Selge once housed tens of thousands. It was a city that had fiercely guarded its independence from the time of Alexander the Great – to the marauding Goths just before the fall of Rome. Yet Selge, unlike the nearby ancient cities such as Perge and Side, lies almost untouched by archaeologists and only a few tourists have visited. Consequently, I find it an idyllic place – of the type that might have confronted a pioneering adventurer many centuries ago. I had to visit.
What was the highlight?
The Köprülü Valley provides some stunning scenery; the road a churning stomach – there is no passage for tourist coaches here. Perched above the modern village of Zerk lie Selge’s ruined walls and terraces, all framed by mountains, fields and blue sky.
However, it was the theatre that was the ultimate highlight. I was travelling with David Stuttard, a classical scholar acclaimed for his translations, adaptations and productions of Greek plays. Sometimes David produces plays within ancient theatres. Thus, visiting theatres with David is no ordinary experience: he is able to explain how each differs – even though to the novice ancient theatres in the Mediterranean can all appear the same – and how each would have provided both opportunities and challenges for the ancient director.
We observed how it has an almost perfectly preserved cavea for about 9,000 people, although rain water has recently damaged the upper tiers. A few decades ago, lightening (possibly Zeus late for an ancient cue of deus ex machina?) destroyed what must once have been an incredible stage building. Now, the rubble stands about 30 feet high. Despite this, we gained a privileged insight to how the theatres in some of the nearby sites might have looked before their more recent ‘tourist-friendly’ reconstructions. In addition, our little group (including my wife Fiona, and David’s partner E J Birtwell) found ourselves to be the only visitors that day. Delightful.
What other parts of the site are worth a visit?
Among the numerous ruined structures, the most striking elements were two temples, built for Zeus and, possibly, Artemis. They were probably destroyed by earthquakes in late antiquity and after. Today, they are represented by neat piles of spolia, column drums, bases, capitals and wall-stone, all still sitting where they fell like an upturned box of Lego. Further along the ridge, we made out the ruins of a stoa (a covered walkway), an agora, a Christian basilica, and city walls snaking around the mountainside.
Clearly this was a mighty site, what happened?
Yes – what happened here? This was a city that could put 20,000 soldiers into the field, pay out 700 talents of silver and mint a large number of coins, but is today so utterly deserted, bar a few farmhouses. We know it made itself rich from olives, wine and storax gum – we have records of Strabo lauding its orchards, pastures and forests. It must have followed the decline that befell many other Mediterranean cities in late antiquity, possibly the result of major earthquake damage, environmental change, and a reduction in trading and economic activity after the Sassanian wars and Islamic incursions of the 7th century AD. Indeed, Selge probably succumbed as a major centre in the 7th century AD. For me, the joy of Selge is not only its magnificent ‘untouched’ remains, but also its unanswered questions – questions that we are beginning to answer through a study of other sites from this period and region.
What should readers and archaeologists do?
Visit Selge, enjoy its ruins and solitude, and leave it as found. This is a site that I hope is left in its current, unrestored state. Quite simply, Selge is resplendent in its beauty and isolation.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 28. Click here to subscribe