Sagalassos – A City in the Clouds

Posted by on Aug 29, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments

One of Engin Kadaster’s “Hidden Gems” in Turkey

One of the ancient sites that has impressed me the most in Turkey, truly leaving me in awe, is the mountain-top city of Sagalassos, located at an altitude of 4800-5300 feet near the Western Taurus Mountains in the Lake District of Turkey.  It is in the Province of Burdur, about 65 miles from the famous Mediterranean Coast city of Antalya. 

Glancing at the steep mountain slopes, at first glance one wonders why people would ever build such an impressive city in such a forbidding location! There were actually several very good reasons to settle there: Security was one them, of course, being on a mountaintop.  There was also an abundance of springs, still flowing in the area after some 2,000 years, which coupled with very fertile soil in the nearby valleys, made the city rich with agriculture as well. Also, the red clay found in the vicinity helped make Sagalassos a production center for high-quality tableware. In fact, Sagalassos was the longest continuing pottery producing center of antiquity, for over a thousand years!  The archeological findings of over 50 kilns and workshops indicate a thousand years of continuous pottery production. And, during the Roman times, Sagalassos was linked to the Anatolian road network, connecting it to the Mediterranean coast!  All these factors helped attract people to come and settle in Sagalassos over a period of many centuries, and compelled Roman Emperors to pay close attention to this domain.

Sagalassos is indeed one of the best-preserved cities of antiquity.  Its history goes back thousands of years.  Hittite documents of 2,000 BCE mention a city called Salawassa.  (One wonders whether the “Wassa” in this name, means ‘water’ or “wassar” in the Indo-European language of the Hittites.)

It was conquered by Alexander the Great in 333 BCE when he was on his way to Persia, and was subsequently introduced to Hellenic culture.  The city really flourished after joining the Roman Empire in 25 BCE.  Named the Metropolis of Pisidia, Sagalassos underwent a period of unprecedented building activity that began during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), which endowed the city with the monuments visitors see today. The city declined because earthquakes and plague caused residents to flee in the 600s.  After Sagalassos was finally abandoned in the thirteenth century, it was not rediscovered until 1706 when Paul Lucas, a French diplomat on a mission for the court of Louis the XIV, visited the area, commenting that he saw several mountaintop cities “built by fairies”.  Starting from 1986, archaeologists from Belgium have been excavating this amazing ancient city, unearthing great discoveries!

Today, those who visit Sagalassos can see an impressive ancient agora, with a restored and functioning monumental fountain, gateway arches, and memorial columns. The site also features a huge Roman bath complex, an urban mansion with more than 80-rooms, an open-air theater with seating for up to 9,000 people, and a well-preserved library, among other impressive remains. During recent archaeological excavations not only building blocks but also entire statues, some at colossal scale and in very good state of preservation, have been recovered, including the head, leg and feet of Emperor Hadrian’s 15-feet high statue, and the head and legs of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s statue.  Many other sculptures that have been unearthed are stored at the nearby Burdur Museum, which is itself a “must-visit” venue.

The site of Sagalassos remains nearly completely preserved with its monumental structures, where in some cases almost all the original building stones can be recovered. It is truly exceptional and unique to find the ruins of a middle sized but highly developed ancient town in such a well-preserved state.

Everything in this city had been so well planned!  Natural terraces on the mountain slopes were used for the construction of large scale monuments, and some hill-tops were enlarged by means of subterranean vaulted chambers to create larger floor surfaces.  In order to achieve a large terrace within the city, such as a public square, it was sometimes necessary to excavate on a steep slope, taking care to adorn the retaining wall against the hill with magnificently elaborate monumental fountains.

Natural flood risks were also taken into account: a full-fledged subterranean storm sewer system was built throughout the city, connected to many drains. Use of the abundant spring water resources was ingeniously planned.  Water was collected, distributed, and displayed in beautiful fountains where one can still see running water coming down through pipes and waterfalls into the pools for 2,000 years, which is simply amazing to watch!

With all of these beautiful, interesting, and well-preserved features, it is no wonder that Sagalassos is now on the World Heritage Tentative List: Archaeological Site of Sagalassos

To give you just a flavor of the beauty of this place, below is a little video I took of the beautifully restored fountain and statues during my last visit to Sagalassos in Spring 2017!