Archive for the ‘Ancient Turkey’ Category

The Secret Death Chamber of Apollo (3rd century AD)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

In the 3rd century AD at Hierapolis in Western Turkey, it appears that the priests of Apollo were part of an elaborate deception that involved a real death chamber that is still off-limits to visitors today.

The Temple of Apollo was situated on top of a man-made platform attached to a monumental staircase, with an opening into the ground nearby that was known as the Plutonion. This 30-foot wide hole was often surrounded by a thick mist and possibly a fence, making it nearly impossible for curious visitors to the hole to see inside – however, this was for their own safety. Why is that?

It seems that the Temple of Apollo was built along a geological fault line, which elsewhere in the city produced its famed hot springs, a perfect natural feature for the Romans who loved their public baths. Unfortunately, another natural feature of this fault line was that it produced poisonous gases, which had to be released into the air somehow. In this case, the poisonous gases were mainly deadly amounts of carbon dioxide: enough to suffocate a living creature almost instantly. And guess where they were released into the air?

Indeed, the large hole in the ground near the temple was the release point for the gas. Any living creature that entered the hole – both in antiquity and even today – died immediately. Studies of the Plutonion and the Temple of Apollo have revealed a secret correlation between the two sites. It is known from ancient sources that the Plutonion was used for animal sacrifices, which were carried out by the Priests of Cybele – apparently the priests were the only living things that could enter the cavern without being affected by the gases.

These priests were from the nearby Temple of Cybele, a cult associated with the Mother-goddess figure Cybele. Her cult revolved around themes of death and rebirth, and she was often worshiped in caves which were thought to be associated with the Underworld. Thus, the priests of Cybele probably found the death pit to be quite appropriate for their worship, and chose it to carry out their sacrifices. What probably happened was that the priests put four cloth sacks over their heads, creating a pocket of clean air that would last several minutes – allowing them to enter the cave with the sacrifice, wait for the animal to die, and… then what?

Believe it or not, the Plutonion widens as it runs under the ground, leading directly to: the Temple of Apollo. A man-made section of this tunnel also leads to a room about 13 feet wide at the end, which would have given priests from the Temple of Apollo direct access to the death pit. What appears to have happened was that the Cybele priests brought the sacrifices far enough into the pit for the priests from the Temple of Apollo to enter the pit from the other side safely – where the fumes were already dispersed and couldn’t harm them – so that they could retrieve the sacrifices, prepare them in the underground room, and then display them in the upper rooms of the temple. This religious ritual would have seemed like an incredible miracle to visiting worshipers – although it was really just a creative bit of stage magic.

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Tomorrow: The duchess who loved her father…a little too much

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus – Wonder 5/7 (ca. 350 BC)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

Built for a Persian satrap named Maussollos and his family between 353 and 350 BC, the Tomb of Maussollos (or alternately, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus) was constructed by some of the best architects in the Greek world at the time. Standing around 45 meters high, the tomb was considered to be such an aesthetic and architectural triumph that Antipater of Sidon named it one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Construction of the Mausoleum was actually begun by Maussollos’ wife Artemisia, who commissioned the best known artists and architects of the time. One of these artists was a Greek man named Scopas, who had actually supervised an earlier rebuilding of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

Placed on a hill above the city of Halicarnassus in Turkey, the tomb was surrounded by an open courtyard. The tomb was built on a raised platform in the courtyard, with a stairway leading up to its main entrance – and along the stairway were statues of stone lions, gods, and goddesses, and at each corner of the platform were mounted stone horsemen.

The bottom third of the Mausoleum was covered in sculptural reliefs, mainly focusing on battle scenes: Greeks battling Amazons, or the battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths. Above this section were 36 columns with statues between each one, and above this was a pyramid-style roof. At the peak of the roof was yet another statue: a four-horse chariot driven by statues of Maussollos and Artemisia.

After the death of her husband in 353 BC, although the tomb was incomplete, Artemisia continued the construction. However, she lived only two years after his death, and although the building was still incomplete, the builders continued working as a tribute to their generous rulers. Maussollos’ and Artemisia’s burial urns were placed within the incomplete Mausoleum, and as a sacrificial ritual, a number of dead animals were placed on the steps leading up into the tomb – after which the stairs were sealed off with rubble.

The Mausoleum remained standing for an incredible 16 centuries, until an earthquake in 1304 AD shattered the columns. By 1522, almost every block had been removed by Crusaders to build their own castle and fortifications nearby.

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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Tomorrow: The Colossus

Temple of Artemis – Wonder 3/7 (ca. 550 BC)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

Temple of Artemis

Built over the course of 120 years, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was completed around 550 BC, while Turkey was under Persian rule. Although nothing remains of the temple on the site where it used to stand, several ancient historians wrote descriptions of the temple during their travels across the ancient world.

Antipater of Sidon gives a sense of the wonder and awe this temple created, as compared to a number of other “ancient wonders”:

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon… and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy…” (Greek Anthology IX.58)

The Temple of Artemis

The reason for the temple’s brilliance was that, unlike other temples, it was constructed almost entirely of marble. The facade of the temple was also decorated with marble sculpture, and in front of the temple was a paved courtyard. The temple was raised on a high platform with marble steps, and when the sun shone directly on the white marble, the entire complex would have shone brilliantly.

The works of art housed inside the temple were those of the most famous sculptors in the ancient world, and typically consisted of images of Amazon warriors, since they were believed to be Ephesus’ founders. Archaeological excavations around the temple site have revealed a wealth of gold and silver jewelry, which would have been presented at the temple as offerings; a large number of Artemis statuettes have also been identified.

In 356 BC, a man named Herostratus burned the temple down, for the sole reason of gaining personal fame – at any cost. Interestingly enough, Alexander the Great was born on the same night, which the Roman historian Plutarch would later conclude was the reason that Artemis was

“too busy taking care of the birth of Alexander to send help to her threatened temple”.

The temple itself was not restored until after Alexander’s death in 323 BC, however even from the reconstructed building, only one column survives.

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Tomorrow: The statue of Zeus

Child Sacrifice in ancient Carthage? (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on March, 2007

Tophet Stele from CarthageThey were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than 300. (Diodorus 20.14.1-7 ff).

There is a child cemetery at the site of ancient Carthage named ‘Tophet’, which means “place of burning” or “roaster”, where around 20,000 burial urns have been excavated by archaeologists. These were buried between ca. 400 and 200 BC. Though some people have speculated that these were simply infants who died young, recent archaeological study has become more accepting of this religious ritual, since the bones found do not show any wear or evidence for disease.

The urns contain the burnt bones of children anywhere from newborn to two years old, and in some cases even fetuses. Many ancient societies in the Near East believed that there was a direct relation between sacrifice and the gods providing the people with a good harvest, which may provide an explanation for why these children were killed.

As early as 800 BC, ancient sources report that children were being sacrificed to the gods Ba’al and Tanit, and though the Carthaginians did not particularly enjoy this practice, they began to purchase children from slave traders or take the children of their own slaves for the purpose of being sacrificed. However, when times were bad, only the best would do – up to 200 children of the higher classes could be slaughtered and thrown onto the burning funeral pyre to ask the gods for help.

Various methods of sacrifice may have included: slitting the child’s throat; asphyxiating a child in its burial clothes; or for babies, simply throwing them into the fire.

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Tomorrow: Origins of the Olympics