Termessos & the Minnows that resisted Alexander the Great

Posted 14th November 2019 by David McGuinness

Termessos: Resisting Alexander The Great

Few people were able to resist the might of Alexander The Great's armies, even fewer when they were at the height of their powers. But the hitherto unknown Pisidian people of Termessos did just that in 333 BC - though the story has largely been forgotten. 

Just a few hours North of Antalya, Termessos' relatively remote location protected it from the sea peoples - pirates of antiquity - that marauded much of the coastline of Asia Minor for centuries. But in 333 BC they were met with a force never before seen in these parts, or anywhere else for that matter. It was crunch time for the Pisidians of Termessos!

We start the climb that, back in 333 BC, defeated the mightiest army in the world, and today does the same to the armies of tourists that can be found at many of Turkey's other archaeological sites. The narrow pathway up the mountainside snakes through the lush, almost exuberant foliage. With a single narrow track it is easy to see how a determined defender would take some displacing and how a large army would nonetheless need to attack in single or at most double file, paralysing any numerical superiority and serving up and easy stream of targets for unseen defenders with gravity on their side. 

The Pisidians were no shrinking violets either and they knew their terrain well, making Termessos an unattractive target - so much so that even its mighty Hellenistic would-be conquerors soon thought better of it, and instead moved onto the nearby mountain fortress of Sagalassos and vented their frustrations and fury on the unfortunate inhabitants there.

A half hour gentle climb later and we find ourselves in a spectacular site, reminiscent of Vietnam and Cambodia's jungle temples - sublime stone carvings with nature pushing in from every corner. And silence - but for a gentle breeze in the trees, and birdsong. The scene is truly majestic and I have to catch my breath. 

The theatre is the most dramatic of any of the scores I have seen on this trip, set on the mountainside and looking out across the adjacent mountains - sometimes all the way to Antalya on a clear day. And best of all, we are alone. Not a single other tourist in the whole of Termessos!

We clamber over the ancient seats, onto the stage, and enjoy the adulation of our imaginary audience. The wind murmurs its approval and the birds whistle. The word evocative was crafted for this place. 

The site is large and we wander at leisure, exploring its nooks and crannies - the gymnasium and baths, the bouleuterion (a sort of local council building) and vast water cisterns. Tijen, my guide, explained that though the Pisidians were best known as a fierce and warlike people, their society was quite advanced too. Their water storage and sewage systems were well developed and they seem to have been a well organised and cultured people, their society and culture having been allowed to flourish over time in their protected haven in the mountains.

Their reputation as being staunchly independent was reinforced when they were invited to join the powerful Lycian league, but rebuffed their advances as they had previously when Rome tried to entice them into their sphere.

However it was not to last. But it was not an army or any human force that defeated the inhabitants of Termessos. A huge earthquake caused the water cisterns to be damaged beyond repair, the drainage system too, and before long plague caused those who survived to take their chances elsewhere and Termessos fell into decay sometime in the 5th century.

Lower down we explore the beautiful ruins of the Artemis temple and see the first tourists of the day - but ones and twos - too few to disturb the peace or break the spell. Everyone has a smile on their face.


Archaeology of Western Turkey Tour​ Our Archaeology of Western Turkey tour (linked below) visits Termessos as well as many other fascinating archaeology sites in Western Turkey.

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