The Seljuk Han of Anatolia
Ancient and All-Seeing Eye
The following chapter is an extract from the book of essays on the history and culture of Tokat, Turkey, entitled
Tokat Ancient, Tokat Green (publication forthcoming).
Have you ever all in one day and in all in one place crossed over a 2,000 year old bridge, walked on top of a Bronze Age site, strolled around the ruins of a substantial Roman and Byzantine city, and then enjoyed a soak in the mineral waters of a restorative hot spring, all under the All-Seeing Eye of a superb ancient mosaic? Well, if not, welcome to the pleasures of the small rural town of Sulusaray, once known as the important ancient Roman city of Sebastopolis.
Armed with a supply of water bottles, I set out for this ancient city, located 70 km south of Tokat, on one very hot day in the middle of an August heat wave, excited as much for the voyage as for the destination. I would travel over a road filled with spectacular scenery of high meadow plateaus, fields of plenty and some very impressive traces of the past. I was a modern-day traveler in an air-conditioned vehicle following the same north-south caravan route that has connected the Black Sea to central Anatolia for millennia, and the site I was heading to was just as ancient as this road.
My destination, the rural village of Sulusaray, sits on top of the remains of the Roman city of Sebastopolis on the banks of the Çekerek River. It is hard to imagine looking at this modest rural town today that it was once quite a metropolis, if we are to believe its former name. In some sources and on the inscription on the nearby bridge spanning the Çekerek River, this city was originally called Heracleopolis, meaning “the city of Heracles”, the divine hero of power and strength in Greek mythology, better known in modern times as Hercules. Victor Cuinet, writing in 1892, asserts that after the Pontic King Mithridates VI was defeated by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC, the city was rebuilt and given the new name of Sebastopolis. The Greek word “sebastos” translates as “large and mighty” while “polis” means “city”. Whatever way you wish to call it, excavations have shown that this city was herculean and mighty during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
The Romans (30BC-330 AD) established four centers in the Tokat area: in Zile with its amphitheater, Niksar, Comana (today’s Gümenek), and Sebastopolis. Yet Sebastopolis goes back much farther than the Roman era, for the terracotta findings unearthed during the archaeological dig led in 1987 by the Directorate of the Tokat Museum on the Sulu Sokak, as well as the other architectural artifacts previously unearthed, have proven that the region was inhabited in the Early Bronze Age (3000 BC), in the Hittite Era (2000 BC) and in the Phrygian Era (1000 BC). Before you head to Sebastopolis, you can get a flavor of its magnificence by visiting the Tokat Museum, for it displays many of the pieces uncovered during that 1987 dig. You can observe terracotta findings of the Bronze Age, Hittite and Phrygian periods, some hefty Roman marble architraves and column capitals, and a most curious table leg carved in the form of a lion’s leg and paw, which now constitutes one of the showpieces of the Museum. One can only wonder where the other 3 legs are buried.
Although the exact date for the foundation of the Roman-era city of Sebastopolis has yet to be determined, many believe it was established in the 1st century B.C. during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan. A surviving epitaph informs us that the city was included in the province of Cappadocia after being separated from the Pontus Galatius and Polemoniacus states at the time of Trajan between 98 and 117 A.D. It was one of the five largest cities in the Black Sea region 2,000 years ago, and this most certainly due to the fact that it was not only located on the important north-south trade route leading to Sebastia (present-day Sivas) and Caesarea (present-day Kayseri), but also because of its hot springs, which are still in use today. As an indicator of its wealth at the time of the Roman Empire, Sebastopolis had the authority to mint coins. The artifacts recovered at Comana Pontica (Gümenek, the “Old Tokat”) are very similar to those recovered from Sebastopolis, and so it is probable these two ancient cities had a close relationship in the past. Scholars consider that the city eventually lost its importance and was forgotten over time, largely due to wars, natural disasters and changes in trade routes. It is also believed that the city suffered extensive devastation during Tamerlane’s invasion of Anatolia in 1402.
The village mosque, painted a vivid purple, announces that you have arrived in the modern farm village of Sulusaray, site of the ancient glorious city of Sebastopolis. In truth, there is not much left to see here, and Sebastopolis certainly cannot rival the other famous seaside Roman sites of Turkey, such as Ephesus, Side and Aphrodisias, but what is here is interesting, because it spans several eras of occupation of the city. The excavation of this site, which began in 1987 and continued up until 1991, revealed the remains of city walls, a Byzantine church, a bath, a health club and a Roman bridge. The excavations carried out here and in various sections of the district unearthed numerous stone architectural elements, statues and statuettes, friezes and gravestones, many of which were engraved with epitaphs, and figures of humans and animals. Marble is plentiful in Anatolia, and the nearby village of Çirdak, outside of Sebastopolis, has been an important marble quarry since Roman times until today.
The ancient city was surrounded by walls made of large, neatly-cut stones assembled without the use of mortar. The remains of a 17m high section were discovered during the excavations to the east of the town. In addition, traces of stones laid in a semi-circle were identified about 100m west of the wall, and they are believed to be the foundations of a round tower which served as a part of a defense rampart.
At the eastern end of the village, near some modern houses, are the remains of what has been identified as a Roman bath, indicated by a water channel on the ground. The bath now resembles an open agora with broad paving stones dotted with column bases and a few fallen column sections. The entry area is framed by two pedestals formed of impressively-sized blocks of stones, each one rising three steps towards the interior of the space. The paving stones of the floor are worn smooth by the feet of centuries of bathers. Originally this area had many more columns, but they were removed years ago by villagers who used them to build their houses. Yes, as unbelievable as it sounds, several of the modest homes of this farming village have their ceilings supported by beams upheld by Roman marble columns. One lone sentry column still stands intact to the east of the area, but its capital has been lost. The traces of sulfur on the walls have led archaeologists to wonder if the current thermal water spring, now located some 3km southwest of the town, sprung from the earth at this place during Roman times.
The remains of a Byzantine church dating from the 5th or 6th century constitute the most interesting part of the historic city. Located near the city walls and measuring some 30 meters in length, it is a typical early Byzantine era church with three naves, three apses, a synthronon and a bema (the semi-circular raised structure at the back of the altar reserved for the clergy). It is similar to other churches of Anatolia, such as the St. Nicolas Church in Demre and St. John at Ephesus. Its walls are composed of cut stones, all quarried from nearby villages. A section of an octagonal column of grey marble bearing an inscription can be seen at the spot where the apse arch rises. Of special interest are the vestiges of several floor sections of dark-colored marble laid in a zigzag pattern, which hint at the magnificence of the original pavement.
However, the most exciting part of the antique city of Sebastopolis is a structure with one very spectacular, albeit deteriorated, circular mosaic floor. This structure was probably originally an asklepion, or healing temple, much like today’s health spas. A modern shed has been built over this fragile mosaic floor to protect it from the elements, and visitors can now observe its designs from a raised wooden walkway which surrounds the perimeter of the mosaic. Although the mosaic floor has suffered heavily, you can still make out the face of one lone figure, who holds a scythe in his hand. Look closely and you can see letters written in Greek over his right shoulder, which read “summer season”, leading scholars to deduce that floor originally depicted figures in a panorama of the four seasons. The mosaic is framed by geometric and vegetal border designs that would rival the intricacy of the finest Persian court rug. Like the overall pattern of the floor, this one remaining face has suffered extensively over the centuries, and pretty much all that is discernible are his teeth, neatly and delicately designated by tiny cubes of white marble, and his piercing left eye, never blinking and All-Seeing to this day. That enigmatic eye intently follows your every move as you walk around the rim, never dropping its gaze, just as it has observed every incident of this city for over 2,000 years. Oh, the things it certainly has seen!
In the garden surrounding the shed, the open-air Antique Sebastopolis Stone Works and Mosaic Museum has been set up, where some 60 stone works uncovered during the 1987 dig are exhibited, including a noteworthy figure of a recumbent lion, frieze sections carved with snorting bull’s heads and swag garlands, column capitals and bases, and tombstones. You stroll among the massive architrave sections and colossal fallen columns, contrasting with the delicate red rose bushes planted everywhere, and you get an idea of what must have been the architectural importance of the city. Several of the tombstones bear Hebrew menorah symbols, attesting to a Jewish population here in the past.
And if that All-Seeing Eye does not totally capture your imagination, stroll a bit north out of town and walk across the 5-arched Roman Bridge which straddles the Çekerek River. It is about the same size as the Seljuk Hidirlik Bridge in Tokat, and, ironically, has the same number of arches, but this bridge was built some 1,500 years before the Tokat one. The Romans were energetic engineers of roads and bridges, so important for their commercial activities, and this modest bridge, recently beautifully restored, gives us an indication of their investment in the area.
Yet, there is more to a visit in this Roman town than just ancient rigid stone artifacts: there is flowing water – hot water, and lots of it. The modern rural village of Sulusaray (meaning “Water Palace”), founded atop the ruins of Sebastopolis, takes its name from the sulfurous waters bubbling up here. The hot spring of Sulusaray, known as the “Çermikönü Thermal Spring”, is the region’s major thermal spring. The baths are situated at the eastern part of the village where the spring boils up from a seismic fault line at an average temperature of 44-55 degrees Celsius. People have been soaking their bones here since the Roman days – and perhaps even before that – and sources reveal that the thermal spring was quite active in the Seljuk and Ottoman eras. Vital Cuinet, who visited here in 1892, spoke of these mineral waters: “80 km southwest of Tokat lies the sulfurous springs of Sulusaray. It is visited every year in the month of July by crowds of bathers who spend several weeks here camping out under tents complete with all the equipment, cooking implements and foodstuffs they will need for their entire stay, for there are absolutely no lodgings or restaurants whatsoever on the premises.” People still come today to take the waters, classified as salty, sulfated and slightly bitter, due to the mineral composition which is said to offer cures for many conditions including rheumatism, gynecological disorders, and stomach, intestinal and liver afflictions. Scattered around the modern complex which houses two separate bathing pools for men and women, are several mostly vacant guest houses, and a small tea garden, for most of the clientele which comes here to soak their weary bones are day trippers from the local villages, although some come from as far away as Ankara. This is perhaps not the luxury spa of your dreams (the lodgings, built in 1962, need a bit of work, and the rustic clientele less than jet set), but with a bit of effort, the pools of the complex, set in the picturesque and peaceful green hills of the region, could become a welcome spot for thermal tourism.
Sulusaray and its ruins of ancient Sebastopolis may seem sleepy for the moment, but all of that is soon about to change, as big plans are now afoot. As it is believed that only a minor proportion of the ancient city of Sebastopolis has been unearthed, a decision has been made to complete the excavations. After a 22-year hiatus, excavations were resumed last year under the collaboration of Gaziosmanpaşa University, the Tokat Museum Directorate, and the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry. The Roman bath and Byzantine church have been cleaned, and in the coming years the hammam and other buildings are expected to be more extensively excavated.
However, this dig will not be as easy as you think. The modern village of Sulusaray, population 3,500, is woven in, on and around the ruins in a way that makes untangling the archaeological knots a bit problematic. Archaeologists are convinced that many more ancient houses with mosaics lay waiting to be discovered in the area around the asklepion. However, there is one small problem: they are believed to be hidden underneath the modern houses of the village. This prospect for uncovering the past of the ancient city has proven too tantalizing for archaeologists and the modern city fathers to resist, and, thus, some fairly drastic measures will soon be undertaken to complete the excavations. In March, 2015, local government officials ordered that many of the houses standing near the site will be emptied and torn down so that it can be fully excavated. The families will move to new homes built for them by TOKİ, Turkey’s Public Housing Development Administration, on a site distant from the archeological site. The land has already been allocated for the project, and this year, 10 houses will be expropriated and torn down in order to more freely unearth the historic city believed to be lying beneath them. However, to be frank, the aim of the project is not merely to advance scholarly knowledge, but to make the area attractive for tourism. The Turcophile Prince Charles of England came here on a private visit in the early 1990’s, and the larger-picture goal of all of this house moving and digging will be to encourage tourism. But let’s not be too ambitious for the moment: archaeological work is a long and painstaking project, and it could take 25 years to fully measure the extent of this city. It will certainly be worth the wait.
As I wandered around the dusty village, I wondered what truly does lies underneath those rustic homes, many strung with garlands of peppers at their windows which resemble the swags of foliage I saw carved on many of the stones in the garden of the Museum. When I gazed upon the mammoth building blocks in the forum area that Hercules himself could not have hoisted, I had no trouble imagining that this city, once one of the two major cities of the Roman Empire in the East, deserved its “big and lofty” title, and I imagine the opulence of the other Roman cities here in the Tokat region.
When we left the village to return to Tokat, I looked out the car window at the breathtaking fertile valleys of the region and the distant highland meadows. I recalled that it was right here that the two heroes of the Danishmend-name, the famous epic of the Danishmend Empire, sat under a tree and abandoned their animosity to become comrades-in-arm to the end. We traveled along back roads filled with fields framed by rows of tall poplar trees, their fluttering leaves stirring up some welcome cool on the scorching summer day. We climbed to the mountain village of Tahtoba, where we ate a grilled fresh trout in the shadow of a ruined 13th century caravan built by Mahperi Hatun, the Moon Queen patron of the majestic Seljuk han in the village of Pazar, near Tokat. From the Bronze Age to the Romans to the Danishmends to the Seljuks to the modern asphalt highway; all in several kilometers: that is the historical magic of Tokat for you.
The Romans may have once lived here, but Sebastopolis is a Turkish village now, filled with people, sheep, dogs, chickens and children. Roman centurions have ceded the way to a village full of generous Turks, such as the off-duty site guard Mehmet who eagerly escorted me around the village in the 40 degree blazing sun and all the way over to the bridge, so that I would not miss anything on my visit. Yet, above all, this is now a rural village, full of hard-working farmers who care only that the rich brown earth below their feet heralds the future promise of bountiful crops, not hidden and ancient artifacts of the past; a rural village where geese stroll along its dusty streets with the greatest of ease, totally indifferent to the fact that they may be waddling over a spectacular hidden Roman mosaic. For the moment, the roads of Sulusaray are theirs, until that All-seeing Eye of History tells them the contrary.
©2017, Katharine Branning; All Rights Reserved.
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