July 20, 2024

We set off along the trail through the Yazili Canyon on a warm October morning, ascending through the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, north of the Turkish coastal city of Antalya. Clusters of pines and gnarled olive trees clung to the walls of the gorge, and lichen-covered boulders blocked stretches of the footpath. One hundred feet below, the icy Aksu River, known in ancient times as the Kestros, coursed toward the Mediterranean Sea. To the north rose the Taurus range, ascending to 12,000 feet, with pine-cloaked hills receding into ridges enveloped in a bluish haze.

Lutgarde Vandeput, the Belgian director of the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA), which had helped organize this trek, paused before an empty niche carved into the natural limestone wall of the canyon. Two millenniums ago, such alcoves were common along the routes of Pisidia, a remote and wild region of Anatolia, the Asian part of modern-day Turkey. In antiquity, niches typically contained a statue of a deity such as Apollo, the son of Zeus and the god of agriculture, arts and healing, where travelers could offer libations and ask for protection from wild animals and warring tribes. A crumbling inscription in Greek caught my eye. I picked out PATRIOS (literally “of one’s father,” or “countryman”) and PHOBOS (“fear”). As control over the mountains changed hands through the centuries, Christian saints replaced the Hellenistic-Roman deity.

But now the remnants of that millenniums-old history are in danger of being damaged or even lost. Vandeput, a trim woman with short-cropped reddish hair, wire-rim spectacles and an energetic demeanor, gestured to a gaping hole gouged beside the niche. “People think that these shrines mark locations where gold is stored,” she said. “They chisel into the rock to see what’s behind it. Sometimes they use dynamite.”

a group Hiking through Koprulu Canyon

Hiking through Koprulu Canyon, a national park dotted with ruins and beloved for its river activities, including zip-lining and rafting beneath Roman footbridges. 

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For three days I had been walking across the Taurus massif with a dozen other hikers from the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey. We were one of the first international groups to explore the Pisidia Heritage Trail, a roughly 215-mile network of footpaths, along with a few crumbling miles of paved Roman highways, connecting the ruins of more than half a dozen ancient towns that had once flourished in this corner of Asia Minor.

Until recently, few tourists bothered to visit the region, discouraged by its remoteness and lack of infrastructure. The idea to stitch it all together had its origins in the 1980s, with the work of Stephen Mitchell, a longtime archaeologist with the BIAA, the venerable institute founded in 1947. Mitchell spent 15 years conducting surveys of seven ancient settlements here, hacking through forgotten ruins in the mountains, identifying the architecture and opening Pisidia to the world. Despite the ancient reputation of Pisidians as “uncivilized” and “barbarians”—the Greek historian Strabo wrote that they were “trained in piracy”—Mitchell found evidence of a prosperous and cultured people, with a high level of social and civic organization, shaped by a succession of conquerors.

In 2013, a Turkish archaeologist named Işılay Gürsu working with the BIAA proposed linking the sites and a few other ancient cities surveyed by Turkish, British, Belgian and Austrian archaeologists. She and her colleagues hoped that an influx of visitors would inject cash into the region and help stem the persistent looting of antiquities. “Every time Stephen and I came back, we would see illicit digging,” Vandeput says. “We thought, if we could find a way to provide villagers with an income, it might encourage them to protect the heritage that remains.”

In cooperation with the Turkish government, the BIAA put up signposts, and it produced a guidebook and designed an app that—thanks to the spread of 4G and LTE cellular technology in rural Turkey—allows visitors to visualize on-site what the ruined structures would have looked like in their heyday. The first tours, organized by the BIAA and a Turkish company called Equinox Travel, began in 2018, but the Covid-19 pandemic derailed the project for three years. Recently the tours started again.

a map of ancient trails in Turkey

The trail’s 215 miles connect ancient road networks with modern hiking paths, tracing rivers, twisting up gorges and traversing the ruins of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine cities. 

Map: Guilbert Gates; Source: British Institute of Ankara

Cover image of the Smithsonian Magazine June 2024 issue

The group I was trekking with reflected the project’s embryonic nature. All had learned about the Pisidia Heritage Trail through word of mouth. They included a top American diplomat in Ankara, who was accompanied by four Turkish bodyguards; the second-in-command at the British Embassy; a Turkish-speaking British expatriate who had retired to a village near Hisarlik, the site of ancient Troy, the city of Homer’s Iliad near the Dardanelles; a Cambridge classicist and archaeologist who specialized in Byzantine-era sites; and a young Turkish art dealer from Istanbul. Because of the absence of camping facilities, a van met us at the end of each day, shuttled us to inns for dinners and overnights, and drove us to a new trailhead the next morning. The American diplomat traveled separately in a Toyota Land Cruiser escorted by two backup vehicles.

A little farther down the path from the niche in the limestone wall, I came upon a plaque installed by Turkish authorities that helped to locate this remote route in the broad sweep of history. Around A.D. 48—a date approximated by biblical historians—Paul the Apostle sailed from Cyprus to Anatolia. Joined by a Cypriot named Barnabas, the evangelist set forth to preach the Gospel to the Jews and gentiles of Pisidia, which had fallen under the control of the Roman Empire. Some historians believe that they followed the very path we were walking, dubbed by Turkish officials “St. Paul’s Way.” Other scholars contend that Paul would likely have followed a safer route, the Via Sebaste, a Roman-built paved road that could handle chariots and skirted the mountainous terrain.

rock formations in Koprulu Canyon

Rock formations in Koprulu Canyon

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Eventually, Paul and Barnabas arrived in the Pisidian city of Antioch, the largest in the region, with a population of 50,000. “On the day of worship they went into the synagogue and sat down,” according to Acts 13:14-15. “After the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets were read,” the synagogue’s leaders asked Paul and Barnabas whether they had any words to “encourage the people.” Paul rose, and “motioning with his hand,” began a sermon about salvation through faith and God’s grace, and not by good deeds alone, saying, “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.” But the elders rejected Paul’s teachings and expelled him and Barnabas from Pisidia. Christianity would take root here, but not for another 350 years.

The Taurus mountain range runs in an east-west arc for hundreds of miles, separating the Mediterranean coast from the Anatolian Plateau. For thousands of years, it was home to feuding tribes who called themselves the Luwians, according to cuneiform tablets found in the archives of the 14th-century B.C. Hittite Empire, rulers of Anatolia. When Alexander the Great passed through this rugged terrain in 334 B.C., after crossing the Dardanelles, he confronted well-defended mountain enclaves nominally controlled by Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

His first stop in the territory the Greeks called Pisidia was Termessos, on the verdant slopes of the 5,000-foot-high Gulluk Mountain. The town was “a very lofty place, precipitous on every side,” wrote Arrian of Nicomedia, who, early in the second century A.D., compiled a seven-volume chronicle of Alexander’s military campaigns. Despairing of being able to capture it, Alexander bypassed the city and marched north. Next he reached Sagalassos, the most fearsome settlement in the region. Alexander led his armored warriors up a hill fending off a hail of arrows. Five hundred Pisidians and an untold number of Macedonians were killed, Arrian wrote, before Alexander “took their city by storm.”

After Alexander’s death, his generals divided up the territory. Greek became the lingua franca. Civic structures such as the bouleuterion, a meeting place for the council of elders, took root in every polis, the Greek term for city-state. Stephen Mitchell, whom I met in a Berlin café last November, just after I returned from my trip, explained that cities captured by Alexander became “a mixture of Macedonian settlers and Indigenous people who intermarried.” (Mitchell died in January at age 75.) Yet Pisidia’s cities were left to run themselves, and civil wars between the city-states continued as they had before Hellenization. The Seleucid Empire, founded by one of Alexander’s generals, took control of the region in the late fourth century and ruled until its collapse 250 years later, continuing to imprint Greek culture on the ever-feuding tribes.

A civic structure in Ariassos

A civic structure in Ariassos, possibly a prytaneion, or local government seat. 

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rocks assembled to make a public building in Sia

A public building in Sia, Pisidia’s most mysterious ancient city. 

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Everything changed under the Pax Romana, a period of relative stability ushered in by Emperor Augustus around 31 B.C. The Romans stationed garrisons in Kremna, Antalya, Perge and Termessos. They built a network of paved roads, restyled Hellenistic buildings, and constructed theaters for dramas and gladiatorial combat. They also appointed a governor in every city-state. Farming and trade flourished. Antioch in Pisidia became a colony for Roman war veterans. As at other such colonies throughout Asia Minor and Syria founded to project Roman power, the soldiers received small agricultural plots from state land holdings, and were expected to suppress uprisings and secure the territory.

When Strabo traveled through Pisidia in the first century A.D., he was struck by its abundance. “Among the summits of the Taurus there is a country which can support tens of thousands of inhabitants,” he wrote, “and is so very fertile that it is planted with the olive in many places, and with fine vineyards, and produces abundant pasture for cattle of all kinds; and above this country, all round it, lie forests of various kinds of timber.”

One morning, in our van, we inched our way up the side of a mountain to 3,000 feet above the coastal plain to Ariassos, sprawling across arid Mediterranean hills. Umit Isin, Equinox’s founder and our guide, a burly man in his 50s with a cheerful manner and an engaging speaking style, peered out over the ridge. “Living down there was always risky,” he said. “The mountains would have offered protection from invasion.” The first modern European explorer to visit this site was an aristocratic Pole named Karol Lanckoroński. He called it Kretopolis, a misnomer stemming from his belief that its ancient inhabitants came from the Greek island of Crete. Lanckoroński sketched a tomb and other structures for his classic 1890 survey, The Cities of Pamphylia and Pisidia. In 1892, a French expedition found inscriptions that named the city as Ariassos. Then it was ignored for another century, until Mitchell and a team arrived in 1988.

Mitchell’s Pisidia Survey Project mapped the city, identified buildings and traced its development over a millennium. “You see a lot of stuff piled on the ground, and you’ve got to make sense of it,” Mitchell told me over cappuccinos in Berlin. “It’s a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. You put together the pieces.”

A ruined temple in Adada

A ruined temple in Adada, one of several dedicated to emperors or Greek, Roman or Greco-Egyptian deities

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A later church building in Adada.

A later church building in Adada.

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Now Isin was standing in front of Ariassos’ most striking feature, a 36-foot-tall limestone arch, erected more than 1,800 years ago, in a saddle between scrub-covered and boulder-strewn hills. Mitchell, who specialized in epigraphy, had found an inscription indicating that a local citizen, Domitius Samos, erected it to commemorate a Roman victory in the Persian Wars in A.D. 233.

Businessmen in the boondocks often flattered their Roman overlords by financing expensive monuments, Isin said. The arch was built in the style of Hadrian’s Gate in Antalya, an ornate series of colonnaded vaults, built in A.D. 130, to honor the emperor’s visit to the city. Here three simple archways supported four plinths that would have displayed statues of Severus Alexander, the reigning emperor, and three predecessors: Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Julia Domna. It was far more modest than its Antalya counterpart, yet it would have been an ostentatious display in this remote outpost.

Climbing a hill above the victory arch, we passed sarcophagi emblazoned with an ancient sword-and-shield emblem that we would encounter everywhere in Pisidia. (The motif was adopted by the British Institute at Ankara as the trail marker and is painted on trees and rocks along the route.) Isin pointed out the remains of Ariassos’ bouleuterion. All that was left was a scattering of stones and fragmentary walls on a plateau with commanding views of the plain. Like many Greek poleis, the city minted its own currency. In 1967, Turkish authorities seized 209 bronze coins bearing markings from Ariassos, which had turned up at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar after they were sold illegally to an antiques dealer.

The necropolis at Ariassos.

The necropolis at Ariassos.

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A four-hour hike through scrub-pine forests and over fields of jagged limestone brought us to the ruins of Sia, scattered on the southern and western slopes of a wooded hill 12 miles east of Ariassos. Founded during the Hellenistic period, it otherwise remains a mystery. “All the ancient sources are silent about Sia, as if it never existed,” Isin said. “Arrian and other historians talk about wars, roads and trade in Pisidia—but not one mentions this name.”

Yet Sia undoubtedly grew into an important polis. Immense blocks of stone from Hellenistic and Roman structures were strewn across the forest floor, possibly toppled by an earthquake, and several intact walls rose around them. The finely cut blocks, which fit snugly together, were classic examples of ancient drywall masonry, but where Greeks usually cut building stones on-site, to fit a particular space, the Romans standardized stone size and formats. Four lintels that once bore statues of Roman emperors adorned a stone-roofed hut: It was a temple of the imperial cult, likely dedicated to rulers such as Augustus and Nero, who were believed to be invested with divine authority. An inscription on the lintel was written in Greek. (Latin was barely used in Western Anatolia during Roman times, except in garrison towns and veterans’ colonies.) HO DEMOS HO SIENOI, it read: “The people of Sia.” It is the only evidence that exists of the city’s name.

A monumental tomb in Sia.

A monumental tomb in Sia. The ruined city has been overtaken by pine forest, but among the trees are fortification walls, a city gate, homes and several churches.

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A short walk from the temple stood a large, ruined structure. BIAA surveyors identified a semicircular protrusion as an apse and concluded that the building had been one of Pisidia’s earliest churches, a three-aisle basilica constructed in the late fourth century. The Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in A.D. 313, and for seven decades, the new faith and age-old paganism existed side by side. But Theodosius, an able military leader from Iberia, who was chosen to rule the besieged Roman Empire following the destruction of its legions by the Goths, made Christianity the state religion in A.D. 380 and later outlawed paganism altogether. The remains of two other churches lay near this basilica, evidence that Sia had grown into an important center of the faith during the last days of Rome and the dawn of the Byzantine Empire.

The center of Christian life in the region, however, became Antioch in Pisidia, the city whose Jewish leaders chased out Paul the Apostle when he arrived to convert the population. Archaeologists recently unearthed a Byzantine church there—and, at the same excavation site, a ruin that might have been the very synagogue in which Paul preached two millenniums ago. (The indefatigable evangelist returned there twice and received an equally unfriendly reception on each visit: 2 Timothy speaks of his “persecutions and sufferings.”) Around the fourth century A.D., Antioch served as an early church diocese—a center of evangelization whose influence spread across the mountains.

Another morning, as our driver, a gray-bearded, sunburned, tough-looking Turk named Mehmet Yahman, navigated our van up the switchbacks toward the trailhead, Vandeput evoked a picture of the region from its Roman-era heyday. “There would have been fields of walnuts, wine grapes and olive groves,” she told us. “The landscape would have been terraced and completely used for agriculture, with villages, rural estates, and a system of roads built to keep the military supplied and move around.”

Goats in Koprulu Canyon

Goats in Koprulu Canyon, which rises above the spring-fed Koprucay River. The canyon’s walls, covered in cypress forest, surpass 5,000 feet.

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Modern Pisidia has turned back to wilderness. For the next three days we trekked through landscapes in which people were conspicuously absent. We ascended to a verdant plateau marked by hundreds of natural pillars that had been thrust straight upward, like the ancient moai statues of Easter Island, by the tectonic movement of the Taurus range. We scrambled up scree slopes so precipitous that they often required handholds, letting loose mini avalanches of pebbles on the hikers below. We followed a mile-long stretch of a Roman road that paralleled the Koprucay River, known in antiquity as the Eurymedon River, a remarkably preserved highway of limestone blocks that curved through a canyon toward the Mediterranean.

The trail abounded with pink and purple wildflowers, lemon trees, thyme, oregano, and myrrh. One afternoon beside the river we came upon a distinctive shrub with pink petals. Isin recognized the plant as the poisonous oleander, which contains a chemical compound that, when ingested, can cause vomiting, nausea, cardiac arrhythmia, low blood pressure, even death. It was said that some of Alexander’s troops perished after using oleander skewers to cook their meat. “Eat the root of the oleander and die,” runs an old Turkish curse.

Pink oleander

Pink oleander, infamous for its deceptive beauty. The flower is fatally poisonous. An old Turkish curse: “Eat the root of the oleander and die.” 

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Our own diet was less risky. Breakfasts at the rural inns where we spent the night consisted of generous spreads of olives, hummus, cheeses, fig jam, honey, hard-boiled eggs, tea and strong, bitter Turkish coffee. Lunch was typically lahmacun, a Turkish flatbread topped with minced meat, minced vegetables and herbs, baked in one establishment we stopped at on an open fire in a rear courtyard. In the evenings, after a long day in the mountains, we gathered around communal tables for lamb or chicken kebabs or grilled trout fished out of the Koprucay River, followed by glasses of raki, the Turkish national drink, made from aniseed and twice-distilled grapes. Accommodations were spare, rustic, yet comfortable. One morning I awoke at dawn to a persistent racket on my cottage porch: Three sheep were butting heads and upending the furniture. They scampered off when I tore open the curtains and shooed them away, then came back minutes later and resumed their mischief.

One afternoon toward the end of the trek, we headed for the ruins of a place called Selge. A steep, two-hour climb brought us to a crest that provided panoramic views of two Taurus valleys, thickly forested slopes giving way to ridgeline after ridgeline receding into the distance. We paused to eat trail mix and dried apricots in the sun as two griffon vultures rode thermals overhead. These large raptors were among the few birds we encountered during five days in the mountains; poaching is said to be rampant here. Then we followed a series of sharp descents and ascents into the ancient city.

“The region round the city and the territory of the Selgians has only a few approaches,” Strabo wrote, “since their territory is mountainous and full of precipices and ravines.” As a result, the historian went on, “the Selgians have never even once … become subject to others, but unmolested have reaped the fruit of the whole country.” Though ancient historians say that Selge could wield a formidable fighting force, the city’s sovereignty ended in 25 B.C., when it surrendered to the Romans, who incorporated Selge into the province of Galatia. Afterward, Selge provided timber for Roman shipbuilding, floating logs down the river to the Mediterranean port of Aspendos. The city, minting its own money, grew to become one of the most important cities of Pisidia.

the sun shines one rough mountain terrain

The Pisidia Heritage Trail brings travelers through the ruins of Selge, a once-thriving ancient city whose mountainous setting protected it from invaders for hundreds of years.

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The power that the Selgians once exerted was instantly apparent as we hiked through the ruins. At 3,000 feet above sea level, the ruins cover a sweep of fertile hills dominated by an acropolis, called Kesbedion. (An Austrian team not related to the BIAA conducted an archaeological survey here in 1981.) Pieces of engraved columns and limestone slabs were all that remained of the Temple of Zeus. From the acropolis we descended to the main part of the city, where about 20,000 people once lived. A 20-foot-high intact wall, its neatly fitted stone slabs perforated by an archway, bordered a still-paved agora, or marketplace.

In the valley below, fortuitously illuminated by a rainbow, loomed Selge’s outdoor theater, with a capacity of 9,000 people, one of the largest in the region. Gladiatorial combat took place here, as well as plays and mock naval battles. As we perched on a stone bench 50 feet above the theater floor, local women selling key chains, scarves and other knickknacks surrounded us. It was the first and only commercial activity at the ancient sites we encountered during nearly a week in Pisidia.

The 9,000-person Roman theater in Selge

The 9,000-person Roman theater in Selge. The mighty city defied foreign rule until it surrendered to Rome in 25 B.C.

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Indeed, except for a handful of sites such as Selge, Pisidia remains so little explored that even Mitchell was sometimes surprised by what turns up here. In September 2023, he embarked on an eight-day hike on the Pisidia Heritage Trail with a dozen family members. Outside a café near Sagalassos, Mitchell came upon a slab with a 25-line inscription using ancient Greek script. The retired archaeologist and epigrapher realized that he was looking at a language he didn’t recognize. “I didn’t understand a word,” he told me. The inscription, he determined, was written in a long-extinct Pisidian dialect—in fact, it was the longest inscription known to exist in the native tongue of the western Anatolian mountains. “We put out the word on social media,” Mitchell told me. Two days later, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism descended on the café and took away the slab. Today it sits in the garden of the Isparta Museum. According to Vandeput, there are so few scholars working in ancient Pisidian languages that the inscription may never be deciphered, and thus crucial details about their wars, gods and other aspects of Pisidian life will likely never be known.

an inscribed slab in Pednelissos, describing Hellenistic-era repairs made to the city walls

An inscribed slab in Pednelissos, describing Hellenistic-era repairs made to the city walls.

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A rock-cut relief of Apollo

A rock-cut relief of Apollo at a sanctuary dedicated to the deity, also in Pednelissos. The city featured large subterranean cisterns for capturing rainwater, which were used by local villagers into the 20th century. 

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Selge’s citizens embraced Christianity in the late fourth century, and the city endured for 200 more years. Then, like its neighbors, this once-thriving metropolis ceased to exist. “We found very little evidence for new buildings or for anything else that would indicate activity after A.D. 600,” Mitchell told me. “All of Pisidia comes to a rude full stop.”

Seventh-century Islamic conquerors and, possibly, outbreaks of the plague drove the population down to the plain. Temblors and the passage of time toppled the Hellenistic and Roman structures; forests rose around them; the structures themselves sank into obscurity. Now, thanks to Mitchell, Vandeput, Isin and his Turkish colleagues, they are slowly emerging again.

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