Chapter 8

Funerary art and architecture: cemeteries, tombs and sarcophagi


The remains of the dead are frequently the first pointers found to the existence of an antique settlement nearby, and we might ponder why tombs seem to survive more frequently than settlements. We can probably dismiss the concept of respect for the dead - especially if we read those dire warnings on some ancient tombs against the looting or removal of remains (and sometimes against "multiple occupancy"), which demonstrate pithily enough that such practices must have been widespread. The key factor in the survival of cemeteries probably concerns the distinction between livable and non-livable land, with tombs usually placed in areas of little or no use for anything else. The standard placement along highways does not interfere with life, for tombs are de facto outside the livable area. At Elaiussa-Sebaste, the necropolis occupies limestone ridges above the city; small, flat areas do exist, but they are very stony indeed. And while a few of these are now used for crops, this would probably not have been necessary in Antiquity, when the city itself had not yet been more than 50% overtaken by the sand. Similarly at Selinus, near Gazipasha, the city itself was in the lush river plain, now crammed with greenhouses, with the main necropolis on the hillside to the east. The river has washed away most of the city, but the necropolis remains - again on land useful for little other than grazing goats; here the "Mausoleum of Trajan" is a multi-terraced complex, of which some of the marble decoration remains (23), together with a fine collection of goats and kids in the tomb itself. Other, smaller tombs are spaced out in rows along a whole series of terraces adjacent to the "Mausoleum", and backing onto the acropolis. Again, as at Elaiussa, small patches of crops are grown where possible.

To be added to the equation is the reuse of tomb materials by Byzantines and Turks. One example of the latter may stand for what was a very common practice indeed. Writing in 1555, Busbecq (the Ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire) remarks on the Turkish fondness for the re-use of marble slabs. Travelling from Constantinople to Ankara, In none of the villages through which we passed did we see anything at all noteworthy, except that in the Turkish cemeteries we often came upon columns and ancient slabs of fine marble, on which were remains of Greek and Latin inscriptions, but so mutilated as to be illegible [...] It is the custom of the Turks to fetch huge stones from a distance and use them for covering the tombs of their relatives, which would otherwise be exposed, for they do not fill them with earth (Forster 1927, 48). There seems no evidence here of respect for the past, only for the weighty material involved.


The first sign by which a Greek visitor would know he was approaching a city (at least if he travelled by a main road) would be a cemetery flanking the route, possibly from several kilometres distance. The roadsides would get more crowded as the city gate was approached. The more prestigious tombs would line the roadside so as to impress the visitor, and possibly hide the more humble ones behind them. The very poor, as always, would have no marker. The less poor would have an inscribed gravestone, perhaps with figures in bas-relief. These are no longer to be seen on site, but examples from the Greek period onward are to be found gathered in all museums.

But the rich would have a monumental tomb several metres high, perhaps cased in marble or decorated with statues and reliefs; these structures might be multi-chambered, to hold a whole family through several generations. The Romans carried on this Greek and Hellenistic tradition of the splendid tomb, indulging in ever more fancy designs, some of which are derived directly from Hellenistic Turkey. The word "mausoleum", of course, derives from the monumental tomb of King Mausolus of Caria in Halicarnassus.

Without normally indulging in the public display of monumental tombs, for they concentrated on the soul, the Christians also buried their dead outside the city boundary, and many of the most prestigious Early Christian churches were originally built over a necropolis, and connected with the cult of the sainted dead. St. Peter's on the Vatican Hill in Rome is a good example, and there are others along the main roads radiating from Rome.

Streets of tombs

Today there are few areas in the Mediterranean where we can see what such a classical necropolis or the approach to an antique city originally looked like, because population expansion, road widening, and the thirst for building stone all contributed early to the destruction of buildings which the inhabitants were unable to prevent, in spite of the frequency of dire warnings in their inscriptions, and a complex of penalties at law. Although the tombs cannot compete in magnificence with those along the Via Appia, or indeed those near the Dipylon Gate at Athens, there are many excellent examples of streets of tombs in Turkey. Especially complete complexes are to be found at Hierapolis (which has over 1,200 tombs) and, following recent excavations, at Assos (13) and also outside the triumphal arch at Patara. Tireless travellers with a taste for scenery would also make the frontal climb to visit Kyaneae, with its walls and cisterns, but especially its street of tombs (11) flanking what amounts to a rock-cut staircase street approaching the acropolis, and a crowded necropolis to the west, between the walls and the theatre (12). Or, on the south coast, the visitor would find many sarcophagi flanking what are now dirt tracks leading to Kanytelleis, with good and easy walking into the hinterland. Those with a boat would investigate the half submerged cemeteries in Lycia, as at Teimiussa, Kekova or Aperlai.


But no complex is as complete as that at Hierapolis. As its name suggests, this was a holy city, and one lavished with honorific architecture for the Roman Emperors - witness the splendid statuary lodged in the Roman baths, now the museum. To the north of the city Hierapolis has retained a street of tombs (SB7.1, 24) which extends for over a kilometre from the gate, and sometimes several ranks deep from the road. Although in the cemetery there are free-standing sarcophagi and some round tumuli, the main attraction is provided by large tomb-enclosures housing three or more vessels, and often flanked outside by sarcophagi, presumably placed there after the interior was full. Some have vessels on the roof as well. Unfortunately, all have been robbed a long time ago. While the majority of the sarcophagi along this road are of mediocre quality (the more so because they have lost any stucco decoration and/or paint they may once have had), some particularly splendid and large marble specimens are now displayed in the museum. This is appropriate, since the best vessels would always have been protected from the weather, having cost a great deal of money. Never as splendid as the Via Appia Antica outside Rome, Hierapolis gives a better impression of a large cemetery because, although the tombs have been visited by robbers, very large numbers not only of the structures but also of the vessels are still in place; only the tomb gates (presumably of bronze or iron) and any decorations have disappeared. Many of the tombs here were Christian, and there is at least one large Christian basilica, for the Apostle Philip was martyred here in 80 AD, and the faithful wished to be buried ad sanctos - as close as possible to the numinous dead.

On its plateau, Hierapolis preserves many of the monuments inside the city boundaries as well; these include a hot sacred spring and pool filled with column shafts; we may hope that the motel which has turned this into its (private) swimming pool will eventually be moved.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey