In the mountains and in the metropolis: Ancient Sagalassos

In the mountains and in the metropolis: Ancient Sagalassos

View from the agora (Photo: Terry Richardson)

March 12, 2013, Tuesday/ 15:56:00/ TERRY RICHARDSON

Atmospherically situated high in the rugged Toros Mountains, a spectacular two-and-a-half-hour drive due north of the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, the earthquake-wracked remains of a 9,000-seat stone-built theater stare out, as they have for a couple of millennia or so, from a wind-scoured hillside backed by a ragged wall of snow-capped peaks.

Early in March, ribbons of crystalline snow linger on in the shadows thrown by great blocks of stone toppled from the monumental stage building, ice skins the tiny pools of snowmelt trapped in the peg holes of column drums and slender icicles dangle beneath the arched entryways to the auditorium.

A city in the mountains

Below the theater, scattered across a series of south-facing natural terraces wrenched from a great sweep of mountainside some 1,500 meters above sea level, is a fabulous array of monumental buildings, many of which have only recently been excavated and painstakingly pieced back together by archaeologists. Ornamental fountains resplendent with statues preside over marble-flagged public squares, the piers and arches of a massive Roman bathhouse etch the skyline, grooved columns and intricately carved capitals lay jumbled together on the stepped bases of temples, the tiered stone seats of a council chamber huddle against a ridge and sections of a frieze adorned with Greek inscriptions peep out from the piles of tumbled masonry littering the site -- there's even a library, complete with a splendid geometric mosaic floor.

This is Sagalassos, once the second city of the remote, mountainous yet austerely beautiful region of Pisidia. In ancient times it controlled an important trade route between the Anatolian plateau and the Mediterranean and was judged too important to be left alone by Alexander the Great, who captured it whilst en route through Anatolia in 333 B.C. Sagalassos peaked in prosperity in the first and second centuries, when it was a part of a Roman Empire that was at the zenith of its power, and the vast majority of the impressive buildings which visitors see today date from this period -- though a few pieces of masonry adorned with relief-carved crosses provide evidence that the settlement continued on into the Christian Byzantine period.

A taste of Sagalassos in İstanbul

Clearly, the best way to get to grips with Sagalassos is to visit the site itself. For the next three months, however, there is an alternative for those living in, or visiting, the metropolis of İstanbul. Between March 9 and June 10, the Koç University Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations is hosting “(In) Site Sagalassos” at the Merkez Han, 181 İstiklal Caddesi, Beyoğlu (Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-5:30 p.m.; entry is free), a compelling exhibition of black and white photographs taken during the excavations by Belgian photographers Bruno Vandermeulen and Danny Veys.

Having visited the site only three days before attending the opening day of the exhibition, I can vouch for the talent of the two photographers in capturing the atmosphere of this remote site. As you'd expect, there are plenty of shots of the main features of the site and the wild peaks encircling it, but most exciting are those showing the archaeological team at work. In one, the gloved hands of an archaeologist frame a human skull which they uncovered from a Medieval-era grave near the Temple of Apollo. In another, team members stand transfixed as a finely carved, larger-than-life marble head of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is lifted by a crane from the detritus of the bathhouse in which it was discovered.

Exploring Sagalassos-the lower city

Whilst it's possible to conduct a “virtual” tour of Sagalassos at the current exhibition in İstanbul in less than an hour, allow at least half a day for the site itself (daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; TL 5; gated and guarded). Things have become much easier for visitors (and more secure for the artifacts, as shards of pottery and fragments of carved marble continually appear after heavy rainfall washes the fragile mountain earth away) with the construction around the remains of a series of linked walkways made of heavy wooden beams in-filled with grit. There are also information boards at all the major structures, making a tour of the site informative as well as visually breathtaking.

Just beyond the gatehouse, complete with a friendly warden and a yapping dog chained out back, rise the bulky piers and arches of the bathhouse. Excavations at Sagalassos, which began back in 1985 with a joint Anglo-Belgian team, have been conducted since 1990 by the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, with the team arriving at the start of July each year and departing at the end of August. Although much of the first century bathhouse has already been unearthed by the Belgian archaeologists, it looks like excavations are ongoing as the structure is fenced off and visitors have to confine their explorations to peering over the barbed wire.

Interestingly, a fine marble head of Roman Emperor Hadrian, uncovered in this bathhouse during the excavations, went on to become an important attraction of the much-lauded Hadrian exhibition held in London's British Museum back in 2008.

Just past the bathhouse a steep flight of metal steps has been installed to take visitors down to the lower marketplace or agora, flanked to the north by three ornamental fountains. From the marketplace, timeworn steps descend to a marble-paved street leading to the gloriously jumbled remains of a temple dedicated to the Roman emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. The views from here are expansive.

Just to the south is a distinctive, flat-topped conical eminence known as Alexander's Hill, so-called because the storming of this natural defense by the famous Macedonian was the key to the capture of the entire city. A few hundred meters below it, swallowed up in the hazy blue mountain air, is the large village of Ağlasun, the gateway to the site and a fertile plain backed by yet more peaks. Up and north, the outlines of yet more monumental buildings beckon, backed by an imposing gray wall of serrated peaks.

Coffee, croci and an owl

The icy northern “poyraz” wind sweeping the hillside at the time of my early March visit soon made me realize that life in this remote settlement must have been harsh, despite its obvious wealth and fine buildings. A couple of millennia ago, I may have been tempted to escape the cold in the warmth of the caldarium (hot room) in the bathhouse, but the best sanctuary in early 2013 was to be found in the lee of the rock wall backing the site. Here I settled down to share a flask of coffee with my wife beneath a honeycomb of rudely fashioned rock-cut tombs. Out of the wind, warmed by the bright sun and hot coffee, the whole place suddenly seemed much more clement. Certainly in the summer months, Sagalassos would have been a far more pleasant place to live than the myriad Greek-Roman cities dotting the baking-hot, humid and malarial Mediterranean coast just a hundred kilometers or so to the south.

In fact, despite the snow on the peaks, the ice on the pools and the vicious wind, even this exposed hillside was on the cusp of spring. Hundreds upon hundreds of delicate pinkish-purple croci had just emerged from dark, friable earth still dank with snowmelt and it wasn't so hard to imagine the good citizens of Hellenistic or Roman-era Sagalassos out tending to the olive trees which formed, along with the manufacture of fine pottery, the staples of the local economy. There were a few birds about too, and not just the hooded crows that frequent the Pisidian uplands year-round. A pair of noisy rock nuthatches clucked happily around the reconstructed heroon (a shrine dedicated to a distinguished person or hero) below us and later, whilst exiting the site, a scops owl fluttered silently from a tree and perched invitingly atop one of the piers of the bathhouse.

Pilgrimage to the theater

The most impressive feature of the entire site is the upper marketplace, considerably larger and more imposing than its counterpart down the hillside. What makes this open, marble-flagged expanse so special is the wonderfully ornate decorative fountain that stretches across the entire north wall of the square, the Antonine Nymphaeum, built in the second century. Unfortunately for us, the statues (actually only copies of the originals, which are housed in Burdur's archeological museum, around 30 kilometers from the site and well-worth visiting if you have the time) housed in the fancy niches in the facade of the fountain were cloaked for the winter in protective sheets. Even with its decorative statuary under wraps, however, it's still an awe-inspiring sight, the elaborately relief-carved pale marble of the restored fountain contrasting wonderfully with the forbidding gray wall of peaks behind.

No visit to Sagalassos is complete without a pilgrimage up to the theater, built into the rocky hillside above and northeast of the main ruins. It may not be quite so dramatically situated as the theater at its mountain-top Pisidian rival to the south, Termessos, nor so large as the theaters dominating the Pamphylian coastal plain cities of Perge, Aspendos and Side, but it is every bit as impressive. Just take a pew on one of the upper tiers of seating and gaze down across the fallen masonry-filled orchestra and tumbled stage building, over the marketplaces, streets, fountains and temples of the ancient city center and down to the mountain-girt plain beyond. For lovers of history and natural beauty, there can be few more satisfying prospects anywhere in Turkey.

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