For the last two years, the annual Diggings tour has included a visit to Gordion, an archaeological site about 100 km west of Ankara, beside the modern Turkish village of Yassihoyuk. This is the legendary city of King Midas and an important historical site in Turkey. The Korte brothers identified the site of Gordion in 1889, but modern excavations only began in 1950 led by Dr Rodney S Young of the University of Pennsylvania. He found that the earliest occupants were the Hittites, followed by the Phrygians. After them came the Persians, then the Greek and Roman occupations, just as we would expect from history.
Gordion was occupied almost continuously from the Early Bronze Age to Medieval times, but was most famous as the capital of the Phrygian kingdom in central Anatolia. Located at the junction of several roads, the ruins of the city are on a mound circled by the Sangarius River. All around the tell are rolling plains, dotted with tumuli, the burial mounds of its kings and nobility
Little is known of the Phrygians, other than brief references in Greek and Persian sources and from archaeological excavations. It appears that the Phrygians originated from the west coast of the Black Sea but migrated south into Anatolia. Settling in central Anatolia, they obliterated the Hittites, slaughtering most of the population and driving the rest into exile. They built their settlements over the ruins of Hittite cities such as Hattusas, Alacahoyuk, Pazarli and Alisar. At the beginning of the eighth century BC they made their capital at Gordion.
The Phyrgians were a war-like people ruled over by aristocrats. Their language was Indo-European but as it has not been deciphered yet, our knowledge of the Phrygians is still limited.
The history of Gordion is indistinguishable from the legends of the period. Although often dismissed as ”fairy tales• by scholars, we know enough about legends from places like Troy to realise that often the myths have a basis in real history. According to one legend, at the end of a prosperous reign, the King of Phrygia died, leaving no heir. The Phrygians sent emissaries on the long and dangerous journey to the oracle at Delphi to ask for a prophecy. The oracle told them their next king would arrive drawn by oxen. After making the trip back to Phrygia, the emissaries described what they had heard. As they recounted the prophecy, Gordius and his wife, immigrants from Macedonia, rode into town on their ox-drawn cart. The people hailed Gordius as the fulfilment, and to Gordius‘ surprise and delight, he was made king of the city. As a thank offering, and to remind himself of his humble beginnings, his peasant‘s card was tied to a post in the courtyard of the Temple of Zeus. The cart was probably similar to the plain wooden-wheeled carts used by local farmers to this day. The yoke was held to the shaft by a leather knot fixed by a wooden pin.
The city was renamed in honour of Gordius who ruled his adopted people well. According to legend, Gordius had a son by the goddess Cybele who was named Midas.
In 738 BC Midas succeeded his father as king and under his wise and pious rule, Phrygia prospered. Midas established the cult of the god Zeus at Gordion and instituted the mysteries of Cybele, goddess of caverns, who personified the earth in its primitive state. Worshipped on the tops of mountains, she ruled over wild animals that formed her retinue. Shown wearing a turreted crown, the usual way of depicting the Asian mother-goddesses, she is sometime seated on a throne flanked by two lions, or in a chariot drawn by lions. Her emblem of power was a whip decorated with knucklebones.
Her priests, known as Galli, celebrated the cult of their goddess with convulsive dances to the sound of flutes, drums and cymbals while clashing their shields with their swords. In their orgiastic fury they would flagellate themselves with whips on which were tied knucklebones.
Associated with Cybele was a lesser god, Attis. Like Tammuz of Babylon, or Adonis of Phoenicia, he was a vegetation god known as “Papas”, or father, by the Phrygians. He was pictured as a young, handsome shepherd with whom Cybele fell in love. She chose him as her priest and imposed on him a vow of chastity. When Attis broke his vow and took the daughter of the river Sangarius, Cybele struck him with frenzied delirium during which he mutilated himself. He was about to commit suicide when Cybele changed him into a fir tree. Attis was worshipped every year in the spring as the god of resurrection. His festival lasted for five days, beginning with mourning for his death and ending with music and dancing to celebrate his new life.
While walking by the banks of the Sangarius river outside Gordion, Midas found a drunk who had been tied up by the local peasants and left lying on the ground. His name was Silenus and Midas took pity on him, untying him and caring for him. The legend says that the god Dionysus was so grateful to Midas for his kindness he offered Midas a wish. Midas asked that everything he touched would be turned into gold. His wish was granted, but he soon regretted his choice for even the food he ate turned to gold. Dionysus took pity on him and sent him to purify himself in the river Pactolus, which from then on flowed with gold dust. From this story have come two popular modern sayings: “the Midas touch” and “everything he or she touches turns to gold.”
Midas was less fortunate in his dealings with the god Apollo. Asked to choose between Apollo and Marsyas as to who played the lyre better, Midas voted against Apollo who promptly gave him a pair of ass‘s ears. Midas was forced to hide his ears under his Phrygian cap and only his barber knew his disgrace. The knowledge weighed heavily on the poor barber, who dug a hole in the ground and confessed his secret into the earth. Reeds grew on the spot and whenever the wind stirred, the people could hear the words “King Midas has ass‘s ears.”
Midas defended the eastern and western frontiers of Phrygia quite well, but could not resist the attacks of the Cimmerians advancing from the Caucasian region. After his defeat in 695 BC it is said that he committed suicide by drinking bull‘s blood.
Outside the walls of Gordion is the huge burial mound of King Midas 174 feet high and 984 feet wide. Fifty years ago, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UPM) began excavations here and in 1957 made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
A drilling rig was used to bore into the mound. About 40 metres below the top, the team broke into a chamber, 5 by 6 metres in area. The excavators then dug a horizontal trench into the side of the mound, tunnelling through a double wall of tree logs and timbers to reach the inner chamber, the earliest known intact wooden structure in the world. The large, almost square-shaped burial chamber is 20 feet long and 17 feet wide.
Inside, the excavators found a large bench, like a massive wooden bed with headboard, footboard, planks, rails, and four corner posts. A thick pile of dyed textiles covered the bed, and on top was a skeleton, laid out in state. An examination of the bones indicated the body was of a man aged 60- 65, and that he was quite short ˜ only about 5 feet.
Around him were other benches on which were various objects to be taken into the afterlife. There were 166 bronze objects on the floor. Apparently they had fallen off the nine tables in the tomb, or had been hung on the walls. At the head of the skeleton were 145 bronze cloak pins called fibulae. There were no gold objects, since it was not the custom among the Phrygians to present funerary gifts crafted from gold.
The tomb dated to about 700 BC, and because of its rich contents and a nearby palace complex of the same period, archaeologists concluded the tomb was of wealthy king. Since Assyrian records describe an upstart ruler named Mita or Midas, who controlled the people of Mushki (known as Phrygia by the Greeks), scholars concluded that this was the tomb of King Midas. The preservation of the organic materials, which generally degrade and rapidly disappear, was remarkable. Although the body of the king had disintegrated, patterns of purple, indigo blue and brown dyes were seen on the textile bedding when the tomb was first opened.
But when Midas died, he left no heir to rule in his stead. Once again, the people made the difficult trip to consult the Oracle at Delphi. They were told that he who unravelled the knot tied by Gordius would be their next ruler. But the knot was of unusual design and incredible complexity. Made of cornel bark, the ends were invisible, similar to a knot we call a “Turk‘s Head”.
The rulers who followed Midas all bore the name or title of either Midas or Gordius in an attempt to bolster their claim to throne. But in 547 BC Phrygia came under Persian rule when Cyrus conquered Gordion on his way to Lydia further east. Excavations have found the famous Royal Road of the Persians that ran past the city on its way from Susa to Sardis.
For centuries, people tried to untie the Gordian knot and claim rulership of Phrygia. Although many made the attempt, the knot remained fast, and the people began to despair. Yet again, they travelled to Delphi for a prophecy. The Oracle declared that the one who solved the knot would be the next ruler of all Asia. It was a prophecy known all over the ancient world, including Macedonia where lived the teenager who would become Alexander the Great.
In 336 BC Alexander became king of Macedonia, and eventually all of Greece. Early in 334 BC Alexander, with 32,000 men, crossed the Hellespont to begin the conquest of Asia. Many of the cities of western Anatolia simply surrendered. Those who resisted were conquered – after a siege Alexander captured Halicarnassus, the main Persian military base in south-western Anatolia. In the early spring of 333 BC he marched north to Phrygia on the central Anatolian plateau and arrived at Gordion. Alexander had not lost a battle and the oracles consistently foretold his victory over Persia and the forces of Asia. But Alexander wanted further reassurance.
His experience at Gordion was a propaganda coup. Around the city was a steep glacis of stepped stones about 10 metres high. On arrival, Alexander walked up the approach ramp and through the large gate flanked by square, stone towers. Inside was an inner courtyard surrounded by three stone halls, or megara, whose purpose is still unknown. Alexander continued on up to the acropolis, the upper city, to the temple.
Entering the temple courtyard, he saw the ancient cart and looked at the strange knot. The historian Arran who travelled with Alexander records that Alexander “stood silent in thought for a while, but he couldn‘t work out how to undo it.” What happened next is uncertain; some sources suggest that Alexander simply pulled out the pin that went through the knot. The more dramatic version of events says Alexander mumbled “It makes no difference how it is loosed,” then drew his sword and cut the knot through the middle.
Whatever happened, Alexander believed he had fulfilled the prophecy and that he would become master of Asia. That night a thunderstorm burst over the city and the omen was taken to mean that Zeus approved. Alexander marched south through the Cilician gates to Tarsus to meet Darius of Persia at the battle of Issus before going on to Egypt, Babylon, Persia and eventually India. He did become ruler of Asia until his death in Babylon at the age of 32.
As well as the tomb of Midas, there are a number of other graves around Gordion including the Hittite pithos burials, the great tumuli of the Phrygian kings and nobles, simple Lydian and Persian graves, Hellenistic chamber tombs, wooden coffins of the Roman period, and Byzantine cist graves.
Perhaps the strangest of all the graves at Gordion are those containing the remains of people wearing hobnail boots. Almost a third of the Roman period graves are of this type. Dating from the first to third century AD and common along the Roman frontiers of northern and eastern Europe, their appearance at Gordion is intriguing. Such graves have been found at military sites, and the excavators assumed that the boots indicated a Roman military garrison at Gordion. But the discovery of boots in the graves of women and children has forced a rethink.
One possibility is that retired soldiers settled at the site, and that the people simply adopted the custom of wearing the boots. The footgear may have been a symbol of social status. However, another explanation for the hobnail burials has recently emerged.
The city was refounded during the Augustan period, shortly after the province was annexed by Rome. The new city was carefully planned and splendidly built. High quality glass and ceramic objects were imported showing that the residents were wealthy enough to purchase such objects. By the end of the first century AD there were large peristyle houses, paved and colonnaded streets, and a basic sewage system. Gordion became a site of local importance, located along the major thoroughfare of military and commercial traffic from the west. It may have been a “statio”, or way post, established for the purpose of communication and local administration.
The author Seutonius says that Augustus founded a system of wayposts, and surviving mid-second century AD road itineraries indicate that one was near Gordion. A statio in the area would account for the introduction of the hobnail boots, as soldiers passed along the road towards one of the provincial capitals, or were perhaps temporarily stationed at this small rural community. In support of this theory is the recent discovery at Gordion of a grave stele of a Roman soldier. The soldier appears to have died while on duty – perhaps with his boots on.
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