Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.
(Sir Thomas Browne – Urne Burial)
6km eastward along the Mersin-Antalya coastal road, beyond the great Seljuk-Crusader fortress of Anamur, stand the ruins of Anemurium. It is one of the most impressive ancient cities of the mountainous Silicia region of modern-day Turkey, and yet it was only discovered accidentally in the 19th century.
It’s a lovely sight, with the slopes of the surrounding mountains rising on almost every side and the deep blue of the Mediterranean receding to a crystal-clear horizon in the south. From the harbour of the ancient city the land rises with a low, sweeping gradient from the ruins, still half-encircled by their crumbling protective walls, and there’s barely another soul in sight. Only the noisy but invisible cicadas saw away at their immemorial and monotonous yet strangely comforting song in the heat of high noon.
There are several good reasons why people should have chosen to settle here in ancient times. 8km of fertile plain stretches from this sandy coastline to the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, and the winds are cool and soothing. Still today, in the sweltering heat of mid-August, when the stones are too hot to touch and the desiccated scrub seems ready to burst spontaneously into flames, the cooling breeze off the sea is a gift from heaven.
The English meteorologist Captain Francis Beaufort stumbled upon Anemurium during one of his numerous coastal explorations in the early 19th century. Actual excavation didn’t begin until 1960, when Elizabeth Alfoldi of Toronto University started digging and restoring in the region and the work is still going on. It’s a vast site, but there’s now a tidy road winding through the ruins to the seashore and most of the major structures are indicated by signs in Turkish and English.
Anemurium is the perfect spot to contemplate the transience of life and the vanity of human endeavour. After a day spent here in navel-gazing self-absorption, the crowds and noise of the popular coastal resorts of Alanya, Side and Manavgat farther west along the coast come as a welcome reality check.
Or perhaps reality is more like the cicadas, omnipresent but ungraspable. The choice between the discos and shops of modern towns on the one hand and the lizards, snakes and ghosts of ancient ones like Anemurium on the other is a difficult one, and I often find myself oscillating between the two in Turkey. ‘Who is alive and who is dead?’ asks Wagner in his autobiography. ‘I myself have already died many times.’ You see what places like Anemurium can do to your head if you let them?
And like any city of the dead, from Highgate cemetery to the Roman catacombs, it’s the necropolis at Anamurium that most poignantly evokes the spirits of the people who once lived here.
As London is one vast graveyard, with a thin veneer of life clinging like moss to its surface, so the once-thriving city of Anamurium fed its own burial ground over the centuries. Eventually, the whole of its population relocated here and the city of the living was left empty and allowed to slowly decay. Because there were no settlements in this area during the Middle Ages, and no villages established in the ruins, the city and its necropolis have stood unmolested by human development to this day.
The tombs here were used continuously from the 1st through to the 4th centuries AD, and the later tombs are decorated with what were once brilliantly-coloured frescoes and mosaics, the dim remains of which can still be seen. In five of them the floor mosaics are still in a very good state of preservation.
The walls would have been first covered with a thin slip of mortar, and a layer of plaster then added to take the designs. Geometric patterns were outlined on the plaster whilst it was still wet, the more artistic details then being added in with a brush. Green, red, yellow, blue and black were the favoured colours, used to imitate marble, flowers, vine leaves, amphorae and octagons. Birds such as peacocks, human heads, servants and images of the imagined afterlife are also to be seen, as well as renditions of the ships which plied these waters and representations of popular gods such as Eros.
The floor mosaics feature naked women, Medusa heads, fish, birds and a whole shed load of other exotic and fabulous beasts. The wealth of descriptive art is incredible and pretty much unique, matched only by that in the strangely phallic landscape of Cappadocia, and unrivalled by any other Anatolian necropolis of any period.
The distant past seems so close here that you can almost touch it. But never quite.