Amid the ruins of Sagalassos, I trailed my fingers in the water of the monumental fountain that takes up one entire side of the Upper Agora (marketplace).
As I did so, just for a moment, I glimpsed a Roman matron bend down beside me to place her shopping bag on the ground before leaning over and scooping up a handful of cold water to bathe her face. Then, with a quick glance up at the statues of the gods watching over her she adjusted her robe, picked up her shopping and was gone, leaving me alone again in the silence of the agora.
It was the water that did it, I think; the water that conjured up the spirit of a long-dead Roman for me. Because, while Turkey has a positive glut of wonderful archeological sites most of them make no attempt to resurrect the past. Sagalassos is the exception and a wonderful exception it is too. Here the water -- not just of the monumental fountain (nymphaeum), but also of the more discreet Hellenistic fountain -- has been made to flow again, immediately injecting life back into the cold marble and making it possible to imagine not just what these fountains would have looked like in their heyday, but also what other similar fountains such as the one currently being reconstructed at Side would have been like.
The Burdur Museum provides some helpful background information about the two fountains, explaining how they typify the different attitudes applied to the public water supply by the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks, it seems, thought it important to keep the water covered, shaded and protected, while the altogether brasher, showier Romans wanted it put on display as much as possible. So here at Sagalassos, the older Greek fountain hunkers down in the middle of a cloister of troughs, all very practical, but hardly very imposing. The later Roman version is all upfront marble, the water framed not just by the statues of the gods but also by imposing columns and dramatic swags of floral carving.
Of course, Sagalassos, high in the hills south of Isparta in the Turkish Lake District, is much more than just the fountains. This is a site that dates back to the time of the Psidians, a fearsome people who managed to put the wind up even Alexander the Great. It may even have been their capital, absorbing the refugees of an earthquake in Termessos in the third century A.D., only to be abandoned after their own disastrous encounter with a quake. Inevitably the Psidian contribution to the built landscape was eventually superseded by the more sophisticated work of the Greeks and Romans. Inevitably, too, most of what survives today at what is a very extensive site dates from the period of the Roman supremacy.
The fountains aside, one of the more amazing features of Sagalassos is the huge, tumbledown theater that seems to have been destroyed by the final, fatal earthquake. Impressive, too, is the so-called Heroon, a temple dedicated to someone vital to the city’s history, but whose name was lost in the fifth century when the building was converted into a defensive tower. The Heroon was adorned with friezes of dancing girls. Copies have now been placed along the walls while the wonderful originals are on display in the Burdur Museum.
While still relatively under-visited, Sagalassos is being readied for the touristic big time, with landscaping work in progress all around the entrance and further reconstruction work in progress in and around the Lower Agora. But tourism remains a very peculiar thing, because not far away from Sagalassos and just as easily accessible are two other sites that barely see a visitor from week to week.
The hillside site at Sagalassos is impressive and offers wonderful views, albeit slightly marred by encroaching marble quarrying. Kremna, however, has a location that is out of this world, high up on a plateau backed by a huge plug of rock in the hills near Bucak (its name means “cliff” in Greek). But where archeologists have been hard at work at Sagalassos, the ruins at Kremna have been left to languish almost untouched. Only a couple of buildings still stand in any meaningful way, one of them seemingly a library.
From this lofty stronghold the Psidians and their successors would have had spectacular views in all directions and it’s tempting to assume that you are looking out on the exact same landscape they did. The lake that does so much to add to the scenery is, however, a newcomer, the product of yet another of Turkey’s innumerable dam projects, this time the Karacaören Barajı.
If Kremna sees few visitors; Kibyra was, until recently, virtually unheard of outside archeological circles, which is extraordinary given the quality of the Roman-era buildings that survive here. Today Kibyra sits in the hills above the sleepy little town of Gölhisar, but once upon a time this was a location perfectly sited on a junction between the north-south and east-west trade routes, which explains why it was endowed with such impressive public buildings.
Despite the many signs posted by the Gölhisar development authorities there’s little to suggest that many visitors are expected to show up at the site any day soon, since there is still no official ticket booth. But if you do visit, the first thing that will greet your eyes is an extensive stretch of surviving stadium with seats built in lofty tiers on just one side, leaving the view down the hill visible to the audience. This impressive stadium would be enough in itself to justify a detour from your itinerary, but then further uphill there’s a fine stretch of marble-paved Roman road, with, at one end, a beautiful archway reminiscent in the quality of its carvings of the one taken from Magnesia Ad Maendrum that is in the İstanbul Archeological Museum.
By now you will be starting to realize what a true hidden treasure Kibyra is, but then you keep walking uphill and suddenly there in front of you are two buildings standing virtually intact: one, the huge city theater, the other its bouleterion (council chamber), with a bathhouse right in front of it. Here, a magnificent mosaic depicting the head of Medusa was discovered, although it has since been covered.
As you leave the site, it’s worth pausing to take a quick look at the fallen sarcophagi scattered about at the end of a paved road sloping back up the hill. It was here that archeologists found the marvelous friezes of gladiators in combat that are one of the glories of the Burdur Museum.
HOW TO GET THERE
Most people visit Sagalassos from Eğirdir on a tour organized by one of the pensions. Alternatively, they get there under their own steam on a dolmuş from Isparta to Ağlasun, where it’s possible to arrange for a taxi to cover the last steep seven kilometers uphill to the site.
Personally, I think that Burdur makes the best base for visiting Sagalassos. This is partly because, if you stay in Burdur, you’re well placed to inspect the finds from the site in the excellent local museum, partly because there are plenty of buses to Ağlasun from Burdur, which is a more attractive and manageable town to stay in than Isparta and partly because there are also regular buses to Bucak (for Kremna) and to Gölhisar (for Kibyra) from the otogar (Note: the otogar, or bus station, is due to be moved to a new location soon).
Taxis can be hired in Bucak and Gölhisar to get you to the actual sites; Kibyra is only two kilometers from the town center which means that you can hop out of the bus from Burdur, take a look at the ruins, and then continue south to Fethiye on the same day.
Dancing girls on a frieze from the Heroon at Sagalassos.
Hellenistic fountain, Sagalassos
Roman fountain, Sagalassos