Sunday, 18 November 2012

History lessons in the Bond films

I used to teach archaeology at a further education college, and when I got to the session on ancient Roman temples, I put From Russia With Love in the dvd player and showed my students the scenes at the Hagia Sophia, a late Roman church, and later a mosque, in Istanbul (and seen also fleetingly in Skyfall). Sometimes I forgot to switch the film off, and we ended up watching rather more of the film that I intended. My students may not have learned much about Roman religious buildings, but at least they received a thorough grounding in the history of James Bond.

Something that adds colour and depth to a Bond film is the attention paid to the local cultural background. This has often included aspects of local heritage, and over course of the series, film-viewers have, for example, visited Karnak and the pyramids at Giza in Egypt, accompanied a tour of a  museum of antique glass in Venice (the museum was a film set, but Venice nonetheless has a long tradition of glass-making that dates back to the 13th century), and, most recently in Skyfall, had a small introduction to 16th-century priest holes in Scotland.

As an archaeologist, I have always been particularly interested in the heritage shown in From Russia With Love. The scenes at the Hagia Sophia are fascinating. As Tatiana Romanova enters the site, we see a guide take a party of tourists across the floor of the building. As far as tours go, the guide's technique is pretty poor. There is no sense of chronological sequence, and he talks of noteworthy objects in a seemingly random way.

That is not to say that the information given by the guide is especially inaccurate. The guide points out two alabaster urns dating to the Hellenistic period (4th to 1st century BC), which were brought from the ancient city of Pergamon to Istanbul by Sultan Murad IV. This was indeed the case, although not, as the guide tells us, in 1648, but sometime between 1574 and 1595. The urns continue to stand on opposite sides of the nave. 

The wishing column that the guide also mentions stands at the north-west end of the building. Legend has it that the late Roman emperor Justinian, while suffering with a headache, rested his head on the column and the pain ceased. Visitors have been touching the column ever since and it has taken its place among the notable features of the building.

Another feature described by the guide is the ablution fountain. This is actually located outside the main building and was built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1740.  

We don't know James Bond's opinion of Hagia Sophia, but he seems unimpressed by Istanbul's subterranean late Roman cistern. Bond meets Kerim Bey's brief description of the structure as they descend some steps and climb into a boat with a bored, 'really?' Kerim Bey tells Bond that the reservoir was built by the emperor Constantine 1600 years ago. This isn't strictly true. Known as the Basilica Cistern, the structure was built during the reign of Justinian 1400 years ago on the site of an earlier Roman basilica or market hall.

The Bond films remain a source of interesting cultural information that adds depth and credibility to the story. While accuracy has sometimes been sacrificed for cinematic purposes, the inclusion of local heritage is testament to the film-makers attention to detail and respect for the regions in which they are filming.

Photo credits:
Hagia Sophia (Urn, Wishing Column and ablution fountain): JoJan (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic )
Basilica Cistern: Public domain image by Gryffindor

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