Monday, April 22, 2019

Ancient Sites: Termessos

View from the upper level of Termessos

Unlike most of the ancient sites we’ve visited, Termessos has not been excavated. Apart from having brush cleared away, it’s been left untouched for the thousand or more years since it was abandoned. It makes for an exciting outdoor adventure, especially since the area is on the side of a mountain at an elevation of 1000 meters (3000 feet).

At the lower level, near the car park: a stark reminder of what once was an elegant city.
And, it’s not easy to get to. The site is about an hour outside Antalya, with no convenient public transportation. We were extremely fortunate in that our host, Fuat, was very familiar with the site and asked us to join him and his friend Nilgün on an expedition. He was an excellent guide because, well, he wrote the book on Termessos! Well, almost. He contributed ideas and many of the photos of the book that is the primary tourist reference to the site, written in 1980s. (So Fuat’s been coming there for a long time!)

The Gymnasium, the best-preserved building at Termessos.

Fuat points out a detail to Nilgün and Paula 
In front of the Gymnasium
Termessos is very different in character from Perge (and Aspendos, which we have yet to visit). Those cities were built on the flat coastal plain; Termessos is spread over the side of a mountain. Perge was a rich, advanced city populated by sophisticated nobles (and their slaves, of course!). Fuat likened it to the Berlin or Munich of its day (he’s a Germanophile and an excellent German speaker.) Termessos, on the other hand, was a mountain town home to rugged warriors. More like the wilds of Afghanistan. It has the distinction of being one of the very few cities that never succumbed to Alexander the Great when he came through the area. Perge and Antalya (and Aspendos, too, I think) came to terms with Alexander, paying the required tribute and allowing his governors to oversee the cities.

We come upon a vast array of tumbled and ruined tombs.

Nilgün examines a particularly impressive tomb.
Tumbled sarcophagi.

The Tomb with the Lions; what must have been a truly impressive tomb.

Termessos thumbed their collective nose at Alexander, who eventually found the steep terrain, and the city’s warriors, too much for him. He took his rage out by destroying the town’s olive trees, as well as the next city he came across. (Note, though, that Alexander is well remembered and highly honored in this part of the world, where he is known as Iskandar, a name seen frequently throughout Antalya.)

Not one to stand around and complain, Fuat restores a tomb (not really!)

Fuat was an excellent guide to the site. It is preserved as a National Park, and so parts of it are well marked and some trails are nicely laid out. However, large parts of the site are hidden and overgrown, and there were some very special areas we would never have found without Fuat’s assistance.

Fuat strikes a heroic pose by the mysterious foot sculpture. How big were these people?!

Incredibly impressive was the tomb of Agatemeros, one of Termessos’ most important generals. The tomb was sufficiently important to be featured on the cover of the book on Termessos. Which is a good thing, because, sadly, it no longer exists. It was blown up sometime in the 1990s by villagers looking for treasure.

Cover of the guide to Termessos featuring the tomb of Agatemeros

Fuat holding the book in front of what is now left of the tomb of Agatemeros

Now this is something I just can’t get my head around. We saw many, many tombs— sarcophagi, actually—carved from solid blocks of stone. All of them have been opened, broken into, tumbled and thrown aside by foragers looking for treasure, or something to sell. But those were ancient times, with ignorant savages roaming the hills whose only thought was survival. Or so I like to think. Now we are more sophisticated—we have an appreciation for historic sites that was lacking in the ignoble peasants who populated these places in times past. Today, though, we respect the past… No, I guess not. Anyway, I find it sad that this work, honoring what must have been a great man, representing many hours of human labor (I mean, carving out that hard stone!) and surviving for so many centuries, should be destroyed by a few individuals on a whim.

The amazing theater at Termessos, seemingly hanging in mid air. (And us, having lunch!)

Moving on, we came to the (mostly) undestroyed tomb/ memorial to Alcetas. He was one of Alexander’s generals, very popular with the young warriors of Termessos when he returned after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. His rival, Antigonos, another of Alexander’s former generals, wanted the city to give him up. Much to the dismay of the young men, the city fathers surrendered Alcetas to satisfy the attacking forces. Alcetas killed himself to avoid the dishonor of surrender, and his body was “violated” for three days by the soldiers of Antigonos. The young men recovered what was left and built a magnificent memorial carved into the side of a rock face. (That still survives, mostly. At least it hasn’t been blown up yet!)

The (mostly intact tomb of Alcetas, former general of Alexander.

We returned to the lower level where we left the car by a different, steep and more rugged route, rather than along the manicured paths of the National Park. And Fuat showed us yet another surprise: incredible tombs carved directly into the vertical rock faces. I am unclear when these were done, but apparently it was long after the city’s prime, perhaps in the 3rd or 4th Century CE. (The Antalya area is known for its many rock tombs, including the simpler ones we saw in our earlier trip to Kaş.)

Amazing rock tombs seen on the long descent back.

We finally--tired, stumbling, and amazed--made it to the car park. But there was yet more to see. Following Fuat along narrow paths through the underbrush we came to another large burial ground, with many more stone sarcophagi, most of them with incredible carvings. While all of these had also been opened and damaged, most were still upright. We wandered through this forest of brush and stone, once more with the sense of wonder that dominated our growing fatigue.

Carvings seen on many of the sarcophagi. The circle represents a shield and indicates a warrier was buried here. Some of these look suspiciously Celtic!

Many of the sarcophagi had intricate carvings on the sides and ends.

Finally we made it to the end, and gratefully piled into the car. At last, some rest! Fuat stopped the car just a short way down the road at the newly-opened natural history museum on the site. Only the first of several rooms were open, and they dealt exclusively with the flora and fauna of the area, nothing to do with the marvels we had been seeing. The museum was very well done and no doubt will be extended, but it did nothing to aid our investigation of ancient times. We left and continued back to the city.

We were tired and sore after that adventure! Four days later I was finally able to walk down stairs without wincing.

Photo on the left is of a small watercolor decorating our apartment (done by a Dr. Phil Otto Baur); on the right is the actual tomb we saw at Termessos. The painting, hanging on our wall, was a nice reminder of our adventure in these amazing ruins.

This will be the last blog on our adventures in Turkey. We’ve just spent two weeks in Rovinj, Croatia, and are about to leave for Montpellier, France. So we’re still behind, blogwise!
Once in France we’ll keep working on catching up. And, we’ll have some big news about our future travels… so stay tuned!

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