Amazingly enough, the story of Sagalassos so far has remained untold on my weblog, in spite of the details shared around the great exhibition that was held in Tongeren, Belgium, not so long ago (Sagalassos, City of Dreams). So, it is high time to tell more about this magnificent city, the more since Alexander the Great conquered it in 333 BC.
Nowadays, a simple narrow road leads from the village of Ağlasun to the top of the hill where Sagalassos lies hidden from view. It is only after passing the gate of the watchman that this immense city is being revealed in the otherwise broken landscape amidst snow-capped mountains. A true eagle’s nest!
Since 1990 archaeologists are constantly working at Sagalassos, year after year, season after season, exposing new buildings each time. It is not difficult for a layman to see the city rise from its ashes so to speak. The wonderful thing about Sagalassos is that so many edifices can easily be re-erected as in most cases at least 90% of the original elements are scattered around! This means that the visitor will always find an element of surprise each time anew. It is estimated that Sagalassos covers some 2,000 square kilometres and could be compared to Pompeii in Italy, which was however frozen in time after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius while here we find a city that was constantly occupied till the 13th century AD.
Overlooking the area from this strategic location my admiration for Alexander the Great is growing once again – as if that were still possible.
Just before the onset of winter in 334 BC, Alexander split his army up into three groups. Part of his troops under the command of his general Parmenion proceeded to Gordion while the newly weds were allowed to return home in Macedonia to spend the winter there with their family. The entire army was meant to regroup the following spring in Gordion. This meant that Alexander moved through Lycia with a smaller detachment of soldiers, let’s say approximately 14,000 men, fighting his way east through Pamphylia where important cities like Side, Perge, Aspendos, and Termessos had to be taken to safeguard his rear. When in the early days of spring he started his march north, Sagalassos was evidently on his path and I find it hard to picture his army moving uphill from around where today’s Ağlasun was settled by the Seljuks. I have no mental picture how big an army of 14,000 may look like – not to mention the number of horses – but this must have been impressive enough. I suppose that the baggage train, servants, slaves, craftsmen, and merchants would have stayed in the valley below...
In the 14th century BC, the Hittites knew of the existence of Sagalassos which they called Salawassa. Just like all the other cities around here, the city was dominated in turn by the Phrygians and the Lydians till the Persians took hold of it to include it in the province of Pisidia. The Sagalassians were bellicose people, who had no reason to welcome Alexander with open arms. Any change in rule is understandably met with resentment and their opinion about Alexander will not have been any different from what they thought about previous conquerors. Anyway, the city was taken although, occupying the high ground in front of the town, they put up a fierce fight also due to Sagalassos’ reinforcements from Termessos. In advance of his right wing led by Alexander himself the archers were the first to get the beating when they reached the steepest part of the climb to the city, but the Agrianes on the left held their ground. The Pisidians, who according to Arrian have no defensive armour were no match for the fully-equipped infantry attackers (horses were useless in this terrain). About 500 citizens were killed, the surviving defenders fled and Alexander stormed Sagalassos. After Alexander’s death, the region was disputed by Antigonus Monophtalmus, Lysimachus, the Seleucids and finally the Attalids of Pergamon. Sagalassos shared the fate of its neighbours when after the death of Attalus III in 133 BC it became part of the Roman Provincia Asia. By then the city was entirely Hellenistic and the vehicular language was Greek.
Named the Metropolis of Pisidia, Sagalassos was a reliable supplier of grain and olives and the local clay ensured a prosperous commerce of pottery like amphorae, jars, and cups for export to the entire Mediterranean region. For six hundred years, the production of ceramics was carried out on an industrial scale. Under Emperor Hadrian, the city underwent major building activities, much of which we still can see today. It is estimated that in its heydays, Sagalassos counted some 50,000 inhabitants! The decline started after repeated earthquakes like the one of 518 AD, but mainly those of 644 and 661, while the plague and the Arabian invasion gave the “coup de grace”. In the 11th century, it fell into the hands of the Turkmen as it was situated on the caravan route between Antalya and Konya. The Seljuks in the 13th century built the nearby town of Ağlasun with a caravansary and a hammam of its own, and Sagalassos slid into oblivion. We had to wait till 1706 when a travelling Frenchman rediscovered the city, but it was not until 1985 that a Belgo-British team put Sagalassos on the map again and excavations started for good.
My first visit in 2005 was not a success for I was with a group led by an uncooperative guide. I returned in 2007 under the far more professional guidance of Peter Sommer in the frame of his superb trip “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great”. And because of the ongoing excavations, I returned again in 2009, far too long ago already when I see the most recent pictures. My latest update of 2009 may tell of monuments now in improved conditions although they are, as a matter of course, still on the same location anyway.
The first building I encounter on my last visit (and I presume that is still the case today) is the huge complex of the Roman Baths built between 168 and 180 AD, which together with those of Ephesos belong to the largest of Turkey. It is obvious that these baths were repaired and adjusted after the earthquake of 518, i.e. in the middle of the Christian period. From what I understood in Tongeren, archaeologists have been able to trace the many additions and transformations, and the Baths may open to the public very soon.
The Lower Agora meanwhile has been restored in all its grandeur with monolithic marble columns of different colours enhancing the façade of the Nympheum, where statues once filled the many niches. Some of these very statues can be seen at the Museum of Burdur, but this must have been quite a sight! This was the first monumental Nympheum built under the reign of Trajan in the second century AD and was the first of its kind to meet the traveller entering Sagalassos from the south over the Colonnaded Street. About a century later, its façade was partly dismantled to be re-erected some 40 cm forward creating a narrow service room behind the basin. The entire width of this fountain is 19 meters with a depth of approximately 3 meters, delimited by a meter high limestone parapet. Among the statues that filled the nine niches Hera and Tyche have been identified, and also two small statues of Nike.
The slabs of the marble Agora floor are still in place, as well as the staircase leading to the square below, which in turn connected to the Colonnaded Street that linked up with the Via Sebasté down in the valley. What a panorama from here! It is at least as impressive as my first meeting with Delphi in Greece – one of those places that only the gods can choose.
Behind this Agora, half of the Odeon has been exposed. It doesn’t look as if it survived the centuries too well for it has been stripped of its marble coat and all I see is the rough brick support. The shape and the method of construction are clearly visible, however.
Via a narrow street and a left turn, I reach the Bouleuterion, a square meeting room counting 250 seats. Three bronze statues representing the people, the city and the senate at the entrance must have welcomed the attendees.
Next to it, lies the Heroon from the early days of the first century AD, delicately restored with its magnificent friezes of dancing and music playing girls. Although these friezes are mere copies (the originals were also moved to the Museum of Burdur) it gives an excellent idea of what once was. The hero in whose honour this Heroon was erected remains unknown, although some pretend it might be Alexander the Great. This may be wishful thinking for although the hero’s head now on display at the Burdur Museum shows a close resemblance to Alexander, I am a little skeptical.
At the foot of this Heroon, lies the Upper Agora dating from the Hellenistic period and enlarged in the first century. The great attraction is the ostentatious fountain, the Antonine Nympheum from 160-180 AD that looks like a theatre front with six niches that held statues from the late fourth or early fifth century AD representing Asklepios, Koronis, Nemesis, Apollo, possibly Hygeia and an unidentified male. Each corner hosted a beautiful larger than life Dionysus with Satyr, now also in Burdur (with the other statues). In-depth research has revealed that the fountain was repaired in the fourth century and that the statues came from the Temple of Apollo Klarios in the lower part of the city. Each corner of the Upper Agora is enhanced with a 13 meters high honorific column for the most prominent families of the city, whose children later would become the first Roman citizens of Sagalassos. After the earthquake of 650 AD, the entire Nympheum collapsed and was never restored. I hear that today the monumental fountain has been so meticulously repaired that the water is once again pouring into the wide water basin. That is a “must-see” for my next visit.
Public buildings surround the Upper Agora where I find Greek as well as Latin inscriptions. In the middle of the Agora are the remains of a kiosk of some sort, originally a small temple dedicated to Tyche with a pyramidal roof and built in the days of Emperor Augustus. It was later reused by Empress Constantia (4th century AD), followed by Emperors Gratianus and Valentianus, and again by Empress Flavia Eudoxia (5th century AD).
Below and southeast of this Agora lies the food market or Macellum from the end of the 2nd century AD. It is a mere square of 21x21 meters with in its centre a Tholos with a small fountain or water basin to keep the fish fresh. Shops surrounded the Macellum only on three sides, the fourth side being delimited by a colonnade offering a magnificent view over the lower city. Things were spoiled around the beginning of the sixth century when the shops were entirely rebuilt with rubble and a substantial amount of spolia from other monuments.
What a pleasure to walk around, especially since I am about the only visitor – so gratifying!
After a look at the necropolis which is largely fenced off, I turn to the eastern side of Sagalassos. Here lies the interesting and now roofed Library of Flavius Soverianus Neon from 120 AD with its well-preserved mosaic floor. It is said that it was inspired by the Library of Celsus in Ephesos although I personally fail to see how. For a start, this construction is much smaller, measuring only 11,80 x 9.90 meters and the impressive façade of Ephesos is entirely absent here.
Right beneath the Library is another fountain, a Nympheum with Doric columns supporting the preserved roof above the water basin – a rare example of Hellenistic art from the first century BC. This Nympheum was the very first to be excavated and to everybody’s surprise as soon as it was exposed the water started flowing again! Isn’t that amazing? The flow is less than what it used to be in antiquity simply because the water comes from one single source where in antiquity there were several. The edge of the fountain is deeply eroded by the many jars that have pulled out of the fresh water and the presence of those women drawing water is almost palpable.
Cozily nestled in a curve higher up the hill lies the inevitable Roman Theatre completed between 180-210 AD although it was built in Hellenistic tradition (maybe on Greek foundation) with seating in three-quarters of a circle. No excavations have been carried out yet and the stage is definitely ready to collapse any day for the past two thousand years. The fault-line of the devastating earthquake of 661 AD actually ran right in front of the podium, clearly separating it from the 9,000 seats. Strangely enough, the stage of this theatre was only one story high and the reason seems to be that the Sagalassians wanted to see the flat-topped conical hill in the background which is actually where Alexander defeated them in 333 BC – a later honour to the great conqueror!
On the high plateau behind it, the city’s unique potters’ quarters have left thousands and thousands of shards, ranging from plain earthenware to exquisitely decorated pieces. This place is so unique because of the five known potters’ centres spread around the Mediterranean Sea, only two have been localized: this one and another one in Pergamon which is however entirely flooded after the construction of a barrage. Unforgivable to flood antiquities like that, but is seems to be Turkey’s policy as we have seen at Zeugma and Allianoi …
At the centre of the exhibition in Tongeren, Belgium, a scale model of Sagalassos was presented and it is quite amazing to discover how many of the temples, baths, nymphaeums and private houses have been mapped out over the past decennia.
Latest excavations focused on several Roman villas which I have not yet seen but look very promising. There is this huge mansion just beyond the Roman Baths which, when it was completed in the fourth century, counted no less than 66 rooms spread over several terraces on the slope. The oldest part dates from the first century BC and over the years the villa has been extended and restored many times. By the 6th century, it was split up in at least four smaller apartments in which the luxurious quarters were transformed into storage rooms and even stables! So far, it could be established that the construction collapsed during the heavy earthquakes of the 7th century and was no longer occupied. There seem to be many more mansions like this one in the area, i.e. east of the Colonnaded Street, but also on the opposite side which is much more terraced. Yes, high time to pay Sagalassos another visit, I know.
The cherry on the cake is, of course, a visit to the nearby Museum of Burdur to treat yourself to the original dancing girls from the Heroon and the grand statues of extreme beauty from the fountains of the Upper and Lower Agora.