As I reflect on this year’s tours to Turkey – we managed two, an achievement given the fraught political situation, both entirely without mishap and to rave reviews – I’m struck more than ever by an aspect of the country’s magnificent archaeology; that what tells us more than anything about the native Anatolians and their civilisations, exceptionally, are the tombs.
Few of us are free from the need to be remembered; it’s just that these days we tend to make do with modest headstones or even wooden crosses. Foregoing the sarcophagus, mausoleum or even mega-scale pyramid means we spend very much less on our memorials, no doubt, than our forebears, be they the Victorians or the ancient Egyptians. But it’s my guess that even these funerary first-divisioners can’t compete with the Anatolians, especially the Carians and Lycians of coastal southwest Turkey, when it comes to investing in the posthumous future.
Really, it amazes me there was any dough left to live on. Local dynastic leader Mausolos may be said to have kicked it all off, of course, with his monumental tomb – the fourth-century Wonder of the Ancient World at Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum – which spawned the word mausoleum. This tomb lay beneath a podium set with 36 columns and topped with a pyramidal roof to a height approaching 200 feet. The best of this mausoleum’s friezes now grace the British Museum – as does the great lion which once topped the similarly impressive mausoleum at nearby Knidos. These funerary monuments appear to have inspired a spate of copies, no less impressive for their comparatively modest scale, to judge by the one which survives in perfect condition on a remote hillside above the coastal village of Turgut.
It’s a little further east in Lycia, however, that the sheer abundance of funerary architecture becomes truly giddying. Everywhere there are beautiful sarcophagae on high plinths, sometimes movingly fronted by exedrae (rounded seats) for relatives to commune with their loved ones. At Pinara and elsewhere there are tombs cut into the rock face, their facades like those of houses, thereby preserving in stone, even down to the projecting roof beams, the form of timber dwellings otherwise entirely lost. At Sidyma there are later tombs, from the Roman imperial era, with exquisitely coffered ceilings carved with what I take to be drama masks. And at Xanthos there are the sixth-century pillar tombs whose replica friezes – in place of the ones also removed to the British Museum – represent the Sirens (not, as was thought, Harpies) who bear the souls of the dead to Hades.
I’ve lately been reading about Cappadocia, early centre of Christian monasticism, in preparation for the superb midwinter trip we have planned to this remarkable region in January 2018. I have always been struck by the extraordinary abundance of rupestral (rock-cut) chapels – thousands, it is estimated – and wondered how there could ever have been enough hermits to fill them. Experts increasingly seem agreed, however, that many of them were as much tenth-century AD tombs as places of worship. It’s a persuasive idea, this yearning for the church (or its simulacrum) rather than the churchyard as place of entombment, not least when we recall the dead interred beneath slabs in so many of our own churches. Remember, moreover, that the ancient Lycians’ own tombs, constructed some 1500 years before the Cappadocians, are often fronted by colonnaded facades in unmistakable temple form.
We may hope that all the effort and expense proved worthwhile, and that the afterlife has been long and happy for these Carians, Lycians and Cappadocians alike. Many of us will agree, however, that we’re better off spending what we have not on the next life but on this one.
Perhaps on that overdue holiday among the ancient sites of Turkey – either on its beautiful Mediterranean shores or in the haunting painted cavescapes of Cappadocia.