Monday, 21 August 2017

Sagalassos Ruins in Turkey Recover Former Splendour

Text by Emel Yenigelen | Phootographs by Öztürk Kayikci   
On high fertile lands under a majestic snowy peak, some 100 kilometres away from the sea, Sagalassos was once a place where people reaching out to God. But God disliked it.

Flourishing in ancient Pisidia around 200 BC, then ruined and forgotten, the important ancient city was rediscovered by the French traveller Paul Lucas in 1706. But it is only now recovering its former splendour, after decades of excavations.

Some 110 kilometres from Antalya and seven kilometres from the Burdur township of Ağlasun in south-western Turkey, the city of Sagalassos stands at an altitude of 1450-1700 metres. Bounded on the north and east by the majestic Mt Akdağ (2271 metres), on the south it looks down on the fertile lands of Ağlasun.

Although the boundaries of ancient Pisidia, to which Sagalassos was attached, are not known with certainty today, it was located more or less in the area including the Lakes Region and the mountainous region north of Antalya, bordered by Phyrigia to the north and west, Isaura in the east and Lykia and Pamphylia on the south.

While not a definitive list, Selge, Sagalassos, Pednelissos, Adada, Tymbiada, Kremna, Pityassos, Amblada, Anabura, Sinda, Arrassos (Ariassos), Tarbassos and Termessos were among the cities in the region. The average elevation of these settlements was more than 1000 meters. The lakes (Eğirdir, Beyşehir, Burdur, Suğla and others) on the neighbouring chalk ridges and hill-encircled plains fostered the growth of a rich plant cover as well as having a significant effect on the local climate. The region was therefore an important area of settlement from the earliest times. Research has shown that the oldest traces of settlement in Pisidia date back to the Upper Paleolithic in around 35,000 BC.

The History and Rediscovery of the City

The ancient city of Sagalassos was first discovered by the French traveller Paul Lucas in 1706, but it would be another hundred years before its name was understood to be Sagalassos. The realization that it was one of the leading settlements of the Western Taurus came only with the discovery of the city’s name from inscriptions in 1824.

Research in the region commenced with the arrival here of an English-Belgian team for the first time in 1985, among them Marc Waelkens from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Exactly four years after this surface investigation, the same team was given the go-ahead to undertake excavations.

Since then work at the ancient city of Sagalassos has been under way by experts from a wide range of disciplines. Thanks to the efforts of a large team consisting not only of archaeologists, but of architects, engineers, restorers, landscape architects, geologists, geomorphologists, and soil engineers, a major part of the city has been brought to the light of day in the last twenty years.

According to the findings of Prof. Dr. Waelkens and his team, traces of the first hunting and gathering people at Sagalassos go back more than 12,000 years. In the ninth millennium BC farmers settled around Lake Burdur and began cultivating the soil. Although some areas in the region were occupied and ruled in the Bronze Age, Sagalassos was not affected. The first dense settlement in the Pisidian region is thought to have been in the fourth millennium BC. Under the cultural influence of the Phrygians and Lydians, Sagalassos became a prominent settlement in the region. Under Persian rule, the Pisidian people were known for their bellicose and rebellious nature. When Alexander the Great attacked Pisidia in 333 BC, in line with his plans to end Persian hegemony, the region witnessed a very bloody war. Although Alexander met with serious resistance, in the end he brought Pisidia under his rule.

Sagalassos became Pisidia’s second most important city in the Hellenistic period (333-325 BC). The city’s power was further enhanced when hegemony passed to the Roman Empire in 25 BC. Besides crops such as the grains and olives raised on its fertile soil, tableware such as plates and bowls were made from the quality local clay and sold to other cities. Handicrafts too attained a high level of development in this city whose production was export-driven. Trade revived and developed further under Roman rule when Sagalassos attained the status of first city of Pisidia. Architecturally too the city experienced its period of highest splendour under the Romans when large and imposing buildings were erected.

Then, in 400 AD the city fell upon hard times. Although it struggled to protect itself against attacks by Isaura and some of the other mountain tribes in this period, and succeeded in preserving its power to a degree, it was levelled by an earthquake in 518. Many of its most prominent buildings were destroyed. But the city’s real collapse followed later in a plague epidemic in 541-42 when half the population was wiped out. Those who remained after the epidemic forced many to migrate to other regions were unable to withstand a second large earthquake and the early Arab early incursions into Anatolia in the mid-seventh century and were forced to abandon the city. In time the city was completely buried by a large landslide.

Archaeological Excavations

Lying hidden under the ground, the city was never plundered in subsequent periods. Consequently it is one of the best-preserved ancient cities today. Furthermore, its location at a high elevation and in mountainous terrain meant that its large stones could not be transported elsewhere.

Undertaking excavations in such virgin territory is of course extremely exciting for Prof. Dr. Waelkens. Intact individual pieces continue to be unearthed at this ancient site, which has been protected to some extent by nature. Only last year a giant statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was brought to light. Aurelius, who ruled Rome from 161 to 180 AD, is regarded as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ who ruled in succession. Among the many sculptures found are also a head of the Empress Faustina, a marble statue of the Emperor Hadrian, which formed an important part of the British Museum’s recent ‘Hadrian’ exhibition, and two large statues of the god Dionysus.

As Prof. Dr. Waelkens has said, the only thing known about Sagalassos when excavations were first undertaken in the city is that it was the sole settlement that stood up to Alexander the Great and that it challenged the Roman League in 188 AD. After twenty years of excavation many more things are now known about the city, which is spread over 1200 square metres, such as: the climatic changes it underwent; its historical periods; land use and land division in it; and the families that lived here; and the buildings that were constructed: the Heroon (an Honorary Monument thought to have been built approximately in 0-14 AD), the Bouleuterion (Council Building, constructed in approximately 100 BC), the Antonines Fountain (161-180 AD), the Temple of Zeus (25-0 BC), the Upper and Lower Agoras (third century BC), the Four Honorary Columns (tall columns erected at the four corners of the agora for the members of the families that had the agora rebuilt in the period of Augustus), the Temple of Thor (first century BC), a Roman bath (second century AD), a theatre which seats 9,000 people (second century AD) and a Late Hellenistic fountain (second century AD).

Since the Neon Library, which was discovered in 1990, the year the excavations began, and fragments of the Late Hellenistic Fountain were recovered in good condition, restoration was undertaken immediately. Both structures were re-erected in 1997, after which work shifted more to the Upper Agora area. Adorned with magnificent motifs, the Antonines Fountain is among the prominent structures on this politically important square which was enlarged during the reign of Augustus. Today the fountain stands in all its glory following a ten-year restoration. The Heroon, too, adorned with motifs of dancing girls, is another noteworthy monument here.

Thanks to Prof. Dr. Marc Waelkens and his team, with the backing of the Turkish Culture Ministry and several private organizations, Sagalassos is being awakened from centuries of sleep below the ground. Hopefully, like the Sagalassans themselves, all those whose efforts have gone into the preservation of this ancient city, where work will continue for years to come, will still be remembered centuries from now.

This text is courtesy of SkyLife, a monthly magazine published by Turkish Airlines.

Read more about Turkey on
tips to organize your trip to Turkey




Turkey Wins Expats' Hearts With Excellent Food and Nice Weather

4 March 2014 | Excellent local food and good weather won Turkey the 11th place in the world in expats' hearts - in a ranking, published by HSBC. No other country in South East Europe had made it to this charter. Full Story

Curiosity Chest

Bright Colours and Four-Day Weddings in Çomakdağ, Turkey

With its stone houses boasting colourful wooden trims, clove-flavoured coffee, festive weddings and the famous Çomakdağ women and their authentic costumes covered in flowers, Çomakdağ is easily the Aegean’s most beautiful spot.
Full Story

Useful Reads

A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire (2008) | By M. Şűkrű Hanioğlu

Far too often, the narrative of the collapse of an empire becomes a moral drama. Wealth is drained away by decadence, and power undercut by corruption. There are attempts at recovery, reform, re-consolidation; perhaps a war, or a grand alliance, or another gamble which seems mad in hindsight. Private fiefdoms emerge, tribes break away, and hostile external powers chip away at the borders.
Full Story


Summer Festivals Bring the Sound of Music to Turkey

As a supplement to its traditional attractions – ancient ruins, Medieval mosques, crowded bazaars and turquoise waters bathed in sunlight, Turkey also offers its summer visitors an array of exciting music events. Catering to different tastes – from classical to rock and from mainstream to alternative, more than 100 music festivals will be taking place all over the country – from Istanbul to Anatolia, providing another reason, if you ever needed one, to head to Turkey this summer. Sometimes, they even make it possible to enjoy ancient ruins and a music concert simultaneously. Full Story