This article has been previously published as a part of book Antalya, Side and Alanya: TAN Travel Guide by Izabela Miszczak
A visit to the ruins of the ancient city of Termessos is an unforgettable experience, completely different from visiting ancient cities located along the Mediterranean coast. First of all, to get to Termessos, you need to travel to the altitude of 1000 meters, deep into the Taurus mountain range. The difficulties of this journey are quickly compensated by the vista seen from the ancient theater which is considered to be most ideally situated of all the ancient buildings of its kind in Turkey. Secondly, this Eagle's Nest, as Termessos was called by Alexander the Great, lies in the National Park where the remains of ancient buildings are nestled among pine forest and a number of rare plant species grow undisturbed by mass tourism. Finally, Termessos is shrouded in legends and has been the object of fascination and studies conducted by many travelers and scholars, most notable of them being Karol Lanckoroński - a Polish researcher of Pamphylia who traveled throughout this region in the end of the 19th century. The uniqueness of this place has not gone unnoticed by international organizations - Güllük Mountain National Park and the ruins of Termessos are among the candidates for the UNESCO World Heritage List.
For the first time Termessos appeared in the literature on the pages of the Iliad. Homer mentions that Bellerophon, the Greek hero who rode a winged horse Pegasus and became known as Chimera killer, was commissioned by the king of Lycia to conquer Termessos. He managed to force the residents Termessos to surrender by flying over the mountains on Pegasus and throwing stones at the rebels.
Apart from this story, little is known about the ancient history of Termessos. Most probably the city was founded by a Pisidic tribe, the local people related to the residents of Isauria and Cilicia. The same tribe settled in what is now the province of Isparta, where they built the city of Sagalassos. The inhabitants of Termessos called themselves Solymi and that name was, according to Strabo, derived from Solymeus, an Anatolian god who in later times became identified with Zeus. This is evidenced by the coins minted in Termessos with the image of the deity and his name.
The first historical mention of Termessos dates back to 334 BC. In this time Alexander the Great arrived to the area with a plan to capture Termessos. However, his attempts failed, and the Eagle's Nest turned out to be a more difficult problem than the Gordian Knot. The Macedonian king lost in Termessos a lot of time, but deep gorges and steep mountain slopes provided sufficient defenses for Termessos inhabitants. Finally Alexander decided to leave Termessos alone, directing his army towards Sagalassos. This way Termessos became one of the two cities of Asia Minor, the other being Sillyon, that the Macedonian army was not been able to conquer.
In the Hellenistic period Termessos entered the era of great prosperity, but it was implicated in the conflicts between the heirs of Alexander the Great. One of the generals of the Macedonian king, Antigonos Monophtalmos, after the death of Alexander proclaimed himself the ruler of Asia Minor. Then he declared a war against the competitor for the title - Alcetas, who, at that time, was based in Pisidia.
Alcetas and his companions fled before the huge army of Antigonos to Termessos and city residents vowed to help him. However, when Antigonos lied siege to the city the council of elders decided to hand Alcetas over to him, in order to protect Termessos and quickly sent messengers to Antigonos with the news.
Younger residents of Termessos opposed this perfidy and left the city as a sign of protest against it. Alcetas chose death over falling into the hands of the enemy - he committed suicide and his body was handed over to Antigonos. After three days spent on the desecration of Alcetas corpse the Antigonos army went on their way, leaving the body unburied. Young people from Termessos returned to the city and after learning about the course of events, buried Alcetas with great honors and issued a beautiful monument dedicated to him.
In the 2nd century BC Termessos took part in a number of conflicts, first against the league of Lycian cities, and then against their neighbors from the city of Isinda. In this period, the city also established their colony under the name of Termessos Minor (also known as Oioanda). During another conflict, this time with Selge, Termessos entered the alliance with the king of Pergamon - Attalos II. This friendship was commemorated by the erection of two-storied stoa, funded by Attalos II.
In the period of Roman domination in Asia Minor Termessos retained considerable autonomy as a "friend and ally" of Rome. The residents of the city could set their own laws, they were also guaranteed the freedom and the right to mint their own coins.
The end to the prosperity and existence of Termessos came with an earthquake that destroyed the aqueduct supplying drinking water to the city. The exact year of this event has not been determined, although it is known that even in the period of early Christianity Termessos was the seat of the bishop. In the 5th century AD the city was already completely deserted, and from that time until its discovery by the modern travelers it fell into oblivion.
In the first half of the 19th century first European explorers arrived to Termessos. Among them were Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt and Edward Forbes, who described their findings in southern Asia Minor in the book Travels in Lycia, published in 1847. Charles Fellows, the British archaeologist, also visited Termessos. The results of these first travels to the ruins of Termessos were descriptions of the preserved buildings and first plans of the ancient city.
In the 80s of the 19th century Termessos was repeatedly visited by the Polish researcher Karol Lanckoroński, whose detailed descriptions and a carefully drafted plan of the city, along with the sketches prepared by George Niemann, were published in the second volume of his work The Cities of Pamphylia and Pisidia. Lanckoroński wrote about Termessos in the following words: 'Of all the cities of Pisidia which we have visited, Termessos has the most peculiar and the greatest position: it is, at the same time, a watchtower commanding a distant view and nest buried deeply in a valley, surrounded by a ring of mountains. If its inhabitants indulged in brigandage, they could not find a better hiding place than in this eagle's nest.'
Unfortunately, since the end of the 19th century, not much has been learned about Termessos, because only the surface surveys of the ruins have been conducted so far. It is amazing that such an interesting and mysterious city has not encouraged archaeologists to conduct systematic research.
The Museum of Flora and Fauna
Right at the entrance to the Güllük Mountain National Park there is a small building which houses the pompously called Museum of Flora and Fauna. It is, in fact, a very modest exhibition, displaying the animals living in the surrounding forests and the plants growing in them. The general impression after visiting this facility is very depressing, and the sad eyes of stuffed critters shown in glass cabinets may haunt you long after you leave this venue, so if you are sensitive and love nature, then bypass the place at a wide berth.
The Road to Termessos
From the entrance to the National Park a narrow and winding road leads up to the ruins of Termessos. This route was the main road leading to the city also in the ancient times. The remains of the so-called Royal Road are visible along the access road. The surviving fragments of ancient road are dated back to the 2nd century AD and lead to the center of Termessos. This path was built from huge boulders by the residents of the city who also provided the necessary funds.
After 8.5 km you reach the parking lot situated just before the entrance to the ancient city. Right next to it there are the remains of the Temple of Artemis and Hadrian. Their best preserved fragment is the propylon or entrance gate. The temple itself was built in the Ionic order, as a peripteros, which means that it was surrounded by a single colonnade. The stairs led to the temple and its cella was 8 meters (26 feet) wide.
City walls and gates
From the parking area a path leads steeply uphill. Along the way, you pass the two lines of the city walls, and between them there are remains of aqueducts and water cisterns.
Gymnasium and baths
Just next to the top gate of the city stands the building of an impressive size which once served the dual function of a bath and a gymnasium. Some parts of the building are hidden underground, thus you can only see its north-eastern part.
Behind the upper ramparts starts a relatively flat area which used to be the center of political and economic activities in Termessos. Unfortunately, today most of the buildings that once stood here are completely destroyed or severely damaged. If you look carefully you can spot a section of the old colonnaded street and some fragments of the sewer system. One of the best preserved buildings in this area is still puzzling the scholars, so they labeled it simply as an 'unidentified building'.
If you follow the signs leading to the narrow path through the forest to the south-east, it will lead you to the upper agora of Termessos. This spacious square was once surrounded on three sides by colonnades. Two-storied stoa in the Doric order on the north-western side of the agora was funded by king Attalos II of Pergamon and dates back to the 2nd century BC. The north-eastern stoa was funded by a wealthy citizen of Termessos called Osbaras. It was modeled on the stoa of Attalos, but was erected later, during the Roman period, most probably in the first century AD.
There is also a building called heroon (i.e. a hero's tomb) on the agora. In this particular case, the name of the hero who was awarded with this monument remains a mystery. A huge water cistern lies to the north-east of the agora, with five holes visible on the surface. These openings, surrounded by stone brickwork openings, are secured with iron bars that protect less careful tourists.
The most important buildings that are located in the immediate vicinity of the agora are: a theater, a bouleuterion and the temple of Solymian Zeus.
The best reason to visit Termessos is, no doubt, this magnificent ancient theater, located to the east from the agora. This building, surrounded by mountain peaks of the Taurus range, guarantees stunning views of the surrounding countryside. The theatre performances in Termessos must have been extraordinary if only for the stunning location of this structure.
The theater was built in the Hellenistic period, in accordance with the best Greek practice. It is made of hewn stones and its auditorium, which could seat 4200 people, exceeds the half-circle. What's more, the stage building (i.e. skene) is separated from the auditorium by open passages. There are no vaulted substructures, characteristic for later, Roman theatres. In the Roman period, in the 2nd century AD, the theater underwent significant alternations, with particular emphasis on skene and proscenium.
About 100 meters south of the theater stands the best preserved building in Termessos. It is a bouleuterion or a meeting place of the city council, which also functioned as an odeon, i.e. a small theater designed for musical and poetical performances.
The walls of this building, erected of hewn stone blocks, are still standing to the height of two stories (10 meters or 33 feet). In the past this bouleuterion was roofed over and the sunlight got inside through the large windows in the eastern and western walls.
Unfortunately, the interior of the bouleuterion is covered with rubble that prevents its further exploration. Austrian researchers, that conducted an archaeological reconnaissance in Termessos, discovered that under a layer of rubble there are well-preserved rows of seats. They also noticed pieces of colored marble, indicating that the internal walls of the building were once decorated with multicolored mosaics.
The remains of six temples have been identified so far in Termessos. Five of them are located near the agora and the bouleuterion, the sixth being the aforementioned Temple of Artemis and Hadrian situated the entrance to the city.
The first of the temples on the agora adjoins the bouleuterion and boasts a magnificent wall. Unfortunately, apart from it not much has been preserved of this structure, although it is known that its inner chamber had the dimensions of 6 to 7.5 meters. The researchers speculate that the temple was dedicated to the main deity of Termessos known as Solymian Zeus.
The second temple, near the south-western corner of the bouleuterion, is smaller and its square cella had sides 5.5 meters long. The temple was a prostylos and vestibule of the building was decorated with four columns. On the basis of the style of the preserved fragments the building was dated to the 2nd century AD. From the existing inscription above the entrance we know that this temple was dedicated to Artemis, and a funders of the building were a woman called Aurelia Armasta with her husband.
To the east of this building stand the ruins of the temple of the Doric order, which was a peripteros with a single colonnade. The measurements have shown that this was the largest temple of Termessos, and surviving reliefs and inscriptions indicate that it was also dedicated to Artemis. The last two temples, both of them of prostylos form, stand near the Stoa of Attalos. They were erected in the Corinthian order, in the 2nd or the 3rd century AD, but it is not known which gods were worshiped in them.
On the south-western side of the agora there are the remains of the so-called Founder's House. It was a Roman property, with an inner unroofed atrium, with a rainwater tank called impluvium in its center. The preserved inscription on the left jamb of the door refers to the owner of the house as 'the founder of the city'. Undoubtedly, this person contributed heavily to the development of public buildings in Termessos.
The cemeteries are located on three sides of Termessos - in the south, north and west. There are rock tombs and richly decorated sarcophagi in these necropoleis. One of the tombs is said to belong to Alcetas, whose sad story has been told above. This tomb, dating back to the 4th century BC, is decorated with the likeness of a warrior on a horse. There is an alternative way back to the parking lot leading through the necropolis, but the ground is uneven and sturdy footwear is necessary if you intend to walk this way.
Termessos ruins are open daily, from 9:00am to 7:00pm in summer (from April to October) and from 8:00am to 5:00 pm in winter. Be careful - the ticket booth closes two hours earlier, as the ruins cover a large area and two hours are an absolute minimum to see the main sights. The ticket costs only 5 TL. You can buy the tickets at the entrance to the National Park, 8.5 km from the ruins.
The ruins are located on the slopes of a mountain, surrounded by lush vegetation. Their exploration requires good physical condition. Come well-prepared - bring your drinking water supply, always wear sturdy shoes and long trousers to protect your legs.
By public transport: take a coach from Antalya coach station heading in the direction of Korkuteli. Get off the coach at the crossroads signposted to Termessos. There is a distance of 8.5 km to walk from it to the site. In summer there are taxis waiting to transport the tourists to the ruins for 25 TL. In winter it may be necessary to walk all the way up or hitch-hike.
By taxi: a taxi from Antalya to Termessos and back costs 130-150 TL.
By car: from Antalya take D350 road (to Denizli). After 25 km turn off left, at the signposted crossroads. From there, go along the road to Termessos, it's 8.5 km long, narrow and winding, so drive carefully.