Life proceeds in a series of fits and starts, a lucky stroke here (or not), a series of fortunate events there (or not), a cavalcade of connections that reach a final happy result (or a humiliating end). So true is the summation model of life that its summum bonum, happiness, cannot be reckoned until life itself is over. Aristotle said as much.

His words echo through eternity. So too do the chittering of crickets and the calls of birds echo off the ruined limestone walls of Termessos.

What was a legendary city in antiquity now stands forever as a monument to the impermanence of fortune. Steadfast beyond reckoning, Termessos defeated even Alexander the Great when he wished to humble it during his march through Asia. Unable to raise his banners above the massive city walls, the great conqueror dubbed Termessos the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ out of admiration before marching north to sack other cities out of rage. Alexander’s successor, Antigonus Monopthalmos, was forced to fullfill his demands through painstaking negotiations rather than force of arms. The might of Rome was good for naught but negotiating an alliance. Borne upon the clouds and set amongst the stars, this mountain people, the progeny of the mythic hero Bellerophon, mentioned by Homer himself, one of the greatest offshoots of old Pisidia, must have been proud and fearsome indeed.

buried acanthus
Buried flowers, still burning bright. ©Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

The unlikeliness and length of their independence were extraordinary, and such an extreme could only have been exceeded by the farce that actually ended their mountainous reign. When an earthquake dried their wells and rendered their defensible city a picturesque tomb, they were forced to abandon their homes for any place that would take them. And so, while time has proceeded amongst the living, in Termessos, where the dead stones whisper, it ceased with the departure of its last inhabitants.

This explains the remarkable state of the city’s preservation. In the dappled twilight, the stones glow golden, showing the antiquity of their age where they have fallen and the timelessness of their construction where they have stood. Faded lions still snarl from their perches on the eaves of temples and from the tombs of heroes, whose once-proud names have been washed away by rain and snow. Trees sprouting and lichen growing have not dimmed the awe-inspiring architecture of the theatre, that cloud-born stage, that causeway of the gods. The stones seem alive with a thousand summers.

A ruined building at the head of the King’s Road in Termessos. ©Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

All of this is just a perception, of course. Stones are stones, and ruins are ruins. But by dint of the imagination, the ruins rise again, more beautiful than they were before. Through living eyes, they gain a new life in the agora of the mind’s eye long after they have fallen into disrepair or their people have perished, when even their names and their likenesses have faded like wall paintings on the stucco of a long-forgotten symposion.

The Termessians built their theater with a flair for the dramatic. The agora empties directly onto the top rows from one side, and on another, a dead drop into the valley below offers both unbelievable views of the coast and certain logistical problems: how did the actors enter the stage if they did have the ability to fly into it? After a days-long festival of drinking and drama, would not the people of Termessos fall off the edge to their deaths? It is impossible not to ponder when sitting upon the upper tier, looking into the abyss, and feeling the heavy limestone shift underneath your weight.

pillars erased
Some inscriptions can no longer be read. ©Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

To another side, a mountain wall cuts fast into the azure sky. The cavea – the circular arrangement of rows and seats – featured 24 tiers subdivided into an upper tier of eight rows and a lower tier of 16 by a diazoma in the center. Packing in up to 5,000 spectators, the richly adorned theater was once the focus for the civic life of the region. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the lost voices of antiquity may still be heard against the laughter and the tears of the crowd, now as then.

Walking through the woods that now inhabit these grand structures is to experience wonder and majesty filtered through the prism of 2,000 years. As Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a major influence in the early days of Neoclassicism, once said, “[We] find not only nature at its most beautiful, but also something beyond nature. Namely, certain ideal forms of its beauty, which, as an ancient interpreter of Plato tells us, come from images created by the mind alone.” The ruins become imbued less with their original significance and more with the superimposed images of our own minds, times, and places. The song and the beauty are resurrected anew and die anew with each viewer.

The majestic theater. ©Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

And so it is with the other ruins of this great mountain city. Attalos II of Pergamon built the two-story stoa to the northwest of the agora as a token of friendship to the citizens of Termessos, with whom he had entered into an alliance. Nearby, five cisterns, some so deep it is difficult to see the bottom even in broad daylight, testify to the size of the population and the difficulty of living so far above the valley floor. Although the agora features more weeds than merchants now, its size indicates its centrality. All one needs to do is close the eyes, and the clamor of commerce, play, and politics sounds again from the soil.

Amongst these ruined ephemera of a civilization long dead, we confront the reality of tumble-down stones and perceive the idea of what they were, or could have been. With the ruin, we cut through its construction, its end, its life through four seasons and a thousand years, and the imagination ranges where the eye fails. “When I was here last, there was so much fog on the stage you couldn’t see from one side to another,” Stefaan Poortman, Global Heritage Fund’s Executive Director, remembers. “It was as if the darkness descended in the middle of the day. Beautiful, but sad.”