Historical imagination & imaginary history

Here are some useful things to keep in mind while visiting ruins anywhere…

There are three approaches to excavating:
1. When you find something, leave it as it is.
2. When you find something, try to reconstruct it using your research and imagination.
3. When you find something, dig it all up to see if there are older or more valuable ruins beneath it.

We have seen evidence of all three approaches in the past few days. In Ephesus we saw some Byzantine ruins, but most of them had been ripped up to get to Roman ruins beneath. My professor who used to work on that site said that she recalls reading the journals in German and seeing the phrase, “then we brought in the bulldozers…” Ugh! So much history gained, but so much lost.

And then there’s the bit about using your imagination. We all do this every time we come to a site with only bits and pieces of buildings. But we can get carried away with our imaginations too. Today we went to a site in Laodicea where archeologists are making what seem to be wild claims. If they are correct, we just saw the earliest church known to humanity. And that would be awesome. I’m glad I saw it. The oldest church we’ve uncovered thus far dates late 400’s, this one claims to be 312. Discoveries like this take time, and the archeologists at Laodicea seem to be in a rush to finish. My hope is that they don’t get sloppy in their rush. In any case, it was especially cool to see a site being actively excavated and to get any idea of the work that goes into it.

Imagination comes into play in our spirituality as well. Yesterday’s trip to the House of the Virgin Mary, for instance—did Mary really spend her final days there? Catholics say yes, Orthodox say no. But whether she did or not, the place is religiously significant and spirit-filled based based on the millions who have made pilgrimages there, prayed there, been changed there.

So come to Turkey with a healthy dose of academic skepticism, but don’t let it close you off to the real wonders that have been and still are.

PS Aphrodesia was an amazing site as well—both because the ruins give you an especially vivid idea of what a typical Roman city looked like, and because the vistas are breathtaking.

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