The best of Anatolia’s Phrygian sites

25th, 2013
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travel01Of the many peoples who have inhabited Anatolia in the pre-Greco-Roman period the best known are probably the Hittites whose ancient capital, at Hattuşa, is now one of Turkey’s world heritage sites.

Not quite so well known are the Phrygians who took over power from them in much of Central Anatolia from the 12th century B.C. onwards. Indo-Europeans who probably first emerged in the Balkans, the Phrygians may have been included amongst the mysterious “Sea Peoples” who are thought to have overwhelmed the Hittites. Alternatively, they may just have stepped into the void created by the collapse of the Hittite Empire. The full story is yet to be told.

The Phrygians made their capital at Gordion, near the small modern town of Polatlı, but their influence extended across much of Anatolia. To the east they rubbed up against the Urartians, to the west against the Lydians into whose kingdom they were eventually absorbed. The independent Phrygian state is thought to have come to an end around 675 B.C. when invading Cimmerians are believed to have destroyed Gordion.

In their heyday the Phrygians had their own language (which may have survived into the A.D. seventh century), their own style of dress typified by a floppy Phrygian cap, and their own pantheon of gods and goddesses, amongst whom Kybele, the Mother Goddess, held such importance that the Greeks later identified her with their Artemis.

Several famous stories, mostly mythical, are associated with Phrygia. The first concerns King Midas who is said to have prayed that everything he touched would turn to gold, forgetting that this would include his food, his drink, and even his daughter. In despair Midas prayed to be relieved of his gift and was instructed by the god Dionysius to wash in the Pactolus (Sart Çayı) river. As soon as he did this, the gift passed to the water, thus supposedly explaining the gold that was later found in the river.

A second story tells how King Midas was one of the adjudicators at a musical competition between the gods Pan and Apollo. When the king was foolish enough to prefer Pan’s pipes to Apollo’s lyre, Apollo took his revenge by giving him donkey’s ears. From then on the king kept his head covered to conceal his disgrace. Only his barber got to see the shameful ears and eventually, unable to keep the secret any longer, he rushed down to the river, dug a hole and whispered into it that “King Midas has ass’s ears.” Of course the reeds that grew up on the spot have been whispering the same story as the wind whistles through them ever since.

Finally, Gordion itself was associated with a much later story relating to Alexander the Great who passed through in 333 B.C. by which time the old Phrygia had become a satrapy (province) of Persia. In the old palace he found an oxcart that had originally been brought into town by a peasant named Gordias whom an oracle had decreed should be the next king of Phrygia. The cart was secured with a knot and it was said that whoever eventually untied it would go on to become the ruler of all Asia. No more able to unknot it than anybody else, Alexander solved the problem by slicing through it with his sword. The rest, as they say, is history.

For those looking for reminders of the Phrygians the first stop has to be Gordion, but almost equally interesting, if much less visited, is the small town of Midas Şehri, near Afyon. In the surrounding Phrygian Valleys (Frig Vadisi) there are many small reminders of the Phrygians. Finally, it’s worth paying a quick visit to Pessinus, a minor archeological site near Sivrihisar that also dates back to Phrygian times.

The most important finds from Gordion, including some magnificent metalwork, are housed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. Unfortunately most of this will be closed for restoration throughout 2013.


The ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion can be found around the village of Yassıhöyük, southwest of Ankara, where there are two completely separate areas of interest. Most people are drawn like magnets to an enormous tumulus — the largest of more than 100 in the area — which was once thought to contain the grave of the famous King Midas. Excavated in 1957, it turned out to contain a wood-lined burial chamber full of grave goods as well as the skeleton of a man of about 60, now thought to have been Midas’ father, Gordias.

It’s astonishing to be able to walk right inside a monument that dates back more than 2,700 years, and afterwards the small museum across the road can come as something of an anticlimax although it does contain some remarkable painted gable ends as well as a pebble-mosaic of a type that can also be seen in Greek Macedonia and that continued to be produced all along the Aegean well into modern times.

The actual site of the city of Gordion is roughly two kilometers east of the tumulus. Recent digs have uncovered two citadels, one built on top of the other, as well as several megara, or great halls. A gateway has been re-erected to its original height, giving some idea of what an impressive city this must once been.

Midas Şehri

Far fewer people make it to the remote site of Midas Şehri, north of Afyon, although those who do are rewarded by a sight that is, if anything, even more visually striking than the tumulus at Gordion. Here, behind the modern village of Yazılıkaya, a huge monument resembling the facade of a temple is carved into the face of a rock. Known as the Tomb of Midas by those who were determined to find the last resting place of the famous king, it is now believed to have been a shrine to Kybele with a space carved into it for a statue of the goddess.

The monument is by far the most striking sight at Midas Şehri. However, there was once a whole Phrygian city dating back to the eighth century BC here, and if you walk round behind the monument you will be able to climb up onto its acropolis and explore many ancient tombs, cisterns, fountains and other structures that have yet to be conclusively identified.

Frig Vadisi (Phrygian Valley)

You really need a car to explore the valleys that surround Midas Şehri and which contain a number of tombs mainly dating back to the late Phrygian period when Phrygia was absorbed into the Lydian kingdom. Although the posting of signs has been greatly improved recently, it still takes quite lot of time to find everything. The most detailed information on the area was provided by the Dutch archeologist Emilie Haspels in a book called The Highlands of Phrygia, published in 1971.

Near the village of Döğer northeast of İhsaniye, for example, you can visit the Arslankaya (Lion Rock), a smaller version of the monument at Midas Şehri, again carved to look like a temple and with a relief of Kybele and two lions inside it. This should not be confused with the Arslantaş (Lion Stone) in the nearby Köhnüş valley where the façade of a tomb is carved with impressive representations of lions. Somewhat confusingly, the nearby Yılantaş (Snake Stone) turns out to be yet another tomb with lions on its façade. Finally, in the village of Kümbet, near Midas Şehri, the Arslan Kaplan Kümbet (Lion and Tiger Tomb) is yet another late Phrygian tomb, this time embellished with carvings of bulls. It probably acquired its name when lion carvings were added to it in Roman times.


Finally, it’s worth paying a quick visit to the ruins of the Phrygian settlement of Pessinus which are scattered about the village of Ballıhisar southeast of Sivrihisar. The Heart of Pessinus was originally a temple to the hermaphroditic god, Agdistis, who was eventually assimilated, somewhat confusingly, into the cult of Kybele as a goddess. Pessinus lived on after the Phrygians to flourish first as a Celtic settlement, then as a Hellenistic one, then finally as a Roman city. Consequently, although the memory of the Phrygians lives on in the ruins of the temple to Kybele most of what is to be seen here now is of a much later date.

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