Some years ago I toured the Seven Churches of Asia, the seven churches referred to in the first three chapters of St John’s Apocalypse. Ephesus and Pergamon are the jewels in the series; extensive ruins that have been well excavated and restored, enabling us to recreate the life that went on there in ancient times. Smyrna is buried beneath the modern town and, despite a marvellous museum, preserves little from Roman times. Laodicea, though completely ruined, has hardly been excavated at all and only weed-filled depressions in the ground mark the theatre and hippodrome of this once flourishing city. Philadelphia and Thyatira are unimportant provincial towns whose modern houses are largely built from the ruins of their predecessors.
The city which surprised me most was Sardis. I approached it from the north and was astonished to discover a series of huge burial mounds standing on the open plain about 4 miles north of the city. Three of the mounds at the eastern end of this cemetery are larger than all the rest and are believed to mark royal burials. One may be the burial of Gyges and another that of Alyattes, his grandson.
Beyond the mounds I came to the Salihli highway, which runs between Smyrna and Ankara, and turned right. A short distance along I noticed ruins on the right and stopped to investigate. They turned out to be a magnificent gymnasium, built about 166 AD and renovated fifty years later when a facade of columns and arches was erected. The floor, paved with smooth marble slabs, was used for all sorts of exercises, including wrestling and work with weights. At the rear of the gymnasium was a large pool where athletes could practise swimming – or cool off after their exertions in the rest of the gymnasium.
Beside the gymnasium was a large synagogue, built with marble slabs and pillars, decorated with a mosaic floor and adorned with many inscriptions and Jewish symbols, including a marble menorah. The thresholds to the doors are badly worn, indicating that the building saw heavy use. The Jewish community in Sardis has been estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000, which was a substantial portion of the total population of the city.
The synagogue was built early in the third century AD, remodelled in the fourth century, continued in use through the fifth but showed signs of neglect in the sixth. Like everything else, it was destroyed in the Persian raid. Along the south wall are a number of Byzantine shops, one of which belonged to someone with the name of Sabbatos, a name which is likely to belong to a Jew or a proselyte. Another shop is identified as belonging to Jacob, an elder of the synagogue.
A little further along the highway a sign pointed left to the Temple of Artemis. This was the first part of the ancient city to be excavated, for the capitals of two massive pillars stood almost at ground level, marking the site of an important building. Clearing it must have been heart-breaking work, for the temple was hidden beneath fifty feet of mud washed down from the Tmolus Range that towers above it. Although no expense was spared in the construction of the building, the good burghers of Sardis were clearly a parsimonious lot, for the sanctuary is a double one. Two more or less identical cella stand back to back, one dedicated to the goddess Artemis and the other to the cult of the divine Caesar of Rome!
Although built between 300 BC and 150 AD, a time when the pax Romana brought peace and prosperity to the region, the temple was never finished and several of the column bases retain the lugs that were used for hoisting them into position and which were intended to be chiselled away. Indeed, several of these lugs still have the mason’s marks showing where the chiselling was to be done, but for some reason the pillars were never properly finished off.
Just behind the magnificent temple is a much smaller building made of bricks and roughly cut small stones – the Christian church in Sardis, built around 350 AD. At one time I worshipped in a small chapel immediately behind the abbey in one of Britain’s cathedral cities. Even the members of the chapel humourously referred to it as “the abbey bicycle shed”. The Sardis church members no doubt referred to their own building as “the temple bicycle shed”, yet their unimportant sect was one day to inherit the ruins of the massive temple.
Immediately below the temple and lining the almost dry streambed of the Pactolus River is a tangle of ruined buildings with small, cramped rooms. Mean little doorways give onto the narrow alleys that run between the buildings. Yet despite its unimpressive appearance, these buildings were once the powerhouse of the city – indeed, of the state – for these are the gold smelters and refineries of Sardis.
The sand and gravel in the bed of the Pactolus River was at one time rich in gold dust, no doubt washed down from some reef high in the hills behind the city. Lydian workmen panned for the gold and it was smelted in the buildings that line the banks of the river. So much gold was recovered that Croesus, king of Sardis, became known as the richest man in the world. Herodotus records an amusing tale concerning his wealth. A certain Alcmaeon proved very helpful when Croesus needed to consult the Delphic oracle and so Croesus invited him to Sardis and as a reward took him into the treasury and told him that he could keep as much gold as he could carry away. Alcmaeon thanked the king and asked to be allowed to collect his reward the following day.
“The next day he clothed himself in a loose tunic, which he tucked under his girdle in such a way that it bagged badly around his waist. He then put on the largest boots he could find anywhere and went up to the treasury. Here he found a pile of gold-dust and poured as much as he could into his boots. After that he filled the bulge in his tunic with the gold-dust, sprinkled it into his hair and finally crammed as much as he could into his mouth and his two hands. He finally emerged from the treasury scarcely able to drag his legs along, with his mouth crammed full and looking as if he were pregnant. On seeing him Croesus burst out laughing and not only let him have all that he had taken but gave him presents of equal worth as well.”
As philosophers have often remarked, gold is of little worth in its own right: you can’t eat the stuff! Although Sardis was awash with the stuff, the problem lay in how to use it for the good of the state and it was a Lydian king, Gyges, who came up with the idea of forming it into little lumps authenticated with the mark of the royal treasury and using these lumps as a medium of exchange to facilitate trade. Thus were coins born and a money economy initiated.
Unfortunately, Lydian gold was of variable quality, for mixed with the golden grains were quantities of silver. Indeed, the first coins were made of electrum, for the simple reason that no one knew how to separate the less precious metal from the gold. Eventually, however, the secret was discovered and excavations of these workshops by the Harvard-Cornell Archaeological Exploration of Sardis team were able to reveal it to us.
Outside the smelters was a rubbish heap onto which quantities of slag, broken pottery and other detritus had been thrown. This heap was cleared with as great care as the workshops and among the sherds of pottery was found one piece which, on close examination, proved to have specks of gold clinging to its inner surface. There were also gleaming white crystals which, when analysed, proved to be ordinary salt. The body of the sherd, being porous, was found to have absorbed large quantities of silver chloride.
These facts set the chemists thinking and eventually they were able to work out the probable sequence of events which involved all these elements and which produced pure gold in the end. Alternate layers of gold dust and damp salt were placed in the vessel, which was then sealed and heated to around 750°C. The salt reacted with water vapour to produce, among other things, chlorine gas. This, in turn, reacted with iron salts present in the clay of the pot to produce ferric chloride and this attacked the silver present in the gold. The silver chloride thus produced evaporated through the porous sides of the clay pot until finally you were left with virtually pure gold containing only 2% silver.
Ancient authors indicate that the process was a lengthy one. Agatharchides, a Greek author who left us a confusing and incomplete account of the process, nevertheless states that the process took five days and five nights, which is probably about right.
Unfortunately the gold reef which was eroded by the Pactolus River seems to have been completely worn away. The sands in the creek bed are dull and lifeless, without the gleam of gold to enliven them. The mighty citadel which once crowned the summit of Mt Tmolus is shattered and fallen. The busy workshops lie in ruins. Sic transit gloria mundi.
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