Termessos was one of only two cities in all of Asia Minor that Alexander the Great could not conquer, and it’s not hard to tell why. Alexander himself called Termessos the Eagle’s Nest due to its mountaintop location. Many ancient cities, inside Turkey and out, were near the sea, so Termessos’s location alone makes it unforgettable.
There have been no excavations carried out in Termessos, only surface surveys, so much of its history remains a mystery. Little is known about the founding of Termessos or its early inhabitants. The first mention of Termessos was by Homer in the Iliad when Bellerophon (the rider of Pegasus and killer of the Chimera) was commissioned by the king of Lycia to conquer Termessos. The city is first mentioned in historical documents when Alexander tried, and failed, to besiege and conquer the city in 334 BC, really giving up before even trying due to its fortifications. The city enjoyed much prosperity during the Hellenistic Age.
Perhaps the most famous story about Termessos takes place after the death of Alexander. His generals split up his kingdom, and Antigonos declared himself ruler of Asia Minor. He waged war with another of Alexander’s generals, Alcetas, who was also vying for authority in the region. After being defeated at Pisidia, Alcetas retreated to the city of Termessos and sought refuge. The city agreed to take him in and protect. When Antigonos heard of this, he came and camped outside the city and demanded his rival be given over. The city elders did not want to be dragged into the conflict and bring harm upon their city, so they decided to hand Alcetas over. The youth of the city did not want to break their vow and refused to go along with the plan, crafting a secret plan to leave the city and continue the fight. The elders sent an envoy to inform Antigonos of their intent to surrender Alcetas. When he learned of his imminent doom, Alcetas committed suicide, preferring death to being handed over to his enemy. The elders delivered his corpse to Antigonos, and his soldiers committed all kinds of abuse to it for 3 days, then left him unburied. The youth of the city recovered his body and buried him with full honors in a monumental tomb they built in his honor that still stands today.
The city continued to prosper into the Roman period and was acknowledged by the Senate as a “friend and ally” of Rome. The city retained a high level of autonomy and was granted the right to formulate its own laws. The city continued to thrive during the Christian age, became a bishopric. An earthquake destroyed the the aqueduct in an unknown year, and the city was abandoned by the 5th Century. The city fell into obscurity and was forgotten until it was discovered by explorers in the 19th Century.
The King’s Road, leading up to the site.
The upper city walls.
What to See
An ornamental tomb.
The theater is easily the most famous part of Termessos, and for good reason. The backdrop of the city is a soaring mountain. On a clear day, you can see the sea from the top of the theater.
Before hiking up to the main part of the ruins, you can visit the ruins of the Temple of Artemis and the northeastern necropolis (cemetery) with numerous ornately decorated sarcophagi (tombs). Both are certainly worth visiting. Be sure to follow the path into the trees if you want to see the whole area.
On the path to the main ruins, you’ll pass the lower walls and the gymnasium/baths. We love exploring the gymnasium/bath and call them “Narnia” because they remind us of the ruins of the castle Cair Paravel in the Prince Caspian movie. From the baths, you can see the upper city walls. Above the city walls is the main part of the city. Stay to the left, and this will take you to the theater and main agora of the city. The theater is clearly marked and easy to find. Near the theater, you’ll find a Corinthian Temple, bouleuterion (city council building), heroon (a shrine dedicated to a hero), several cisterns, and an unidentified building…this is really what it’s labelled!
When you head down from the theater area, you’ll end up at the southern necropolis right along the upper walls. Here you’ll find Alcetas’s tomb and other tombs carved into the cliff. To reach the tombs in the cliff, you have to head back down the mountain a bit. If you keep heading down this trail, it will eventually lead you back to the parking lot via the Temple of Artemis
The Temple of Artemis with Hadrian’s Gate, looking particularly ominous as the clouds roll in on top of the mountain.
Why We Love It
The best thing about Termessos is its setting in the mountains. Visiting Termessos isn’t just visiting an ancient city, it’s a day in nature. The drive up to the hiking trail winds up through the forested mountain and is quite beautiful. We love getting to hike through the ruins in the midst of nature. While excavations are great for learning more about ancient civilizations, the lack of any excavations at Termessos gives it a feeling of being undisturbed. It’s the same as it was when it was destroyed by an earthquake over 1,500 years ago. For some reason, despite its proximity to Antalya, Termessos doesn’t get very many tourists, so we love the lack of crowds. We love the history – visiting a place the Alexander the Great couldn’t even enter. We love the tombs carved right into the rocks. And the theater…man do we love the theater and its views!
The Lion Tomb.