Situated more than 1000m above sea level, the ancient site of Termessos, 30km northwest of Antalya, is one of Turkey’s prime attractions. Its dramatic setting and well-preserved ruins, tumbling from the summit of the mountain and enclosed within a national park – Güllük Dağ Milli Parkı – merit at least an afternoon of exploration.

Despite its close proximity to Lycia, Termessos was actually a Pisidian city, inhabited by the same warlike tribe who settled in the Anatolian Lakeland, around Isparta and Eğirdir, during the first millennium BC. The city’s position, commanding the road from the Mediterranean to the Aegean, enabled Termessians to extract customs dues from traders; a wall across the valley is believed to be the site of their customs post. Later, in 70 BC, Termessos signed a treaty with Rome, under which their independence was preserved – a fact the Termessians proudly expressed by never including the face or name of a Roman emperor on their coinage. The city must have been abandoned quite early, probably after earthquake damage in 243 AD, and has only been surveyed, never excavated.

The site

A thorough exploration of the ancient site can be quite strenuous; steep climbs are necessary to reach many of the key sights. Bring sturdy footwear and lots of water – there’s nowhere to buy supplies beyond the park entrance – and time summer visits to avoid the midday sun. After checking the site map at the car park you’ll need to climb a good fifteen minutes to reach the first remains of any interest. On the way, you pass a number of well-labelled, though mainly inaccessible, ruins, including the aqueduct and cistern high on the cliff face to the left of the path.

The King’s Road and city walls

The second-century AD King’s Road was the main road up to Termessos, close to which the massive lower and upper city walls testify to a substantial defence system. The central part of the city lies beyond the second wall, to the left of the path. Its surviving buildings, formed of square-cut grey stone, are in an excellent state of repair, their walls standing high and retaining their original mouldings. In part, this is due to the inaccessibility of the site; it’s hard to imagine even the most desperate forager coming up here to pillage stone.

Gymnasium and theatre

While the first building you come to once you pass through Termessos’ mighty walls is the well-preserved gymnasium and bath complex, this is far overshadowed by the nearby theatre. One of the most magnificently situated in Turkey, it’s set on the edge of a steep gorge, with a backdrop of staggered mountains. Greek in style, it had seating space for 4200 spectators, and although some seats are missing, it’s otherwise in an excellent state of preservation.

The agora, Corinthian temple and odeon

At the far end of the open grassy space of the agora, west of the theatre, a Corinthian temple is approached up a broad flight of steps, with a six-metre-square platform. The smaller theatre or Odeon on the far side of the agora was, according to inscriptions, used for horse and foot races, races in armour, and, more frequently, wrestling. The walls of the building rise to almost 10m, surrounded by four temples. Only one – that of Zeus Solymeus, god of war and guardian of the city of Termessos – is in a decent state of repair.

The necropolis

Uphill from the Odeon, Termessos’ necropolis holds an incredible number of sarcophagi dating from the first to the third centuries AD. Most are simple structures on a base, though some more elaborate ones were carved from the living rock, with inscriptions and reliefs.

Tomb of Alcatus

Set in a dramatic mountaintop location, the so-called Tomb of Alcatus is widely accepted as the mausoleum of the general, a pretender to the governorship of Pisidia. The tomb itself is cave-like and undistinguished, but the carvings on its facade are remarkable, particularly one depicting a mounted soldier, with a suit of armour, a helmet, a shield and a sword – the armour of a foot soldier – depicted lower down to the right of the figure.