The only city Alexander the Great couldn’t capture, Termessos.



Pisidia province is in a triangle between Lykia, Phrygia and Pamphilia. It’s a mountainous area with a beautiful view but no access to the sea. Populated by tribes of Pisidians, considered to be barbarians by the Greek. They might have been barbarians but their choice of place for founding a city was truly a fit of genius. Termessos is located in a sort of saddle-shaped valley more than 1000 meters above sea level. It was a sort of invisible watchtower: they could see everything but no-one could see them if they didn’t know where to look. And what’s more, situated like this they were in control of the narrow pass between towering mountains – a gateway to Phrygia. Termessos is what Alexander the Great called the eagle’s nest when he first saw it on his way from Pamphilia to Phrygia in 333BC. And though Alexander himself was called a Macedonian Madman, even he wasn’t mad enough to try and attack a city situated in such an inaccessible place, where his soldiers would have to climb up the steep winding paths only to face the city’s tall fortified walls. It wasn’t worth it, especially since Termessians were not trying to prevent him from going through the pass. The guards were removed and the gateway to phrygia was open, so Alexander moved on and Termessos stayed unconquered. It is still remembered as such and rightly so, because from the strategic viewpoint their position is amazing, they were high on the rock and hidden at the same time. It is, in a word, DEFENCE. They had no need to fight for their homeland, because they made sure from the very start that their homeland was sufficiently defended. It was bulletproof. Or rather sword, spear and slingshot-proof. It might be the reason why they chose the shield as a symbol of their city. As you walk though its ruins, you will notice it on a lot of stone reliefs.


The people who founded Termessos called themselves Solymians, supposedly connected with Solymos – the name of the mountain on which they built their “nest”. According to Herodotus they were the original inhabitants of Lycia and occupied the Taurus peaks around Lycia. According to Homer they went to war against hero Bellerophont, whose son Isander was killed in that conflict. And the hero Solymos who they considered to be their ancestor was the son of Zeus and Chaldene. He was a wargod and dwelled on top of the Solymos mountain, much like Zeus on top of Olympos. Although later the narrative changed and the cult of Solymos merged with the cult of Zeus producing Zeus Solymeus – one of the mountain-cults of Zeus – who provided a link between local traditions and Hellenism became the principal deity of the city and carried on into the Roman Imperial period in Asia Minor. It should be noted that even in that period Termessos had an autonomous status within the empire (71 BC Antonius Pius) and continued to mint its own coins not with the portraits of emperors but with either Solymos or Zeus himself. And of course the word “autonomos”. Zeus Solymeus is also mentioned numerous times in the necropolis inscriptions. In the inscriptions grave-robbers are threatened with the punishment from Zeus if they dare disturb the dead.


If you look at the map of the Termessos, you will see two entrances – from the north and from the south, both of which lead to the city gates in the fortified walls. The road leading up to the Termessos is called King’s Road, built in 2AD.  Looking at the gates, it’s still possible to see how they were locked with a massive wooden bar (30x40cm) that was fitted into the slots in the watchtower walls on either side of the gate (A1). Another interesting thing about the walls to the east of the city gate are inscriptions for divination by dice. The dice in question were actually knucklebones of sheep or goats (astragaloi).  This kind of fortune-telling was widespread in the Hellenistic world and practised by citizens who wanted to get advice from the gods about their daily life, business or travel. It was done like this: inscribed oracles were associated with particular combination of numbers that a person could get by rolling five dice at a time. A person would  pick up five dice, roll them, note the combination of numbers they displayed and look up the relevant oracle. And they try to figure out how it applied to their situation. Or hire a professional diviner for a small fee. The niche next to the inscriptions probably contained an image of Hermes who was the oracles deity.


It is important to note the environment of Termessos. It is situated in a flat fertile mountain plain. The steep slopes around such plains are often wooded and suitable for sheep and goats to graze on. The soil here is rich and suitable for agriculture. What could be grown in Termessos before that? Probably barley, chickpeas, olives, apples, almonds. Also, Pliny mentions wine from Termessos, so probably grapes, too.


The hydrology is characterised by low surface run-off but high infiltration which means that springs are a common feature in the region. Termessians took full advantage of this by digging an extensive series of cisterns which provided water supply, drainage and sewage systems for the city. In another valley arm to the east of the city you can even see a canal coming directly from Solymos on the southeast corner quite high in the wall going into the largest of Termessos cisterns called hydrodoheia, which consists of four adjoining rooms with barrel vaulted ceilings. However in the 5the century AD the tectonic activity destroyed the city’s aqueduct and became one of the reasons Termessos was ultimately abandoned. In many places throughout Termessos you will see ancient cisterns which belonged to specific buildings but were also connected with the common system. What is also important to note is that dug up limestone was used as a construction material both for the city of the living (houses) and the city of the dead (sarcophagi) as we will see later.

Fig. 12. Source house. The fact that in the third layer above the apex of the openings are cut holes for a beam layer, proves that the space in front of the openings was covered. This porch might have resembled an ancient Greek nympheum


It’s what the Greeks called propylon, that is a ceremonial gate, possibly with a small temple behind it. In this case it was ionic peripteros, meaning that it surrounded by collonade on all sides.


The marketplace, the meeting place, the life and blood of an ancient polis. Termessos agora can be dated back to the 2nd century BC, it was levelled and paved with stone slabs on top of the rocky ground. It’s more trapezoid than rectangular in shape and limited on two sides by the stoas. Stoa is kind of a roofed building open and supported by columns on one side with enclosed shops on the other side. It was a place for the citizens of the polis to meet and talk, could be for business, gossip or philosophical discussions. In fact we find the word “stoa” in “stoicism”, a school of thought that developed under the shade of Athenean (?) stoas. Termessos agora had to I-shaped stoas. The first of them, Attalos Stoa, dates to the 2nd century BC, just as agora, it was 2-storied with Doric order columns. But the most interesting part is that it was gifted to Termessos by the king of Pergamon Attalos II as a symbol of friendship and good will between the two cities. The second stoa is bearing the name of a wealthy Termessian – Osbaros, who paid for its construction. It was built in the 1st century BC, that is to say already in the roman period, and was modelled after the Attalos stoa.


Another important element of agora is of course Heroon, which means a monument for a hero or, as in Termessos, a hero’s grave. Here it is located at the south end of Attalos stoa. This type of burial is called chamosoria which means a grave hollowed out in a rock under open sky. And this is exactly what we see here. In a towering rock a round grave is hollowed out with the circular lid fallen and broken in two on the ground. A semi-circular bench (exedra) is carved out on the same rock with a flat platform in front of it, and both of them were definitely intended for congregations, cultic activities and remembrance of the hero. On the west wall of the rock three niches were made for placing objects of veneration and beneath them on the left you can see  a small canal running from a small basin down to the ground. This was a construction for liquid offerings (libations). Once again, I want to say that a burial within the city is unusual and was only reserved for the most distinguished persons. The Greek intra-urban grave as phenomenon existed on mainland Greece from 720 BC onwards with the formation of the Greek polis. In Asia Minor the oldest grave within the city – except the Maussolleion at Halicarnassus – is the one we see here in Termessos. The Pisidians – non-Greek people of Anatolian origin – had practiced Self-Hellenization since the 4th century BCso it’s easy to imagine that they assumed this Greek phenomenon of honouring a prominent citizen with the great privilege of the burial at the city centre.


The biggest temple in Termessos (N3) was in all probability dedicated to Zeus Solymeus. Its architectural features include a raised terrace, Doric column drums. The interesting part is the two reliefs from the frieze representing Gigantomachy, where we see Zeus and Apollo fighting the snake-legged giants. They bring to mind the famous reliefs decorating the Altar of Zeus Soter in Pergamon. It is not a direct copy, it was probably made by a local artist, and the material used is not marble but limestone, and yet the influence is unmistakable. Which is important because it gives us an idea of Termessos’s good relationship with its neighbours. The most powerful of which at the time was Pergamon.

Another amazing element of this temple is a relief of a priest sacrificing a bull to Zeus. (early 1st century BC). The piece of art was commissioned by the priest Otantes himself and decorating the base for a bronze statue of Zeus Solymeus, which is unfortunately lost. In the relief we see a group of three musicians on the left, mageiros with a bull in the centre and the priest, hydrophoros and a sacrificial ram behind him on the right. How did the ritual take place? The sacrificial animals were led in a procession to the altar probably during a festival as we see the musicians present. The priest would recite the prayer and sprinkle the altar and animal’s head with libation (watered wine), the animal would toss its head in the air which was taken as a sign that it went to sacrifice willingly. Barley grains were then thrown onto the altar and the animal’s forelock was cut off and burnt as an act of consecration. The victim was then stunned with an axe by mageiros and its throat slit and blood collected in a bowl and poured onto the altar. After that the entrails were removed and inspected, and the meat was cut up, large thigh bones wrapped up in fat, sprinkled with libation and incense and then burned on the altar. That was done because the god were thought to derive pleasure and sustenance from the smoke that rose up from the sacrifice. The animals chosen for sacrifice had to be white and free of imperfections otherwise gods could reject the offering.


Located south of Odeon. It’s an ionic peripteros temple with 6 columns on the front/back and 11 columns on the sides. It can be dated to the late Hellenistic period (133-25BC). Turkish archeologist Ekrem Akurgal dated it to the period of Antonines. Again, there is no direct evidence that this temple was dedicated to Artemis but it is the most likely version due to the stone reliefs found to the east of the temple. Made of limestone, they portray a scene from the myth of Iphigenia, who is about to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon. Just before setting off to Troy Agamemnon went hunting, killed a deer in the sanctuary of Artemis and got punished by the goddess – no wind to carry his ships to Troy. He was trying to pacify Artemis by sacrificing his own daughter but Artemis didn’t want it and brought a stag to replace Ihigenia at the altar. Again, like the frieze at Zeus Solymeus temple, the Iphigenia relief shows a clear influence of Pergamon sculptural monument. (Some researchers even think that the presence of Iphigenia in Aulis scene suggests that there once was a pair with Iphigenia in Tauris scene, and that in turn could mean that Termessians claimed possession of Artemis Tauropolos sculpture)


Corinthian prostylos, six columns Roman period, 2nd century, possibly dedicated to Asklepeios and Hygieia. Deep and wide pronaos, square naos, Syrian gable.


Corinthian prostylos, four columns, Roman perion, 2nd century AD, possibly dedicated to Ares. Cella on top of a podium, vaulted cellar under the podium.


Corinthian prostylos, 4 columns, Syrian gable, pronaos, naos, a small wide cella, built during the Roman period, dedicated to Artemis, similar to Artemis shrine along Embolos in Ephesos.


Corinthian order, built during the Roman period, the deity it was dedicated to is unknown, but possible candidates are Demeter or Dyonisos.


Extra-mural sanctuary of Artemis. A small structure nearby has recently been identified as dedicated to Pan.


At the cistern D9. As a chtonic deity she was presumed to reside within the cemetary and was supposed to protect the burials. Tombs of the clergy are mostly situated in this area – place of honor, place of protection.


Recently discovered in the woods close to the city, has an inscription dedicating to Pan.


Another staple structure of a Hellenistic polis is a gymnasium, where young boys and men got both mental and physical education. In present-day Termessos some parts of the building are hidden underground, thus you can only see the north-eastern part it. The Termessos gymnasium was quite a typical structure, with a large open courtyard which was covered with sand for wrestling and exercising (palaestra) and pillared halls around it, behind which rooms were located. The collapsed temple-like building in the courtyard is also characteristic of a gymnasium —– . It also had its own cistern which is understandable as gymnasiums typically had their own baths with several swimming pools, so a steady supply of water was necessary. (Fig. 13 and cross section of the cistern at the high school) Among the inscriptions found in the building is inscription 52 found in the northeast corner, providing a list of those students (Ephebes) who had won athletic competitions under a certain principal (Ephebarchen). Another one (11?) says that one who also provides care for the high schools put up the image of eros, a clear Proof that Termessos’ platons were aware of the same name as the famous Athenian. As is well known, there was an altar of Eros at the entrance to the academy, and statues of it were therefore common in high schools


Near the agora is the large house which is referred to in one of the inscriptions as the house of “ktistes”, that is the founder of the city. Most probably it was poetic exaggeration and it referred not to the actual founder but a wealthy citizen who had done a lot for the development of the Termessos. The architecture reminds of a Roman mansion. Main entrance formed a portal with Doric pilasters and triglyphs. (Fig. 65.) and led into a vestibule that was open to the street. The floor plan includes an atrium of great proportions, the pavement of which has been partially preserved, and in the middle of which there was an impluvium – a reservoir for collecting rainwater; around the atrium there are a number of rooms. Pins and locking holes show the closure of the window with two-leaf wooden shutters. (Fig. 63. Floor plan and view of the house of the Ktistis.P 6 inscriptions. 88)


Odeon was a sort of a smaller, often covered amphitheatre. It had less seats, was more exclusive and could be used both for artistic performances and city council meetings, in which case it acted a bouleuterion. The presence of bouleuterion in Termessos is an indicator of a Greek type of government practised in the city which in turn is a sign of successful Hellenisation of the region. Termessian odeon was built on a natural slope in a way that made it 2-storied on one side  (scene) and 1-storied on another. The lower part of the 2-storied facade was plain while the upper part was decorated with Attic-Ionic bases and Doric pilasters – a mix of architectural styles typical for the 2nd century BC in Asia Minor. It was most probably roofed in some way as on the eastern and southern sides there are remains of 11 large windows. There was one door for the spectators but two doors on the sides of the scene for the actors/orators. Early researches found pieces of colored marble within the ruins which means the floor was decorated with mosaic.


Theatre in Termessos is dated to the early Hellenistic period (334-189BC). Unlike most of the structures in Termessos the theater is built not of limestone but of white marble. It is in the immediate vicinity of the agora, The inscription on the main entrance of the theater shows that a statue of Heracles Eitheios (youthful) stood there. Why& Because Herakles was associated with athletic activities and competitions which also took place at the theatre. The theatre is located on a steep slope with a spectacular view of Mount Solymos, it could hold about 4200 spectators. Architecturally, it is a Greco-Roman theatre. Cavea (66m diameter) is horseshoe-shaped and spread on a natural slope but with a section of it built of blocks. The orchestra is circular. (19,8 diameter) The Skene building is free-standing and is not blocking the view. Parodos on the left is open while the one on the right was initially open but was covered with a vaulted ceiling in Roman period connecting cavea to the skene. It’s a proper mix of the two styles.

There are 26 rows of seats in the cavea,  they are divided into two sections by a diazoma (2,40m), 18 rows below and 8 rows above. Interesting detail was the free-standing benches with backrests on the diazoma. The number of stairs (klines) cut into the rows is 6 in the lower section and 10 in the upper section. The top of the cavea was a covered passage (2,40m), which was open on the inside and closed on the outside by a wall. The lower parts of some of the rectangular pillars that supported the ceiling of this passage are still visible. The main entrance to the theater is in the middle of the outer wall ring; here the upper section of the rows of seats is interrupted by a 4 m wide staircase below. There are numerous inscriptions on the seats indicating who they were reserved for. It could be a group of people, like “epheboi” of the gymnasium or a single person, like a priestess. Single names are only found on the rows above diazoma which probably means they were more of a deluxe option. (Seat inscriptions (64) on the 19th on the right on the first stone)

The orchestra was separated from the rows of seats by a parapet of 1,20 m high, which is still preserved at the south end. The skene contains a 3,60 m wide and 29,40 m long interior, which opens to the stage with five doors. The Hyposkenia (Table XI C) is a wall with five openings. The wall between the posts consists of panels and decorated with shields. (Fig. 53.) There are numerous fragments of the pillars that stood on the pedestals and the beams that they carried, among the rubble filling the stage and orchestra. They were smooth and spirally cannulated pieces (Fig. 55) The simplicity of the Skene, with two walls as Paraskenia, corresponds to the somewhat older age.


Termessos necropolis is one of the richest example of  all ancient sites in Turkey thanks to the fact that economically Termessos was blooming during the Roman period (2-3 centuries AD), and the same time its citizens gave a lot of thought to afterlife and attached big importance to it. Number of burials and their variety is much higher than in other ancient cities. Another important difference is that in most of cities necrolopolises were located outside the city walls, close to the city or along the road while in Termessos most of the burials were within the city walls although separated from the city of the living. The biggest necropolis is to the west of the living quarters but the most striking examples of burials are found in the north-eastern part of Termessos, which is less crowded and more private.

There are several types of burials:

Rock-face tombs

Aedicula with sarcophagus 25, 29, 70, 72 /tomb of Amastra vaulted aedicula

Temple-like tombs (3-column corinthian prostylos 74,76 w/Medusa on the gable)

Free-standing sarcophagus



Graves, which are the ground burials we are used to today, might be difficult to make out mong all the sarcophagi but they are here, and they were used for burying people who couldn’t afford even the simplest sarcophagus or ostotheke.

Ostothekes are basically small rock-carved boxes with lids where bones and ashes were placed after the cremation. They are normally found on higher ground, be it a tall rock or a platform. Most probably it was done to make them more visible

Free-standing sarcophagi are the most common burial type in Termessos. Some of them were plain, other are decorated with a varying degree of richness. A very common decoration on the sarcophagus fronts are shields with spear/sword or just two round shields with the inscription between them. Other decorations include Medusa Gorgona head, so anyone who would try to rob the tomb, would be turned to stone. Garlands with faces or masks. Animal reliefs with a vessel between them

Both ostothekes and sarcophagi are shaped more or less like houses – rectangular box with a gable roof, some of them even have reliefs of doors on one of the short sides. Which brings us to important point, namely, when the ancients called the cemetary a “necropolis”, they meant exactly that – a city of the dead, a city with neaighbourhoods, and streets and houses – only for  the dead. That’s why we see tombs shaped like houses, whether it is a poor man’s hut or a rich man’s mansion.

The sarcophagi and ostothekes were cut out of the rock in the necroplois itself or in its immediate vicinity. In necrolopolis, (S7) you can see vertically worked rock walls and a block prepared for two sarcophagi, but not yet detached. Two other sarcophagi, already detached, are still in the quarry, one not yet completely hollowed out, the other completely hollowed out, already with the inscription (165) only the sum is missing in the threat of punishment, so that all stages that a sarcophagus has to go through are in front of us here.

Some sarcophagi were placed within a small shrine called aedicula. This kind of burial was reserved for a respected or wealthy person. For example, burial belonging to priestess Armasta looked like this.

A step up from an aedicula is a temple-like tomb with columns.

Rock-face tombs are normally associated with Lycia but they are also present in Termessos and either look like facades of houses (Lycia type) or like acrhed niches (arcosolium). One of those acrosoliums is different especially interesting because it has several crosses incribed on it – a rare glimpse of Christianity in Termessos.

And finally, a burial that is difficult to classify. It is the so called Alcetas tomb. Possibly the most famous burial and it belongs to a person who wasn’t even a citizen of Termessos. His name was Alcetas, he was the brother Perdikkas – one of Alexander’s general. After the death of Alexander he was in conflict with another of his general Antigonos, and asked Termessos for shelter, which the city initially granted. But later on, the elders thought that it would cause trouble and decided to hand Alcetas over to Antigonos. When he realisd his fate, he decided to commit a suicide instead, so the elders handed over his body which was mutilated by Antigonos. In the end, the young citizens of Termessos, apalled by this situation, retrieved the body of Alcetas and buried him like a hero. His tomb is quite complex, on the left there is a relief of a soldier mounted on a charging horse. It’s damaged and the face is missing but his armor looks similar to Alexander’s in the famous mosaic. To the right of him there are details of another soldier – part of the shield, pommel of the sword, greaves, helmet. It’s either badly damaged or unfinished but we can guess that the scultor probably had a battle scene in mind when he started working on it. Yet all these are just decorations. The actual sarcophagus was placed a couple of meters to the right of the relief. It was resting on a kind of bench with lion feet for legs. Behind was a relief of a lattice. And above it – a relief of an eagle catching a snake in its claws. The lid of sarcophagus is missing but judging from other burials of this type, it probably had a sculpture of Alcetas himself in a reclining position, as if resting on a klimakes in his house.

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