Hadrian resurfaces in Turkey, with a head for history

ISTANBUL – Turkish Daily News | 7/28/2008 12:00:00 AM | KRISTEN STEVENS

The recently unearthed head of a statue of Roman Emperor Hadrian, the stunning centerpiece of the British Museum's “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict” exhibit, which opened Thursday, is a towering

The recently unearthed head of a statue of Roman Emperor Hadrian, the stunning centerpiece of the British Museum's “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict” exhibit, which opened Thursday, is a towering historical reminder of current political complexities. Discovered in Turkey last year, Hadrian's head is the center of the museum's hugely popular exhibit, which includes artifacts from the various continents that were at one time ruled by Hadrian. Like gossipers in an ancient Roman bathhouse, visitors whisper about stunning pieces that tell of sex, rebellion and military withdrawal.

The original statue stood at a commanding height of four to five meters, experts estimate. Almost intact, save for a broken nose, the 70-centimeter-across head of Hadrian, ruler of Rome from A.D. 117 to A.D. 138, was found at a Turkish archaeological site in Sagalassos in the southeastern district of Burdur last year. Also uncovered was the statue's giant leg, complete with sandaled foot, amongst other artifacts. The statue dates back to the early period of Hadrian's reign. The elaborate decorations on the sandal suggest he was depicted in full military attire. The discovery was made by archaeologists from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, who had been working at the site since 1990.

While Roman statues are often said to represent some sort of generalized ideal rather than always the true likeness of the character meant to be portrayed, experts agree that this is indeed a depiction of the emperor. Art critics are hailing the exhibit as the unseen side of Hadrian, and Sue Hubbard of British newspaper The Independent refers to the head as “the showstopper.” Aside from the distinct hair and the beard that identify the figure as Hadrian, the deep creases in his earlobe – a sign of heart disease – are also clearly indicative of the leader, whose passion for Greek culture earned him the nickname "little Greekling."

Hadrian seems to have fallen genuinely in love with young Greek Antinous, for whom he built the city of Antinopolis on the banks of the Nile following the young man's dubious drowning. Another of the most striking pieces in the museum, the head of Antinous, captures his good looks and a strong nose, as well as a sensual mouth and ringlets.

Curators shed light on the romance between the two ancient figures, displaying the silver Warren cup with its overt scenes of sodomy -- an act considered quite normal at the time. The grieving Hadrian honored Antinous through various god-like incarnations, most notably in a piece displayed at the exhibit's entrance depicting him as the Egyptian deity Osiris, with shining pectorals and a bulging loincloth.

The exhibition offers another take on the emperor's show of devotion: By exalting a Greek boy, he exhibited a passion for Greece, thus successfully pacifying a segment of society that could have posed a threat to power. An adroit political and military man, he was also a philosopher who seemed to have a grip on the multiple fronts of his laurel reign.

Lessons of an over-stretched empire

Hadrian's rule transformed the Roman Empire and is said to have secured its survival for centuries. The exhibit follows the progress of an ambitious but prudent leader whose empire had over-extended. Although the effects did not reach the public, the empire had been brought almost to breaking point by a war in the Middle East, wrote Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times, relating the climate of that crisis to the one American and British leaders face in the region today. “Hadrian was no ditherer,” she said. “He ordered a swift withdrawal of troops in what was the first of the many military, legal and economic reforms.”

Widespread revolts and the subsequent massacres he perpetrated were also part of his legacy. The Jewish population once rose up in one of the world's most infamous rebellions, later called the "the first Holocaust." As a result, rebels and members of the Jewish population fled to underground caves in the Judean desert in A.D. 132. On display are a glass bowl and mirrors that had been perfectly preserved in the region's arid climate. The display shakes visitors to their core with a handwritten account of the massacre by Jews that was found in the caves. The display, which includes keys that they must have kept in hopes of returning to their houses, is a vivid parallel to the horror and loss Jews faced in the 20th century. The survivors all perished in the caves.

The director of the excavation, Marc Waelkens, said this was one of the "most beautiful depictions" of the emperor ever found. The bathhouse where the statue was discovered had been destroyed by a major earthquake sometime between the late sixth or early seventh century A.D. The statue was originally built in pieces that were then slotted into place to create an imposing monument of the emperor.

Hacı Ali Ekinci, manager of Burdur museum, said the excavation of the statue had been featured on British TV channel the BBC in 2007. “The piece was transported to Great Britain on July 14 after consultation with the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry. This is a good publicity for the city of Burdur.”



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