Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Perge: Ancient city of columns, capitals and colonnades


A week later, I found myself wandering around ruins of a rather different nature: Perge, a mere 20-minute drive east of Antalya.  The situation of the two ancient cities, both of which have bequeathed us largely Roman-period remains, couldn't have contrasted more. Whereas Trebenna was built on a rocky outcrop perched above a remote valley, its exciting but relatively scant remains hidden amongst thickets of prickly scrub, Perge's substantial ruins sprawl out across the fertile expanse of the Pamphylian plain. And while little has been done to preserve or restore the tumbled structures of ancient Trebenna, Perge has been much excavated and many of its veritable forest of toppled columns re-erected in an impressive fashion.

Getting amongst the ruins

Apart from the sheer difference in scale of the ruins, reflecting the relative size and wealth of the two cities in ancient times and their contrasting situations, perhaps the most significant difference between the two sites from the point of view of today's visitor is one of atmosphere. Trebenna, not marked by signposts, is an open site reachable only on foot via a tricky forest path. Reach it and you'll almost certainly discover its charms (for free) on your own, for few visitors make it out there. By contrast, Perge is one of the "honey-pot" sites of Turkey's "sunshine coast," feeding off the millions of tourists who take their all-inclusive breaks along the sandy shores between Antalya and Alanya. At Perge, the coach park is usually packed with tour buses, their charges haggling for "nazar boncuğu" (evil eyes) and İznik-style plates or pseudo-oriental belly dancing costumes from the gaggle of local village women who have spread their wares out across fallen masonry outside the site entrance. There's a posh cafe, clean toilets and museum shop with expensive but classy souvenirs for sale — and a moderately hefty admission fee.

I was at Perge rather than Trebenna, or other more accessible but still steep-to-reach sites (such as Termessos) in the mountainous Antalya hinterland, because it was the most suitable site to bring my 83-year-old father and his not-much-younger partner. The great advantage of Perge for elderly and/or less able visitors (cafe, shop and toilets apart, of course) is that the access is flat, with the one part of the ancient city that would have necessitated a climb — the acropolis (fortified outcrop) — being so overgrown and bereft of remains that it's for the enthusiast only. The crowds jostling around the site entrance came as quite a shock after the solitude of Trebenna, but it's always exciting to set off exploring ancient ruins, especially ones as substantial as those at Perge. But although often busy, Perge fortunately lacks the mega-hordes that disgorge from behemoth cruise ships docked in Kuşadası to visit the comparable Aegean site of Ephesus, and it's surprisingly easily to lose the bus tour groups amongst the extensive ruins.

Some history

Almost certainly in existence before 1000 B.C., the city was founded, according to legend, by Greek colonists who arrived here in the aftermath of the Trojan War. The site was a superb one for an ancient city, with the surrounding fertile Pamphylian plain excellent for crop-growing, an easily defensible outlying ridge of the Toros Mountains (which back the site in the distance) for the acropolis and access to the Mediterranean — just 12 kilometers to the south — via the navigable river Kestros. Already a major settlement by the time Alexander the Great was welcomed into Perge by its pragmatic inhabitants in 333 B.C., it became part of the Roman world from 188 B.C. A substantial minority of today's visitors are drawn here as much by its importance for Christianity as for its Hellenistic and Roman remains, as St. Paul, along with Barnabas and Timothy, arrived here from Cyprus in A.D. 46. From Perge they set off north on a groundbreaking missionary journey (today, Perge marks one of the twin starts of the wild and wonderful St. Paul Trail, a waymarked walking trail that follows in the apostle's footsteps north over the Toros range to Antioch in Pisidia), later returning to preach in Perge itself. The city's boom period was in the second and third centuries A.D., when most of the buildings today's visitors admire were constructed. Although there are Byzantine Christian remnants scattered throughout the site, it was never a major Christian stronghold and was very much in decline when it was taken by the Selçuk Turks in 1027 — a decline which continued when the Ottomans took over in 1422.

Exploring the stadium

Having grumbled about the need to explore a "pile of old bricks," my father was soon happy enough trawling through the jumbled mass of beautifully carved pieces of masonry strewn across the floor of one of Perge's most important and substantial structures, its 12,000-capacity stadium — reputed to be one of the largest of its type surviving from the ancient world. Most other visitors simply peeked through the doorway and admired the ranked tiers of seating for spectators before ambling off to explore the rest of the site. So, while other parts of the ruins may have been busy with guides and their charges, for 20 minutes or so we had the stadium to ourselves. With a surprisingly strong November sun on our backs, we stooped to examine superbly carved pieces of masonry, blocks of architrave, frieze and cornice carved in bas-relief with the standard but exquisite patterns of the Classical world — bead and reel, egg and dart, dentil, Greek key and occasional figurative carvings like lions heads and cupids. These carved blocks had probably been part of the massive ornamental gateway that adorned the stadium in its second-century-A.D. heyday.

Lord Kinross, Atatürk's biographer, visited Perge in the early 1950's (a time when nearby Antalya was a town of 30,000-odd inhabitants rather than 2011's million plus, the international airport servicing over 8 million passengers annually a mere gleam in the eyes of the Ministry of Tourism and the coast between Antalya and Alanya a sparsely inhabited swamp rather than the forest of all-inclusive hotels and golf-courses it is today) and wrote: "The drum-like masonry of a Roman theater rises above the chaos, its cumbrous arcades overlooking a stadium that once held an audience of 12,000 people. A single Turkish peasant now occupies it, planting the area with cotton and stabling his cattle in the vaults beneath the seats." The cotton and stabled cattle have, of course, long gone. The theater, though, is still very much in existence, just across the access road to the site from the stadium. As impressive as its more famous rival east along the Pamphylian plain, Aspendos, it is unfortunately closed to the public and visitors will have to make do, as we did, with a peek through the fence surrounding it.

Colonnades and fountains

Both the stadium and the theater lay without the ancient city walls, and even today fall outside the site entrance, meaning the impecunious or simply tight-fisted can see some of ancient Perge for free if they so desire. It's well worth stumping up the entrance fee, however, which (despite my father's protestations) we did. What will stick in most visitors' minds about Perge is the sheer number of columns that have survived, many of them re-erected thanks to private sponsors whose names have been tagged onto their bases. These columns, invariably topped either by acanthus-leaf carved Corinthian or, more elegantly, Ionic capitals carved with graceful volutes, were once part of the colonnades running along the major streets and marketplaces of the Roman-era city. My tiring father found the odd tumbled capital of great use as a temporary seat from which to point out the finer points of the remains, including the occasional column drum or masonry block still bearing the original lead-sealed metal peg that once bound it to its neighbor.

Now dry, as the Kestros (today's Aksu) river has changed course and the aqueducts bringing water into the city from the Toros Mountains to the north have long since fallen into disuse, Perge was once a city of water, with a sacred fountain (the north nymphaeum) at the end of the major colonnaded street feeding a central water channel that brought cooling waters right to the heart of the ancient city. The street is remarkably well preserved today, running in a kinked line from the rounded towers of the Hellenistic gateway to the remains of the nymphaeum, where a reclining, headless statue of the river god, Kestros, presides over the remains of the monumental fountain at the foot of the acropolis hill. My father didn't make it this far and, having seen enough old bricks for one day, retreated instead to more certain liquid offerings at the site cafe. Instead, I explored the calcified channels and pipes feeding the fountain with my elder brother and his wife.

There's much else to be seen at Perge, from massive Roman bath houses complete with their central heating (hypocaust) systems remarkably intact, through to the remnants of a very large sixth-century Byzantine church and assorted monumental gateways. What's missing is the statuary for which the city was famous, and it is sometimes hard today to visualize the city as it once was, with the streets, bath houses, theater, stadium and fountain all adorned with stunning marble figures and scenes. Fortunately, a trip to the archaeology museum in nearby Antalya, where the statues and relief-carved friezes and sarcophagi found at Perge are displayed in a thoroughly impressive manner, will help you to conjure up just how beautiful the city must have been in its second-century-A.D. pomp.

Visiting the site

Perge is open daily from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., November to March, and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from April to October. Entrance is TL 15. Regular city buses from Antalya's Meydan (a kilometer east of the center) run to the large village of Aksu, from where it's a two-kilometer walk or short taxi ride to the site.

Antalya's Archeology Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, November to March, from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., and from April to October, 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m., for an entrance free of TL 15