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Trekking the Phrygian Highlands (the people of King Midas) – Day 1


Last weekend I joined my archaeological group, FARIT, on a trip to the Phrygian Highlands.  Who are the Phrygians, you might ask?  Good question – they’re best known, historically, for King Midas, whose mythic touch turned everything to gold.  Their capital, Gordiom, is also famous for its local knot, which after centuries, mythically, Alexander the Great was able to untie.

The Phrygian empire spread across central Anatolia in the 8th century B.C., and collapsed to the Cimmerians sometime in the 6th century, with parts of the civilization lasting into the 5th or 3rd centuries B.C., depending on who’s making the claims.  The Cimmerians didn’t last long, and they fell to the Lydians and then the Syrians.  Dating in archaeology is really difficult, especially when multiple civilizations are built on top of one another, as is the case all over Turkey.

The Phrygian Highlands contain mostly cultic sites.  It’s located in sheep grazing land between the current Turkish cities of Eskisehir and Afyon.   After over 2 millennia, not that much is left, but some of the sites are truly stunning.  It was great to come with archaeologists, as some of us walked right by some of the ruins, thinking that they were just rocks.  Of course, sometimes recognizing ancient works is like using your imagination to find animals and scenes in the clouds – we all see them differently.

Our first stop was a group of tombs carved into soft volcanic rock.  The area has been used since Phrygian times as a gravesite. An early Christian church and modern graves sit alongside the ancient cliffside tombs.

The church has been long abandoned, and was probably used for sheltering animals over the years.  If you look at the interior, you can see that some of the carved columns have collapsed or been removed.  Archaeologists think that the churches were carved from the top down.  First they did the dome, then worked their way down into the nave.  As the interiors of the carved buildings are usually symmetric, they probably worked with some kind of plan vice free-carving.

Along the Phrygian Road we saw several shepherds tending their flocks.  All of them were incredibly friendly and excited to share their favorite rocks or tombs with us, especially when they found out that we had some archaeologists amongst us.

My favorite site along the Phrygian Road is the lion tomb.  Nobody knows who was buried here, but the guesses are that it was a local wealthy guy who wanted a tomb in the current international style (late 7th century B.C.)


Here are few more close-ups and part of another collapsed tomb nearby:

Next is what’s known as a shaft monument.  Behind this facade, there’s a huge shaft, nearly 40 feet deep (by my eye’s guess).  So this monument was once that tall as well.


There are two theories about how these shaft structures were used.  One is for animal sacrifices, where the blood was allowed to run down behind the monument.  The second is as an oracle structure, where the priest or priestess would descend the shaft, smoke something, and then work themselves into a frenzy and prophesize.  For entertainment value alone, I like imagining the second option.

Look at the carved patterns on the facade of the monument – more exciting examples are coming up!

Our last stop of the day was the village Kumba.  It seems mostly deserted, but after we started wandering around a hill for a few minutes, some villagers came out to greet us.  At the top of the hill is a ruin that looks like it was probably a lookout or military post of some kind, as you can easily see the surrounding countryside from the perch.

Slightly down the hill and over some rocks, we found this tomb.  It’s actually connected on its right to a village home, and the archaeologists think the locals are using the pits from the old tombs as trash containers now.  Not all of Turkey’s sites are well-preserved or cared for.   They also think that the tomb itself dates to the 6th century B.C., but that the carvings of the lion, the lioness, and the urn are from the Roman era.  If you look closely, you can see how the upper portion is actually indented quite a bit from the original tomb.  The original decoration probably fell off in an earthquake.

For more recent history, Kumba has a small tomb/church with lots of spolia (stones taken from other buildings) built in.  The stone mausoleums are still inside, and covered by lots of brightly colored and embroidered cloths.

By far my favorite part of visiting Kumba village were the locals and decaying village scenery.

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