth reveal them to be small in stature. Despite the mythical story from Strabo of there being more than one thousand temple prostitutes employed at the Temple of Aphrodite, this was likely not accurate as the story rests on a misunderstanding. Corinth was also the host of the Isthmian Games.
At the end of ancient times, Corinth, one of the most famous cities in the Greek world, lay partly in ruins. The mid 6th century city fell victim first to bubonic plague, with high mortality levels, and subsequently a deep economic recession that lasted, according to the archaeological finds, for 500 years. The city didn’t recover until well into the Middle Ages.
During this period of recovery it remained under Byzantine rule — although this was interrupted in 1147 when the Normans, led by Roger II of Sicily, raided the city. The Normans were rivals of the Byzantines, competing with them for power in the Mediterranean.
Contact suddenly ends
Mason’s work also brought up a mystery. After 1200 AD he could not find a single piece of pottery from the Middle East at Corinth. For some unknown reason the Corinthians appear to have stopped importing ceramics from the region altogether.
«After 1200 there’s nothing there and I don’t know why — it’s not like there’s something unpleasant going on», said Mason. Trade continued between the Middle East and other places in Europe. «You have pottery from Damascus in places like England and Norway», he said, adding: «It’s not like the end of the crusades or anything like that.»
Mason and the other Corinth researchers are trying to find out what might have stopped this trade. A look through the history books reveals that while Corinth certainly didn’t collapse in 1200 AD, there certainly were political changes happening at that time.
The Byzantine Empire, which had overseen the revival of Corinth, was in a state of upheaval. «Soon after the death of Manuel Komnenos in 1180, the Byzantine court degenerated into a farcical display of court intrigue, murder and palace coups», writes modern day historian Nicholas Doumanis in his book on Greek history.
This internal strife weakened Byzantium, allowing it to be sacked by a group of Crusaders in 1204. They did it with the excuse that they wanted to get a debt repaid.
«The Peloponnese, now under the authority of the “Prince of Achaea”, was subdivided into fiefdoms that controlled each locality from a series of fortresses», writes Doumanis. It would be decades until Byzantium managed to take back territory in the area.
Whether these events could have led to Corinth cutting ties between itself and the Middle East is unknown, however, the timing seems to make it possible.
In 1458, five years after the final Fall of Constantinople, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire conquered the city and its mighty castle. The Ottomans renamed it Gördes. It became the Sanjak centre of Morea in Rumelia Province. The Venetians captured it in 1687 and it fell under the control of the Republic of Venice according to Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. Ottomans retook the city in 1715. It was the capital of Mora Province between 1715-1731 and the Sanjak centre between 1731-1821.