A Visit to Sagalassos

A week or so ago I was lucky enough to visit Sagalassos, a Roman city site in the Taurus Mountains a couple of hours’ drive north of Antalya.  I had visited some years before; this time I did so with Jason Goodwin – he of the acclaimed Yashim detective novels, an unputdownable history of the Ottomans and much else besides – and Rupert Smith, famed for his tours of the classical world, Greece especially.

These two may be puerile, as the photographs amply demonstrate, but they are excellent travelling companions, not to say formidably bright and generally possessed of sound judgement; and their response to Sagalassos, which rang with their ecstatic cries all through our day-long wanderings, only confirmed my own conviction that this must be the best Greco-Roman site anywhere in Turkey.

It’s a big claim, of course, southwest Turkey enjoying a greater density of such sites than anywhere else in the world, and one that needs substantiating.  What makes for best?  The setting, of course, high among wooded mountains, as fabulous as it is improbable – in the sense, I mean, that in its grandeur and extent the city patently defied the limitations that its apparent backwater location might have been expected to impose upon it; and in this regard Sagalassos had me shaking my head with something of the same amazement I’ve felt about similarly off-the-scale inland cities such as Aphrodisias, Arykanda and Kibrya.

The location also helps in terms of visitor numbers: keeping them manageable, that is.  Ticket sales, even at 25 lira or £1.25 (which in our judgement amounted to the best-value visitor experience ever), were anything but brisk.  We pretty much had the place to ourselves as we wandered the astonishing bath buildings; the vast paved agoras, one backed by the grand Antonine nympheum (ornamental fountain) where the water still runs; extensive temples and basilica ruins; a delightfully restored laundry house, a library with a fine mosaic floor; and, best of all, the theatre.

We spent a great deal of time at the theatre – the key, perhaps, to Sagalassos’s unique appeal.  That’s down to the exceptional work which Belgian archaeologist Marc Waelkens has overseen in the course of a life-long association with the site.  Waelkens has rebuilt – the term, apparently, is anastylosis – but only where (almost) all  the original stone was available; which is what makes the restoration, among others, of the Antonine nympheum such an accomplishment.  Otherwise, his team has done no more than stabilise, not least at the theatre which remains in a state of such tumbledown magnificence that access really shouldn’t be allowed; thank God that it is, offering, as the excellent signage puts it, the ‘enjoyable experience of a genuine ruin combined with the unique panoramas of the archaeological site and its mountainous surroundings’, not to mention ample opportunity for entirely unrestricted clamberings.  We found ourselves in surroundings effectively unchanged from those which Gertrude Bell had experienced when she first saw the theatre, half-covered in snow, on an April day in 1907; and for that I won’t forget our own time at Sagalassos.

Beyond the heart of the city boardwalks fan out towards the perimeter, leading those visitors with time to spare beyond Sagalassos’s imperial first-century heyday to glimpses of less heralded periods in the city’s long history.   Nothing moved me at Sagalassos quite like the rubble wall built across the lower agora, probably in the ninth century, as part of the much-reduced community’s last-stand defence against raiding Saracens.   Nor was it only Saracens that Sagalassos had to contend with.  Plague, earthquake and a changing world also did for Sagalassos, as they did for so many Anatolian cities, leaving nothing of it beyond these ruins but an echo of its name in that of Ağlasun – the valley’s modern town.

Our trip was to recce a tour I am leading next June, taking in the wealth of ruins in the wider Konya region.  We saw amazing things from a range of civilisations – Neolithic, Hittite, Byzantine and Selcuk among them – but nothing gave us greater joy than Sagalassos.  I can’t wait to return.