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The leading and wealthiest city of Pisidia under the Roman Empire, Sagalassos is struggling to recover its former splendor through years of excavation.
Some 110 km from Antalya and 7 km from the Burdur township of Ağlasun, this city stands at an altitude of 1450-1700 meters. Bounded on the north and east by the majestic Mt Akdağ (2271 m), on the south it looks down on the fertile lands of Ağlasun.
Although the boundaries of ancient Pisidia, to which Sagalassos was attached, are not known with certainty today, it was located more or less in the area including the Lakes Region and the mountainous region north of Antalya, bordered by Phyrigia to the north and west, Isaura in the east and Lykia and Pamphylia on the south. While not a definitive list, Selge, Sagalassos, Pednelissos, Adada, Tymbiada, Kremna, Pityassos, Amblada, Anabura, Sinda, Arrassos (Ariassos), Tarbassos and Termessos were among the cities in the region. The average elevation of these settlements was more than 1000 meters. The lakes (Eğirdir, Beyşehir, Burdur, Suğla and others) on the neighboring chalk ridges and
hill-encircled plains fostered the growth of a rich plant cover as well as having a significant effect on the local climate. The region was therefore an important area of settlement from the earliest times. Research has shown that the oldest traces of settlement in Pisidia date back to the Upper Paleolithic in around 35,000 B.C.
The History and Rediscovery of the City
The ancient city of Sagalassos was first discovered by the French traveler Paul Lucas in 1706, but it would be another hundred years before its name was understood to be Sagalassos. The realization that it was one of the leading settlements of the Western Taurus came only with the discovery of the city’s name from inscriptions in 1824. Research in the region commenced with the arrival here of an English-Belgian team for the first time in 1985, among them Marc Waelkens from the Catholic University of Louvaine in Belgium. Exactly four years after this surface investigation, the same team was given the go-ahead to undertake excavations. Since then work at the ancient city of Sagalassos has been under way by experts from a wide range of disciplines. Thanks to the efforts of a large team consisting not only of archaeologists, but of architects, engineers, restorers, landscape architects, geologists, geomorphologists, and soil engineers, a major part of the city has been brought to the light of day in the last twenty years.
According to the findings of Prof. Dr. Waelkens and his team, traces of the first hunting and gathering people at Sagalassos go back more than 12,000 years. In the ninth millennium B.C. farmers settled around Lake Burdur and began cultivating the soil. Although some areas in the region were occupied and ruled in the Bronze Age, Sagalassos was not affected. The first dense settlement in the Pisidian region is thought to have been in the 4th millennium B.C. Under the cultural influence of the Phrygians and Lydians, Sagalassos became a prominent settlement in the the region. Under Persian rule, the Pisidian people were known for their bellicose and rebellious nature. When Alexander the Great attacked Pisidia in 333 B.C. in line with his plans to end Persian hegemony, the region witnessed a very bloody war. Although Alexander met with serious resistance, in the end he brought Pisidia under his rule.
Sagalassos became Pisidia’s second most important city in the Hellenistic period (333-325 B.C.). The city’s power was further enhanced when hegemony passed to the Roman Empire in 25 B.C. Besides crops such as the grains and olives raised on its fertile soil, tableware such as plates and bowls were made from the quality local clay and sold to other cities. Handicrafts too attained a high level of development in this city whose production was export-driven. Trade revived and developed further under Roman rule when Sagalassos attained the status of first city of Pisidia. Architecturally too the city experienced its period of highest splendor under the Romans when large and imposing buildings were erected. Then, in 400 A.D. the city fell upon hard times. Although it struggled to protect itself against attacks by Isaura and some of the other mountain tribes in this period, and succeeded in preserving its power to a degree, it was leveled by an earthquake in 518. Many of its most prominent buildings were destroyed. But the city’s real collapse followed later in a plague epidemic in 541-42 when half the population was wiped out. Those who remained after the epidemic forced many to migrate to other regions were unable to withstand a second large earthquake and the early Arab early incursions into Anatolia in the mid-7th century and were forced to abandon the city. In time the city was completely buried by a large landslide.
Lying hidden under the ground, the city was never plundered in subsequent periods. Consequently it is one of the best-preserved ancient cities today. Furthermore, its location at a high elevation and in mountainous terrain meant that its large stones could not be transported elsewhere. Undertaking excavations in such virgin territory is of course extremely exciting for Prof. Dr. Waelkens. Intact individual pieces continue to be unearthed at this ancient site, which has been protected to some extent by nature. Only last year a giant statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was brought to light. Aurelius, who ruled Rome from 161 to 180 A.D., is regarded as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ who ruled in succession. Among the many sculptures found are also a head of the Empress Faustina, a marble statue of the Emperor Hadrian, which formed an important part of the British Museum’s recent ‘Hadrian’ exhibition, and two large statues of the god Dionysus.
As Prof. Dr. Waelkens has said, the only thing known about Sagalassos when excavations were first undertaken in the city is that it was the sole settlement that stood up to Alexander the Great and that it challenged the Roman League in 188 A.D. After twenty years of excavation many more things are now known about the city, which is spread over 1200 sq m, namely, the climatic changes it underwent, its historical periods, land use and land division in it, and the families that lived here and the buildings that were constructed: the Heroon (an Honorary Monument thought to have been built approximately in 0-14 A.D.), the Bouleuterion (Council Building, constructed in approximately 100 B.C.), the Antonines Fountain (161-180 A.D.), the Temple of Zeus (25-0 B.C.), the Upper and Lower Agoras (3rd century B.C.), the Four Honorary Columns (tall columns erected at the four corners of the agora for the members of the families that had the agora rebuilt in the period of Augustus), the Temple of Thor (1st century B.C.), a Roman bath (2nd century A.D.), a theater seating nine thousand (2nd century A.D.) and a Late Hellenistic fountain (2nd century A.D.).
Since the Neon Library, which was discovered in 1990, the year the excavations began, and fragments of the Late Hellenistic Fountain were recovered in good condition, restoration was undertaken immediately. Both structures were re-erected in 1997, after which work shifted more to the Upper Agora area. Adorned with magnificent motifs, the Antonines Fountain is among the prominent structures on this politically important square which was enlarged during the reign of Augustus. Today the fountain stands in all its glory following a ten-year restoration. The Heroon, too, adorned with motifs of dancing girls, is another noteworthy monument here.
Thanks to Prof. Dr. Marc Waelkens and his team, with the backing of the Turkish Culture Ministry and several private organizations, Sagalassos is being awakened from centuries of sleep below the ground. We hope that, like the Sagalassans themselves, all those whose efforts have gone into the preservation of this ancient city, where work will continue for years to come, will still be remembered centuries from now.