Sunday, May 1, 2011

King Midas of Gordion

A day trip to Gordion, the capital of Phrygia, 90 km west of Ankara.

The original settlement of Gordion dates back to the Bronze Age, but is best known as the capital of the Phrygians. The Phrygians were a Balkan people who reached Gordion from southeastern Europe. The Phrygians followed the collapse of the Hittites, and dominated western Anatolia from the 8th century BC to 700 BC. King Midas was their last ruler; he was reported to have committed suicide in 714 BC when the Cimmerians of what is now south Russia invaded Gordion. There's little left of the records of the brief flowering Phrygian Empire, excepting the myths associated with King Midas, the most important Phrygian king. Also, Phrygia was the first state west of the Euphrates to develop an alphabet. After the Cymmerians destroyed the Phrygian Empire, the city was occupied by the Lydians for a short spell, then the Persians, and in 333 BC, Alexander the Great wintered in Gordion during his great march eastwards. The legend of the Gordion knot comes from his stay.

 Here's the story:

An oracle foretold that a poor man would ride into Gordion by ox-cart and one day rule the Phrygians. As the king and his subjects were discussing this prediction, in rode a farmer named Midas. King Gordios, who had no sons, named Midas his successor and Midas' cart was placed in the temple where it would stand for half a millenium. Somehow the belief also arose that whoever untied the knot that fixed the cart to its yoke would become ruler of Asia. It was Alexander the Great who severed the Gordion Knot during his winter stay in Gordion. He did become ruler of Asia, but he also died at 33, and the superstitious thought his early death was a result of his severing that knot.

Today, there is a small town on the site of Gordion called Yassihuyuk. But, really, you're in the middle of nowhere.

First, we hit the museum. There was a plethora of pottery, brass fasteners, and figurines. Even gutter systems complete with decor. All these things are from peoples who have settled in this site from the Bronze Age onwards. I took pictures of the things that caught my eye, but what most interested me was the bottom line that human beings have always had a need for decorating and surrounding themselves with beauty.

Tumuli (large artificial hills of dirt covering tombs) dot the landscape around Gordion, the largest of which is called King Midas' Tumulus, although it has not been proven that he was actually buried there. Material found within the tomb suggests it possible that it was a later Phrygian king's tomb.

The tumulus is 300 meters in diameter and over 50 meters high. The burial chamber is at the end of a 60-meter tunnel bore by American archaeologists in the 1950s.

The actual tomb consists of gabled pine logs, the oldest wooden structure in Anatolia. The logs have been preserved under this mound of dirt since 725 BC.

I kept asking if tumuli were artificially created. Seems like a lot of work to move all that dirt, pre-bulldozer. But I guess it's like a small scale of the Egyptian pyramids. The tumuli were the first clue to archaeologists that people settled in this area. From a bird's eye view, the mounds look out of place geologically. Today, even the gophers of Gordion have caught on to the tumulus idea:

The other site worth visiting is the raised acropolis. You can walk around its perimeter and look down into the excavated site. This site was the heart of the city, home to the royal palace, temples and government buildings.

Remains of a huge Phrygian town gate, over 10 metres high, make the gate one of the biggest pre-Classical buildings in Anatolia:

At the heart of the palace are four megara, large halls with a kind of porch. One of these megara had a floor mosaic of geometrical patterns. These pieces were excavated and moved to the museum:

Overall, I was surprised to find the capital of the Phrygian Empire to be such a small city. It's hard to believe it once dominated western Anatolia. It's also hard to believe that a group of people, the Cimmerians or "Sea People," came all the way from what is now southern Russia to conquer this "empire." Considering all the empty land between them, like magnets these different people found each other in the high desert to dominate a region, not even out of vying for resources.

Now the fun part. The legends. King Midas. (It's so fun to stand in the "homes" of stories I read as a child in a far away land.) Several Phyrgian kings bore the name Midas, so over time emerged a composite mythical figure "King Midas." The best known story is that of King Midas and the Golden Touch. According to this legend, Midas captured the water demon, Silenus, after getting him drunk by pouring wine into his spring. In ransom for Silenus, Midas asked Dionysos for the ability to turn all he touched into gold. Dionysos granted him this wish, but Midas was dismayed to find that all he touched did turn to gold, including his daughter and his food. (Imagine getting what you wished for!) So he begged Dionysos to release him from the curse and Dionysos ordered Midas to wash his hands in the River Pactolus. The cure worked, and thereafter the river ran with gold.

The second famous Midas tale is this: Midas was asked to judge a musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas. Midas decided in favor of Marsyas and in revenge, Apollo caused Midas to grow donkey's ears and skinned Marsyas alive. Midas tried to hide his new appendages under a special hat, but could not hide his donkey ears from his barber who, desperate to tell someone the king's secret, whispered into the reeds by the river, "Midas has ass's ears." The river reeds whispered this gossip for ages. Unfortunately that river has since changed courses and no longer runs by the site of Gordion. However, I did videotape the grass on top of the acropolis. Tell me if you hear anything:

Some poetography from the day:

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