Eavesdropping Media

Month: June, 2012

The Lost Media of Troy

My fascination with the ancient city of Troy is long standing. I was first introduced to the legend of Troy while reading the Odyssey in high school, but my real interest in this tale was really piqued about ten years ago when I by chance got my hands on a digital copy of a fantastic 6-part documentary series all about the myths and stories surrounding Troy and the modern day archeology of the site.

Troy was an important bronze age city and the setting of Homer’s poem Illiad and part of the Odyssey. It was the site of the famous Trojan War, fought between Greeks and Trojans in approximately 1250 BC. The end of this war came when the Trojans lost and the city was razed. Despite this bronze age calamity, the site actually remained occupied by number of different peoples until the 4th century AD. Eventually, though, the city was completely abandoned, buried and lost to the world. It’s very existence was debated throughout Age of Enlightment; many thought that it was simply the fiction of an ancient poet. However, with its re-discovery by German Archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s, the city was pulled out of the myth and placed back into the real history books.

One of the most unique aspects of the city of Troy is that it owes its modern fame and its rediscovery almost entirely to oral tradition. While some ancient written records and real world artifacts referring to the city have been discovered, these are few and somewhat unexceptional. The only reason we all know the name Troy is that the famous hexametric poem describing its demise, deeply rooted in bardic tradition, was passed down through the generations.

It was lucky too, since the very survival of bardic poems depends entirely on bards memorizing them, reciting them and teaching them to the next generation of bards. If the stories are not passed on, then the story dies with the bard. There is no way of retrieving it afterwards. There is no back-up record. I would assume, lesser poems rooted in the oral tradition would struggle to survive past a single generations let alone hundreds of years. Just imagine how easily the story of Troy could have been lost to the world forever.

Now the documentary I had on my computer was old-school, british, and somewhat academic. Sure it was made in the 80s and had a dated style. But it was very special.

It did something many documentaries don’t: it explored the myth and the history of Troy in a global and intemporal context rather than within its own simple linear history. The documentary melded ancient history with modern history. It described the beginnings of archaeology as a science and the context in which the great excavators of the site were working. It explored the universal experience of war: from Troy to the World Wars to the Cold War, and the tragedy that befalls all involved. It even gave me my first look at the divided city of Berlin in the 80s, where part of the documentary was shot, and drew a connection between the futility in the Greek’s search for military greatness at Troy and the militarized East Berlin. Such a series would never fly on TV today. I loved it.

But a year or so later, between a move, a computer clean up and reformat, and a transfer of all my data to a secondary hard drive, I lost the files. Poof! Just like that, I no longer had access to this story… and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of the series or of the guy who had made it.

Time passed but I would still think about this series from time to time. I would mention it at dinner parties, and ask friends if they remembered anything about it. I would hum the theme music while suffering through terrible History Channel pablum, wishing I could find this documentary again.

About 6-7 years went by and nothing. It was as though this modern telling of the story of Troy had been lost (to me) forever.

Then, about 2 years ago, I was working at a tech company dealing primarily with music and video. At our office, we had shelves full of DVDs from all over europe, to which we had free access. After blowing though my favorite tv shows, I started to check out some of the BBC documentaries. One day I stumbled upon a show called “The Story of India” by Michael Wood. I watched it and liked it enough that I next went for a box-set called “The Michael Wood collection” which contained older documentaries by Michael Wood.

The first doc that caught my eye was entitled “In Search of the Trojan War“. I put on the DVD and started watching. Then about a minute in, the opening credit started and I gasped …  The Thunder. The Music. The repeating loop of an armored soldier cutting down air with a giant sword, in front of the flames of war. The awkwardly posed and spinning image of Helen of Troy – topless and transposed with footage of a cloudy windy sky. My old long lost documentary about Troy! I had found it! Finally I knew who it was that had originally sparked my interest in homeric history and the story of Troy. Michael Wood! I love you!

All of Michael Wood’s documentaries are great but “In Search of the Trojan War” is really his most inspired work. After watching the series, I re-read the Odyssey and sped through the Illiad. I even cracked Ovid ‘s Metamorphoses in hope that it would tell me more of the myth of the Trojan Horse … which it didn’t. Turns out the horse bit is found in Virgil‘s Aeneid not Ovid. Crap.

We travelled around Greece soon after, where we imagined ourselves amateur archeologists, like Michael Wood exploring the greek sites mentioned in The Illiad.

This year with our trip to Turkey and to the site of Troy itself, we finally got to see the real place first hand. Many people told us not to bother with the site at Troy, that it was a confusing and crowded site. But our experience was completely the opposite. We were lucky to be there in May on a weekday. We went around noon, right when the first round of busses had left and before the next one arrived. The site is challenging, because the history is challenging. Troy was an occupied site over the span of more than 2500 years. And all these layers of occupation were built on top of the last. Talk about a cross section in human history!

Since our trip there, we have also discovered a new documentary about Troy, with updates to the story that Michael Wood tells. It doesn’t quite have the charm of “In Search of the Trojan War” but it is well worth a watch!

As you can imagine, we loved Troy, but we also knew what to expect. It takes a slightly trained eye to make sense of the jumble of human history on that site. I recommend that if visit this site one day you take a look at Michael Wood’s documentary first.

The citadel walls of Troy VI

I want to end this post with a little survey of the media through which the story of Troy was transmitted because, as the title suggests, this is one of the most incredible parts of the story of Troy.

The first inception of the story was told by the witnesses to the events of the Trojan war which occurred around 1250 BC. These stories were then compiled by anonymous poets and bards who passed down multiple (and likely contradictory) versions of this important event for about 400 years. Then around 850 BC Homer is said to have compiled the story into a single poem, however it is unlikely that he wrote it down. Then this too was likely passed down for over 100 years through spoken word. It was only written down on papyrus for the first time between 700 BC and 400 BC. Later, the story was translated into Latin and other world languages and eventually copied into books. In the 17th century, it was finally printed on a mass scale thanks to the advent of the printing press. These books influenced Schliemann (working in the 1870s) to search for the city behind the myth. The printed version of Illiad and the discovery and subsequent archeological study of Troy influenced Michael Wood to make a documentary for the BBC about the site and the story in 1985. The show aired on television and then was released on VHS. It was then converted into digital form in the early 2000s, shared across the internet, and finally ended up on my computer – which is how the story reached me. And to think I almost lost it!

It is an amazing journey of the story of one single event, transmitted through multiple mediums – from the witness accounts of a bronze age war to a digital file consisting of 1s and 0s – and spanning around 3250 years.

This is what I call epic.


…and we’re back! Istanbul and beyond

In the last month, I have had quite an adventure. I got the chance to finally explored Istanbul and the Aegean cost of Turkey. Along the way, I visited with my aunt and cousin in their beautiful house on the island of Büyükada, took a road trip through turkish countryside, visited the ruins of Troy, climbed up the hill to Pergamon, walked the main boulevard of Ephesus, looked out over Miletus and Priene, and ended my trip in the seaside yacht town of Bodrum, where some dear friends of mine were getting married.

On my return, I had 4 days to organize and shoot most of the web series I have been working on for the last few months! “Make a Webseries” was one of my new years resolutions. I can now almost check that off the list! But more on that in another post…

In this post I want to tell a quick story of our time in Istanbul and some thoughts on tech and media in the city.

Getting off the plane, we took a very modern but super packed street car into the center of town. We passed tons of new high-rise housing developments, some ruins of an old gate, gritty downtown areas, bustling shopping streets, and the palace gardens. The tram continued past Eminönü mosque and the packed Spice Bazaar over the bridge, on to Kavatas port where we switched to a cool funicular to take us up the hill to Taksim Square.

We stayed on the northern edge of the happening neighborhood, Beyoğlu, right up near Taksim. We were pretty lucky with our hotel location, it was on a quite and well lit street. But just 3-4 blocks away, the neighborhood got really sketchy, especially at night. It was full of abandoned buildings and demolished storefronts; it was poorly lit and there were all these creepy looking guys hanging around on the sidewalks. But it looked like many of these blocks were just about to undergo a huge renovation project. Signs hung from these buildings announcing new condo projects, or hotels to be built in the next year. The guy running our hotel told us, “In 2 years, this neighborhood has changed so much, and in 2 years it will change even more”.

All over Istanbul, these grungy old blocks are being fixed-up. Some areas are also getting prettier, safer and more prosperous. Things are growing, gentrifying, getting pricier.

Just across the big boulevard from our hotel, closer to the major shopping street Istiklal, was a far more colorful and lively world. We spent most of our days exploring this part of town. While Istiklal itself was pretty generic, the area all around it was so much fun to experience. There were very swank areas right next to some family oriented neighborhoods, just down the road from some extremely loud clubs and bars. Some parts were touristy, full of light and music, other streets were quiet, cool, & intimate. There was so much activity in Beyoğlu and so many people, it is hard to imagine that this neighborhood is only a tiny part of this massive city!

I think the most interesting thing about Istanbul is the general feeling of momentum you experience here. It feels like things are happening, that the city is changing fast. For example, there are huge infrastructural developments are underway, including the extension of the limited public transportation network. Renovation and new building sites are going up all over the place. With its independent currency, the Turkish lira (Turkish lira symbol 8x10px.png), keeping its prices attractive to international investors, Turkey seems immune to a lot of the problems facing neighboring eurozone countries on the Mediterranean. And this has created an optimism, as well as a growing confidence, in the people.

Istanbul is almost always described as a crossroads, but I think it is also a launchpad… at least in the new media/tech world. A number of small international tech start-ups chose Istanbul as the test market site for their new apps. They did this because Istanbul, and turkey in general, has an increasingly connected and highly concentrated population of tech-savvy young people. It is a fertile market for new mobile technology. Istanbul is itself home to a number of tech start-ups, however these tend to create clone apps for the turkish market. For more see this ReadWriteWeb.com article. Still the talent is definitely there, so maybe it is just a matter of time before the ideas start poring out of Istanbul as well! China was once the place for knock-offs (well, to be fair it still sometimes is) but over time it has also developed into a country of innovation. Hopefully a similar phenomenon is starting to occur in the Istanbul tech sector!

In the world of traditional communication media, especially broadcasting, Turkey is huge. With 18 million homes with televisions, it is also large producer of entertainment goods, such as tv series, for its own domestic market. Many of these turkish series actually also find distribution throughout the middle east. And as such, it acts as a bridge between Europe and the Middle east in more ways than just geographically. It is actually in an ideal strategic location to potentially bridge the gap on social issues or politics through its large communication networks. Of course, if it will actually do so, is still up for debate. There remains some concerns about Turkey’s attitude towards freedom of the press (see this article for more). For some of the latest stats on the film market in turkey, see this variety article. For general facts and figures on the media landscape, see here.

Istanbul definitely has the energy and momentum to once again become one of the great world cities, on par with the London’s and Tokyo’s of the world. It is also poised to experience major growth across media sectors, which means it could become an even brighter hotspot for young international talent. Istanbul really is a city to watch!