Many times, during the discussions held among the people travelling around Turkey, I heard that there was nothing interesting to see in Ankara, especially when it comes to ancient ruins. It always seemed very suspicious, because the capital of Turkey, centrally located in Anatolia, has a long and turbulent history. Therefore, surely some traces of its past must have survived. For a long time I have known the magnificent Museum of Anatolian Civilizations and the Atatürk Mausoleum, and a few years ago I was also able to visit the temple of the goddess Roma and Emperor Augustus. However, in 2018, we set out on a mission to find less-known ancient gems, preserved in Ankara. One of them is the ruined baths from the Roman period, commonly referred to as the Baths of Caracalla. Currently, its grounds are open to public as Roma Hamamı Açik Hava Müzesi.
The ruins of the Roman baths in Ankara stand in an area elevated about 2.5 meters above the street level because they were built on a mound that conceals even older traces of a human settlement from the Phrygian period. The archaeological site includes not only the baths but also the whole building complex, which consists of a colonnaded street, a palaestra, i.e. a place used for physical exercises, the traces of other, still unidentified structures. The colonnaded street once connected the baths with the sacred district of the city, where the temple of the goddess Roma and Emperor Augustus stood, around 400 meters from the baths. In the 90s of the 20th century, another section of this road was discovered near the so-called Column of Emperor Julian.
The bathing and sports complex occupied a huge area and was one of the largest such structures of its kind. The building is now known as the Baths of Caracalla. On the basis of archaeological discoveries, researchers determined that it was probably erected during the reign of this Roman emperor, in the years 212-217. The archaeologists reached this conclusion, on the basis of the coins from the period of the Caracalla, bearing his likeness and Julia Domna's, his mother, that were found in the area of the bathhouse. Unfortunately, not much detailed information has been published about these coins. Moreover, the exact location where they were found within the complex is unknown.
The architecture of the bathhouse complex also suggests the date of its construction during the reign of Caracalla. However, in this case, there is no full agreement among the researchers. On the basis of the dimensions of the bricks, some of them, including Susan Cooke, suggest that the baths may have been erected much earlier, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, i.e. in the first half of the second century.
The connection between the baths and the cult of Asklepios, the god of medicine, is another fascinating research trail. A marble hand holding a snake, the well-known symbol of Asklepios, was found in the building, and it demonstrates an archaeological trace of this relationship. On this basis, early explorers of the baths, including Mahmut Akok, assumed that the building was also a healing place. The inscriptions found in Ankara show that it was a city strongly associated with the god of medicine. This is evidenced, for example, by the inscription of Flavius Gaianus, a local envoy to Emperor Caracalla, who initiated the holy sports games under the name of Megala Asclepieia Soteria .
One of the often repeated hypotheses regarding the funding of the so-called Baths of Caracalla is associated with the person of Tiberius Julius Justus Junanius, the Archiereus or the highest priest of Ancyra. He was to fund the construction of these baths for use by the residents of the city. This hypothesis results from the discovery in Ankara of five inscriptions mentioning the construction of the baths, bearing his name and praising him for giving Ancyra such a generous gift. These five inscriptions contain almost exactly the same wording, but they were apparently made by various craftsmen, as it can be inferred from the differences in the style of the carved letters. The inscriptions were made on the order of twelve phylai, i.e. local communities, into which Ancyra's inhabitants were divided. Since the inscriptions were made on behalf of all the communities of the city, it means that the gift of Junanius was of significance to the whole population of Ankara, which reinforces the hypothesis linking these inscriptions with the erection of the monumental Baths of Caracalla.
However, there are several problems associated with such an interpretation, challenging the supposed Junanius's relationship with these particular baths. First of all, the inscriptions do not give any details about this building, its location or the year of its erection. The dates in which Junanius served as the high priest are also unknown, so it is difficult to prove his commitment to the construction of these baths. The solution to the puzzle is not facilitated by the fact that the inscriptions were made in Greek, eagerly used by the Hellenized local elites in the Roman Empire. The inscriptions use the word balneum, which can mean small baths for one family or a neighbourhood, but also larger buildings. If the word therma, taken from Greek into Latin, had been used instead, then it would have meant that it had been a monumental imperial bathhouse erected for the benefit of all citizens of the city.
Moreover, in an important city such as Ancyra, the capital of the province of Galatia, certainly more than one monumental bath complex was erected, not to mention hundreds of smaller buildings that performed this function. One of such bath complexes was discovered in 1946 when foundations for a prison in the Soğukkuyu district were dug. The complex discovered at that time was significantly smaller than the imperial baths because it was erected on a square plan with a side of 30 meters in length. Certainly, many similar, smaller and larger buildings are still hidden under the modern buildings of Ankara, and many others have been dismantled.
Thus, the connection between the inscriptions extolling the gift of Tiberius Julius for Ancyra and the monumental baths remains unclear. The researchers such as Bosch, Broughton, and Erzen, who drew conclusions about the connection of this priest to the baths and determined the date of their founding for the period of Caracalla, based their assumptions only on small clues and uncertain dating of the style of the inscription. The hypothesis is supported largely by the fact that no other inscriptions mentioning any baths have been found in Ankara so far. Thus, the so-called Baths of Caracalla are the only preserved trace of the existence of a great imperial baths complex in the city. Therefore, linking these inscriptions with specific ruins is tempting but dubious.
Other coins found during the excavations of the complex suggest that the baths were in use for about 500 years. Of course, during such a long period, they required renovation work, which was carried out several times. The researchers suggest that the history of the bathhouse came to an end with the Persian invasion in the early 7th century, and the building was digested by a fire which traces were identified during the excavations.
When the baths were functional, the customers visiting them first entered the area of the palaestra, a spacious courtyard for physical exercises, on a square plan with a side length of 95 meters. The area was surrounded on four sides by the porticoes, supported by 32 marble columns each. Each of these Corinthian columns was about six meters high. There were several rooms around the palaestra: the central room on the eastern side was most likely used as a place for displaying the statues of emperors, the northern rooms were the complex's service offices, and the remaining rooms on the north and south sides served as libraries and lecture halls. Apparently, a visit to the baths was not only an opportunity to get clean and work on the physical condition but also to take care of one's intellectual development. Currently, the area of the palaestra serves as a lapidarium with a large collection of the inscriptions from the Roman period.
A vast bathhouse stood behind the palaestra, separated from it by a 130-meters long façade. The baths were erected with alternating rows of bricks and stones, with marble elements used for decoration. In the case of the baths in Ankara, the main rooms are distinguished by their gigantic dimensions, but the general concept of subsequent rooms is a commonly repetitive pattern of the Roman baths. The guests had at their disposal two main sections: hot and cold, as well as locker rooms apodyteria, equipped with heated floor.
In the warm section, there were two large rooms: tepidarium - with warm water, measuring 11 by 25 meters, and caldarium - with hot water, measuring 25 by 20 meters. In the cold section, guests could use the frigidarium - a room with cold water, equipped with natatio i.e. a swimming pool, 30 meters long, with seats on the sides. Not surprisingly, the hot and warm rooms have especially impressive dimensions, resulting from their popularity during the freezing winters that characterise the climate of Central Anatolia.
The rooms of the hot section had underfloor heating - hypocaust - and its significant traces can be still seen today. These are 1.3-meter high brick columns - pilae that supported the raised marble floor under which hot air circulated. It was heated by stoves located underground. In the baths in Ankara, archaeologists have found as many as 10 of such stoves. It is worth noting that the spacing between the columns was wide enough to allow maintenance work performed by slaves. In the bathhouse, two underground corridors along with stairs to service the building were also found.
Looking at the remains of the bathhouse and the palaestra, despite the huge area they still occupy, it is difficult to imagine what they looked like during the period of their glory. Based on the reconstructions and comparisons with other Roman baths, it is worth realising that the main rooms of the bathhouse had barrel vaults reaching the height of 20 meters, richly decorated with mosaics. The walls were covered with multi-coloured marble tiles and beautifully carved friezes, and the floors were covered with mosaics and marble plates. Such magnificent interiors must have been one of the most important social venues for the Ancyra's top society members. Possibly the best idea concerning the original appearance of these baths can be obtained by comparing their ruins to the much better-preserved Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
Even in the mid-19th century, significant fragments of the bathhouse were still visible above the ground level. French travellers noted their existence under the name of the "Palace of Tamerlane". It was based on the popular belief, handed down from generation to generation, that the Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, stopped in this building in 1402, during the siege of the city. It was in the same year that Tamerlane, defeated and took captive Sultan Bayezid I in the Battle of Ankara, starting the turbulent period of the Ottoman interregnum.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, little remained of the ancient building, which in the meantime had been most probably demolished to obtain construction materials. In 1931, during the construction works on Çankırı Street, the foundations of the Roman baths were found by accident. The first archaeological work in this area was initiated in 1937 by Professor Remzi Oğuz Arık, who identified a mound with the traces of Phrygian and Roman settlements. The fragments of the palaestra were also uncovered. However, they were initially misidentified as a forum from the Roman period.
The work was continued in 1938-39 by Hamit Z. Koşay, Director General of Museums. His efforts, with the financial support of the Turkish Historical Society, helped to uncover the building of the Roman baths. When the area was cleaned and thoroughly examined, a part of the bathhouse was discovered, on a rectangular plan with sides measuring 140 by 180 meters. In 1944, based on the assumption that the building was symmetrical, work began to find the south-west wing of the bathhouse. However, instead of the expected second half of the building, archaeologists discovered a surprising tangle of narrow streets and traces of buildings with various plans. Researchers concluded that they had uncovered the district of ancient Ancyra, most likely from the same period of history as the baths themselves.
However, the chaotically arranged buildings unearthed instead of the symmetrical part of the bathhouse did not reflect the regular plan of Greek and Roman cities: the walls of the building were oriented at different angles and had different thickness. What's more, not only one, but three different periods of construction were clearly visible, perhaps corresponding to the late Roman, Byzantine, and Seljuk transformations made on the site of the former bath complex. On the other hand, some researchers, such as Arık, put forward the hypothesis that these buildings, at least partly, originated from the Hellenistic period, that is from the period before the baths were built. Until now, the archaeologists have not been able to solve this mystery. Many of them, including Dolunay, Erzen, and Akok, proposed a hypothesis that the baths were built in stages, and even that they were never completed, which could explain the lack of a symmetrical wing of the building. It is also possible that the construction of the building was started during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, and some modifications were made during the rule of Caracalla.
The first round of archaeological work lasted until 1944, and as a result, the site was nationalised. Then, the chief architect employed at the bath excavation, Mahmut Akok, recreated the building plan and proposed a reconstruction of its original appearance. He published the results of his investigations in 1968.
Since the 1980s, the Roman baths have served as an open-air museum and a lapidarium for archaeological finds, mainly tombstones and inscriptions, from the area of Ankara. Among these inscriptions, there are also early Christian and Jewish specimens. One of the most interesting finds displayed in this area is the late-Roman or early-Byzantine tomb. It was found at the end of the 1930s, while the foundations were dug for the building of the Railway Board at the train station in Ankara. After examination, this tomb was moved to the area of the Roman baths, where it underwent a renovation and the frescoes decorating its interior were protected. For some time, from 2002, its interior was even accessible to visitors, but now it is no longer possible.
In total, more than a thousand historical objects are exhibited in the lapidarium in the Roman baths. They have been divided into three main sections: steles, inscriptions, and architectural fragments. The steles, mainly from the Roman and Byzantine periods, are situated on the southern and western sides of the palaestra. The northern side is taken up by inscriptions, statue bases, and fragments of pipes, while the altars are displayed on the eastern side. In the central part of the palaestra, there are sarcophagi and lion statues.
Inscriptions are a valuable source of information about ancient Ancyra, its social and economic structure, as well as cultural and sporting events. One of the most interesting inscriptions displayed in the lapidary is the tombstone of Julius Rufus, a former centurion of Legio IIII Scythica. This inscription has been thoroughly examined and analysed by Julian Bennett. Thanks to his work, one can learn that in the times of Emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE) there was a fraternity of army veterans in the city, so-called collegium veteranorum i>. The inscription from Ankara is the fifth evidence discovered so far of the existence of such a fraternity throughout the Roman Empire. Moreover, the same inscription is the fourth known record referring to the white parade uniform, albata decursio.
In 2007, another round of archaeological works began in the baths, this time under the auspices of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Within their framework, it was possible to reveal a section of the colonnaded road, running to the north of the ancient buildings. During this work, many interesting objects were found, including the so-called statue of a Roman Emperor, excavated in 2007, in five pieces, but unfortunately deprived of the head. It is currently in the collection of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, in the section devoted to ancient Greece and Rome. Unfortunately, this section has been closed to visitors for the last few years.
In 2009, a bronze statue of Attis, the mythical lover of the goddess Cybele, was found. His statue from Ankara is dressed in a Phrygian cap and has small wings. In the same year, a bronze statue of crucified Jesus was excavated. On this basis, the researchers concluded that the shops operating along the colonnaded street also functioned during the Byzantine period.
The entrance to the site is from Çankırı Street, situated in the very centre of the city, just half a kilometre north of Ulus Square. Admission is paid, and in 2018 the ticket cost 6 TL. Baths are open every day from 8:30 am. In the summer season, they close at 7:00 pm, and in winter - at 5:00 pm. The area of the ruined bathhouse and the adjacent lapidarium is extensive, so plan a minimum of one hour for a visit.
Some of the information provided by this text is based on the information boards placed next to the Roman baths of Ankara. For the full bibliography, please check below.