By Alan Dean Foster
World-famous archeological sites, especially those that have become tourist attractions, need little introduction. Macchu Picchu, the Roman Forum, the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal — mention their names and for anyone whose interest in images extends beyond family photos and possibly NFL highlights, pictures of those locations immediately flash in the mind.
Lesser-known sites readily activate mental video among the more knowledgeable among those interested in the ancient world. Such folk might know that the fabulous bronze paneling that used to cover the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome was ordered torn off by Pope Urban VIII and melted down to make cannons (sort of a reversal of the “beat swords into plowshares” meme). Or that the “simple” islanders of the Pacific raised something akin to a stone Venice on the island of Pohnpei. Or that the Chachapoyan civilization of northern Peru constructed massive stone cities like Kuelap that sometimes rivaled those of the Inca.
But hardly anybody has heard of Sagalassos.
Founded around 333 B.C. E., Sagalassos lies in the Taurus mountains about 100 kilometers north of the Turkish port city of Antalya. Whereas ancient peoples of the Mediterranean tended to cluster around the coast, Sagalassos lies inland at an altitude of 1500-1700 meters. Why the variation in altitude? Because it’s kinda like Prescott. Or Jerome.
Built on the slope of a mountain, the old trading town had more than its share of steps. It also suffered, as much of Turkey still does today, from periodic devastating earthquakes. After being conquered first by Alexander the Great, and then the Romans, and then the Arabs, and having their beautiful town repeatedly knocked down by Mother Nature given that huge pieces of marble are harder to put back together than egos, the hardy but not obdurate citizens finally gave up and dispersed.
Yet all those earthquakes combined with the town’s comparatively remote location had one benefit. Instead of being continuously looted and having its stonework repurposed (i.e., stolen) for later construction efforts, as was common in the ancient world, much of Sagalassos’s construction was buried and left in situ. With archeology in Turkey long focused on better-known and more accessible sites along the country’s extensive coast, the stone-filled hillsides of Sagalassos were left to grazing goats and wandering nomads until an Anglo-Belgian team began serious excavations and restoration in 1990 … yesterday, in archeological terms.
That work is ongoing, but Sagalassos’s location means that even today it receives far fewer visitors than famous coastal sites such as Ephesus. Now, Ephesus is wonderful and fascinating, but being on the coast it is inundated daily by tourists who arrive nearby by boat, transfer to buses, and are disgorged en masse to chatter interminably while clambering over the ruins and restored buildings. So bad is it that the place can feel like Disneyland on a Sunday in September. The same is true of many other noted historical locations in Turkey. Not Sagalassos. It’s too far from the coast and the mountain roads require too much travel for buses to arrive easily from cruise ships.
The city is full of fascinating structures, from the Nymphaeum (restoration completed in 2010) , to the upper and lower agoras (markets), to the library and the typical Roman amphitheater, in addition to assorted monuments, floor mosaics, streets, and stairways. There is much work still to be done and one can only hope the money will be provided to complete it.
When I visited Sagalassos in 2005, much of this painstaking archeological effort was just beginning to come to fruition. Spending an entire day there, I encountered perhaps a dozen other visitors. There were a few guides and guards, the latter to prevent looting. Spectacular finds are still being made, including a colossal statue of the emperor Hadrian.
I was soon drawn to the first structure to be fully restored: a Hellenistic fountain house dating to the first century B.C. E. Constructed in the shape of a U, with the water source located at the bottom of the letter shape, I was surprised to find it and the two channels that ran down the arms of the U filled with flowing water. As I stared, and occasionally paused to shoot video, I heard a voice behind me.
“Have a drink,” the man said in English. Turning, I saw someone about my age, with a sandy spade beard, wearing everyday work clothes typical of the region. He was not dressed as a guard. He might or might not have been a guide.
I hesitated, eying the ancient stonework. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
He smiled. “People having been using it for two thousand years. Best water you ever tasted.”
That threw me. “You mean, this is still the original spring, still running? It’s not piped in?”
He nodded. “Two thousand years, still running. No pipes.”
So I bent over the old stonework, and cupped my hands, and drank from a spring that despite earthquakes and invaders had been running clear and strong for at least two millennia. The water was cold, fresh, and copious.
You can keep your monumental statues and your towering walls and your colossal temples, oh Ozymandias. I’ll take a long, cool, refreshing drink of water from Sagalassos any day.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.