During the Iron Age, the far eastern part of Anatolia, around Lake Van, was ruled by the Urartians, about who very little is known.
Given the remoteness of their kingdom and the fact that it overlapped the boundaries of what are now many different modern states, that is perhaps not all that surprising. What is more surprising is to find that not a great deal more is known about the Lydians, who ruled much of western Anatolia at the same time.
The precise origins of the Lydians are unclear, although they seem to be descendants of people who set up a neo-Hittite state, called Arzawa, in western Anatolia in the 12th century B.C. At the height of their power, they ruled over an area that encompassed most of what is now western Turkey, with their capital at Sardis, near Manisa. It was here in the fifth century that historian Herodotus wrote of the first coins being minted, probably during the reign of King Alyattes (610-550 B.C.). In a possibly linked development, Herodotus also credits the Lydians with having built the first proper permanent shops. A Lydian language is known to have existed right up until the first century B.C., but little is known about it. Ditto the situation with the Lydian pantheon of gods, which included a Cybele-like mother goddess and a Teshub-like thunder god.
Herodotus tells an astonishing story about a king named Gyges who first established the capital at Sardis in the seventh or eighth century B.C. A government minister, he was apparently persuaded by King Candaules to hide and observe Candaules’ wife’s naked beauty. Unfortunately for Candaules, his wife spotted Gyges and demanded that he kill her husband and marry her in his stead. Otherwise, the only Lydian monarch to have stirred history’s imagination was Croesus (595-c.547 B.C.), a man so wealthy that the expression “as rich as Croesus” is still sometimes used to describe the Donald Trumps of this world. By his reign, invading Cimmerians had overwhelmed the Lydians neighbors, the Phrygians. They were less successful against the Lydians, who forced them out and occupied the old Phrygia, rebuilding over the ruins at Gordion.
Mythology provides a link between the two peoples in that the wealth of Lydia was built on its access to gold mined using sheepskins from the river Pactolus (Sart Çayı). This gold was said to have been bestowed on the river by King Midas, the Phrygian king who had found to his cost that his wish that everything he touch should turn to gold included his food and his daughter. His desperate prayers to be relieved of the gift were answered with the suggestion that he wash it away in the river, which ever afterwards ran with gold.
Croesus used some of his wealth to make donations to the oracle in faraway Delphi, Greece. Closer to home, he also contributed towards the cost of rebuilding the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which was at that time subordinate to Lydia. The oracle rewarded Croesus by issuing him with one of history’s most ambiguous predictions. While he was trying to decide whether to launch an attack against the Persian leader, Cyrus the Great, who was advancing further and further into Anatolia, the king was told that if he did so he would destroy “a great empire”. Glibly assuming that that meant the Persian Empire, Croesus sallied forth to attack Cyrus in 547 B.C. The Battle of Pteria in Cappadocia was inconclusive, but when he retreated to Sardis, Cyrus pursued and captured him. Croesus may or may not have died on a funeral pyre observed by the Persian king, but that was the effective end of Lydia as an independent power. It became first a satrapy of Persia and then part of the Roman province of Asia Minor, before reappearing in name only as the Roman province of Lydia in A.D. 296.
Despite their once great power, the Lydians have left few traces in Anatolia. The main site of interest for visitors is Sardis, although most of what can be seen there long postdates the Lydians. It’s the same in places such as Thyateira, near Manisa, which was once a Lydian settlement; today, visitors see only the remains of what was built in Roman times. The second most important site for fans of Lydia turns out to be Uşak, where a museum is home to the splendid Karun Treasure. Most of the finds from Sardis are housed in Archaeological Museum of Manisa.
The archaeological site of Sardis is at Sartmustafa, near Salihli, inland from İzmir. Impressive though they are, the ruins that survive there say little about the Lydians. The most conspicuous monument is the huge reconstructed entrance to the baths and gymnasium, which dates back only to A.D. 211. In front of it are the considerable remains of a synagogue with a beautiful mosaic floor that dates back to the third century A.D. Backing onto this are the remains of shops believed to have been built in Byzantine times.
For any trace of the Lydians, you need to leave the main site and head south along the road in search of the remains of a vast Temple of Artemis, which is thought to have been built originally during the reign of King Croesus. At that time, it was probably one of the four largest temples of Asia Minor, rivaling in size the giant temple at Ephesus, whose building costs were also borne by Croesus. Once again, what is to be seen today dates back to a later remodeling, although the historian George Bean suggested that the unusually lofty column bases were a feature that should be traced back to the Lydians. Here, too, a couple of inscriptions written in both Greek and Lydian were found.
But to see the best evidence of the Lydian presence, you really need to look north from the road running between Salihli and Sartmustafa. Here, the area known locally as Bin Tepe (One Thousand Hills) turns out to have been the site of a necropolis of around 100 tumuli, where some of the Lydian nobility, including perhaps Kings Alyattes and Gyges, were buried.
Inland from Sardis, the modern town of Uşak stands in an area that was once solidly Lydian, and it was in the nearby Güre village in 1966 that treasure-seekers dynamited their way into the tumulus-covered tomb of a Lydian noblewoman, uncovering a treasure trove of gold and silver. Similar activity in other nearby tumuli filled out what was to become known as the Karun Treasure of more than 350 separate items. Smuggled abroad, they ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1993, the treasure was returned to Turkey after a protracted legal battle. That would have been the end of the matter, had it not been for the rather odd decision to house it in the little-visited museum in Uşak. Sadly, the museum’s own director then succumbed to temptation and it was later discovered that some of the items had been replaced by duplicates and the originals sold.
A new museum to house the treasure is now been created inside Uşak’s redundant train station. In the meantime, in the Uşak town center, it’s still possible to admire not just the jaw-droppingly beautiful silver vessels and gold jewelry but also extraordinary wall paintings with a slightly Egyptian look about them that emerged from one of the tumuli. The museum also contains a recreation of what the stone-lined tombs inside the tumuli looked like.
Ardent Lydian lovers might like to make one last stop in Akhisar, near Sardis. Originally this was the town of Thyateira, its name seemingly derived from the Lydian word “teira,” meaning castle. The town founded here stood on an important point where roads connecting Sardis to Pergamum and Smyrna to Bithynia intersected. There is also believed to have been an important shrine to the Lydian sun god Tyrimnus here.
As in Sardis, so is it in Akhisar, though. Right in the town center, there are indeed some slight ancient remains. However, they date back to the Roman period and are mainly of interest to those in search of the “seven churches” of the Bible.
Lydian remains site
Syanogue in Salihli
Ruins of Uşak
A Lydian artifact
A rendition of a Lydian coin