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The Ancient City of Sardis and the Lydian Tumuli of Bin Tepe

Date of Submission: 15/04/2013
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Délégation Permanente de Turquie auprès de l'UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Province of Manisa, District of Salihli, Village of Sart
Ref.: 5829

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


N 38 28 55  E 28 2 43 (Sardis) 

N 3834 48  E 28 00 25 (Bintepe)

The Ancient City of Sardis

The ancient city of Sardis is located in Manisa Province in western Turkey, near the modern town of Sart. It lies at the foot of the Bozdağ Mountains and at the edge of the fertile plain of the Gediz River. This broad valley has been one of the major routes from the Aegean to central Anatolia for most of recorded history.

Sardis occupied a strategic location and drew on the fertile agricultural land of the plain, the timber and mineral resources of the mountains, the natural defenses of its impregnable citadel, fresh water from streams, springs, and lakes, trade from the coast to the interior, and gold from some of the richest sources in antiquity.

The city is dominated by the ancient acropolis, which rises 300 meters above the surrounding plain, “the strongest place in the world” according to Polybius (9.20.12). The Pactolus stream (modern Sart Çayı) runs by the base of the citadel, and was famous in antiquity for its alluvial gold, making the Iron Age Lydians the wealthiest people in the world. The lower city within the Roman fortification walls covers some 127 hectares, and the citadel, major suburban sanctuaries, habitation and industrial areas, and cemeteries extend at least another 100 hectares outside the city walls. The site was occupied from the Late Bronze Age until the modern era, although it ceased to be a major urban center in the early seventh century AD.

As the capital city of the Lydians, a native Iron Age Anatolian people, Sardis came to rule an empire that encompassed most of western Anatolia in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Lydian Sardis was conquered by the Persians in 547 BC, and became the seat of one of the most important satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander the Great captured the city in 330 BC, and although he “restored their former customs,” the Lydian and Persian royal capital was gradually converted to a Greek polis, with Greek institutions such as the council house, theater, gymnasium, and the famous temple of Artemis, the fourth largest Ionic temple in the ancient world. Under Roman rule, Sardis continued to flourish, although it never gained the stature it had had under the Lydians. It housed magnificent colonnaded avenues, monumental imperial baths, important temples of the Imperial cult, and an arms factory. It is during this period that the citizens of the city built the largest synagogue known in the ancient world. During the fourth century, Sardis became an important Christian center, the site of one of the Seven Churches of Asia. By the close of the sixth century AD, Sardis constituted a city with a very rich heritage, the ancestral home of Lydians, the birthplace of coinage, the location of the Temple of Artemis, and a community that supported Jewish and Christian faiths. A Lydian industrial sector outside the city walls, which preserves the earliest evidence in the world for the refining of electrum into pure gold and silver, the Lydian fortification, which enclosed the city with a massive defense 20 m wide at the base and preserved up to 10 m high, larger than any other defense work in Anatolia, well-preserved Lydian houses, late Roman houses, natural terraces, the Acropolis with Lydian architectural remains and major Byzantine fortifications, the Temple of Artemis, the fourth largest Iconic temple in the world, a Roman Bath-Gymnasium complex with its monumental columned Marble Court, a Sanctuary of the Roman Imperial cult, The adjacent theater and stadium, the Synagogue, the largest in the ancient world, a small chapel, the Byzantine Shops, burial tombs are the major buildings and building complexes of the ancient Sardis.

The Lydian Tumuli of Bin Tepe

The elite Lydian tumuluscemeteryofBin Tepelies around the southern edge of theMarmaraLake. These tumuli are the most conspicuous ancient landmarks ofLydia, visible from afar and marking the region as a place of peculiar, haunting significance. Covering some 74 square kilometers, Bin Tepe is the largest tumulus cemetery inTurkey. Today about 115 tumuli survive in Bin Tepe. The largest is the tumulus of Alyattes, king ofSardisfrom about 610-560 BC.355 min diameter and63 mhigh, this tumulus is among the largest tumuli in the world; its marble chamber was explored in the nineteenth century. Two other colossal mounds dominate the landscape; one, Karnıyarık Tepe, has been the subject of archaeological investigation intermittently since 1962, and a number of smaller tumuli and other sites have been partially excavated since that time. The Lydian tumuli of Bin Tepe are testament to the prominence of this landscape in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.  Despite its most famous and halting mounded appearance, Bin Tepe was more than just a tumulus cemetery of the Lydian period, with both much earlier and much later remains attesting the continuity of its cultural significance. Bin Tepe was tightly connected toSardisas its royal cemetery. A Middle Paleolithic site, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age settlements or cemeteries, the tumulus of Lydian king Alyattes, two other colossal Lydian tumuli, 115 or so additional, smaller tumuli, Several settlements of the Lydian, Hellenistic, Roman, late Medieval, and Ottoman periods are major monuments and sites of Bin Tepe.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Sardis holds a unique place in the history of Greece and the Near East. As tradesmen, patrons and conquerors, the Lydians played a vital role in the cultural interchanges between Greece and the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Near East. The Greeks came to see this familiar yet foreign culture as the prototypical “other:” wealthy, generous, economically and militarily dominant, but also ostentatious, vain, and sexually perverse; and they developed their own independent western identity in part as distinct from such Oriental absolutists. The devastating fall of Sardis to the Persians in 547 BC only demonstrated again that gold does not guarantee happiness, a theme explored in Herodotus’ Histories. The Lydians thus played a pivotal role in the development of the divide between “west” and “east,” a divide that may have begun even earlier in the Bronze Age and yet still haunts us today.

The archaeological site of Sardis documents this unique position. Although Sardis is mentioned frequently by Classical authors, we have very few written documents from the Lydians themselves; this makes the archaeological remains all the more important. The monumental Lydian fortification, unparalleled outside Mesopotamia, might reflect the Lydian kings’ aspirations to build a city worthy of the great Near Eastern capitals such as Nineveh or Babylon. The palace reflects an institution entirely foreign to the Greeks. The Lydian gold atelier attests the earliest known separation of electrum into pure gold and silver, and the extraordinary wealth of the city.

The later buildings of Sardis demonstrate the continuing importance of the city. Its magnificent Hellenistic temple aimed to place the city among the great Ionian Metropoleis of Ephesus, Samos, and Miletus. Churches, synagogue, temples and dedications to local Anatolian, Greek, and Roman deities attest the polytheistic nature of the city throughout its history, while the inscriptions in a multitude of languages — Lydian, Carian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and at least one completely unknown script — demonstrate the multiethnic nature of Sardian society. Houses from the Lydian through the Late Roman period form a unique record of the cultural adaptations and changes.

The royal cemetery of Bin Tepe remains one of the most distinctive and evocative landscapes in Turkey. Its monumental tumuli proclaim and demonstrate the royal power of Sardis as did the pyramids of Egypt or the Eastern Qing tombs of China, and the vast necropolis that grew up around these royal graves is among the largest in the world. Although most famous for the tumuli, the region is the home of a major, newly-discovered Bronze Age kingdom contemporary with the Mycenaean Greeks, the Trojans, and the Hittites, with a network of pristine ancient sites dating to the second millennium BC, and of occupation sites dating from the Paleolithic through the modern era. The already-ancient kingdom was perhaps a landscape of memory for the Lydians a thousand years later, just as Sardis remained a landscape of memory for later generations in the Hellenistic, Roman, and later eras.

Criterion (i):Sardis was one of the preeminent cities of the ancient world, the capital of an empire that ruled western Anatolia, the birthplace of coinage, and the home of Croesus, whose name became synonymous with unimaginable wealth. The city was an unusual example of urban planning, the steep natural landscape monumentalized and regularized by rhythmic, crisply built terraces that anticipated the layout of Hellenistic Pergamon, and ringed by the largest fortification outside Mesopotamia. Sardis houses one of the largest Ionic temples in the world, arguably the most picturesque Ionic temple surviving today. Its well-preserved Roman buildings include a monumental bath-gymnasium building and the largest synagogue of the ancient world. The Lydian tumulus cemetery at Bin Tepe is the site of some of the largest tumuli in the world, rivaling the pyramids of Giza for sheer monumentality.

Criterion (ii): Located at the border between the Greek world and the great civilizations of central Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Near East, Sardis had strong ties to both Eastern and Western cultural traditions. Throughout its long history it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual area of fruitful cultural interchange. The Lydians made significant contributions to the development of ancient monumental architecture, town planning, and the minor arts. The lower city was ranged along the steep slopes and natural terraces north of the acropolis. The Lydian kings enclosed this city by a massive fortification, many times larger than any contemporary fortification in Anatolia, or indeed anywhere outside the great cities of Mesopotamia, Nineveh, Nimrud, or Babylon. They drew on Near Eastern and Greek architectural traditions, such as the construction of monumental masonry terraces like those of Nineveh or Khorsabad, almost unknown in the Greek world until that time, to express the social order in the city’s layout. It seems likely that as they grew from a local kingdom to a powerful empire and came into contact with the empires of Mesopotamia, the Lydians looked to these eastern metropoleis for models of what an imperial capital should look like. Their terraces in turn became prototypes for the new capital city of Pasargadae in Iran, begun by Cyrus the Great after he had conquered Sardis, and probably built in large part by Lydian and Ionian masons. A major sanctuary of Sardis was that of Cybele, and the Lydians were instrumental in the introduction of this Anatolian mother goddess to the west. Indigenous Lydian traditions continued well into later centuries. As the inventors of coinage, the Lydians began a system that remains central to most subsequent monetary economies up to the present. In addition to Lydians, Carians, Greeks, and other ethnic groups it had a substantial Jewish population, and its Roman synagogue is the largest in the ancient world.

Criteriuon (iii):Sardis was the capital and only city of the Lydians. While Lydians were settled widely throughout western Anatolia, no other city is so directly associated with this vanished civilization. Unlike Greek, Roman, or many other ancient cultures, Lydian remains are peculiarly concentrated in this one location. Since the surviving written histories come primarily from the records of other cultures, the material culture of Sardis plays an essential role in our understanding of this ancient civilization.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Ancient City of Sardis designated as 1st and 3rd  Degree Archeological Site in 1978. The preservation of ancient remains at Sardis, in Bin Tepe varies widely depending largely on natural topography, later rebuilding, and earlier explorations, licit and illicit. Some areas of Sardis are eroded or were overbuilt in later eras, while other parts of the city are deeply buried and very well preserved; many of the tumuli in Bin Tepe were opened over a century ago and continue to be looted.

Archaeological research in the area dates back to the expedition of Robert Wood in 1750. Nineteenth century researchers include L. P. Spiegelthal, who excavated the Tumulus of Alyattes, and George Dennis, who excavated at Bin Tepe and in the Temple of Artemis. In the early twentieth century excavation was begun by Mendel on behalf of the Imperial Ottoman Museums in İstanbul, and continued by Howard Crosby Butler of Princeton University, from 1910-1914 and then in 1922. A hiatus followed until 1958, when excavations and surveys were renewed by G. M. A. Hanfmann of Harvard University, and these have continued every year since.

Much excavation has focused on regions of Sardis outside the walls: the extramural Temple of Artemis, the Bath-Gymnasium complex, the gold atelier along the Pactolus, and other sectors.

The current state of excavated remains varies greatly from building to building. The marbletempleofArtemisis mostly affected by biogrowth; a project to clean the entire building has been planned and will begin in 2013. The Lydian Altar and Church M had deteriorated significantly since their excavation more than a century ago; a project to conserve the altar was just completed, while the church is being studied for a separate conservation project.

The Bath-Gymnasium complex, synagogue, Byzantine Shops, and related areas were restored in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the best standards then in use. The Marble Court was the first large-scale anastylosis project in Turkey, and became a model for later projects such as the Library of Celsus at Ephesus. The synagogue was extensively restored. This restoration makes it possible for visitors to experience the mosaics in their original positions and appreciate the space of the building. Moreover, over the next 40 years or so, weather and frost has caused some deterioration. A series of projects in recent years has addressed these problems, and more permanent solutions, including a shelter roof over the synagogue, are being actively developed.

The Lydian fortification shares the problems of many large-scale adobe buildings: the material is subject to deterioration from rain, changes in humidity, rising ground water, and a host of other environmental factors. Protective measures taken since its discovery have preserved it remarkably well, however, and a permanent solution including a shelter roof and other measures are being developed. This is part of a larger project to conserve and present to the public the Lydian and Roman structures in this part of the site.

More generally, agriculture, construction, and looting are ongoing problems at Sardis as they are in many ancient sites. The site is under the control of the Manisa Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum, and is watched by the local gendarmerie and by site guards stationed at the Artemis Temple and the Bath-Gymnasium complex. Much of the site is privately owned and farmed. Part of the modern town of Sart is located in the first and third degree protected area of the ancient site, where further building is prohibited.

Until recently Bin Tepe has remained relatively undeveloped, and its sweeping landscape dotted with tumuli remains among the most important assets of the region, a critical component for preservation. But this area is also under great stress from agriculture and looting.

Comparison with other similar properties

Sardis is the only city of the Lydians, and in that important sense is not easily comparable to other sites. Comparable capitals of Iron Age Anatolian cultures include Gordion, Xanthos, Mylasa, Halikarnassos, and Kerkenes Dağ. We know more about the Phrygian remains at Gordion than the Lydian remains at Sardis, because Gordion was not as intensively built over in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and because intensive excavation since the 1950s uncovered a large part of the citadel mound. But by the same token, since Gordion was not as important a place in the later Classical period as Sardis, it does not offer the opportunity to study the long trajectory of occupation of a major city and transformations of culture that Sardis does. Kerkenes Dağ is unique in having a single period of occupation. Lycian Xanthos in southwestern Turkey is another important Iron Age capital, although of a small city-state rather than a great kingdom and empire. Like Sardis, it survives as a palimpsest of remains of different periods; the types of monuments that survive, however, are quite distinct from those at Sardis, reflecting the different cultures. Mylasa and Halikarnassos, capital cities of the Carians, are built over by modern towns, and very much less well preserved.

It is perhaps easier to compare Sardis to the major Greco-Roman sites of the region such as Pergamon, Ephesus, Miletus, or Aphrodisias. These sites often share many broadly comparable features: temples and theaters, baths and agoras, city walls and orthogonal plans. In many respects Sardis compares favorably, or has the potential to compare favorably with these sites. Its temple of Artemis and Bath-Gymnasium complex are paralleled by the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus or the temple of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus. The temple at Didyma is somewhat better preserved than that at Sardis, and much better than Ephesus; all of them are unusual buildings, the result of very long building histories and unusual cult practices. The Bath-Gymnasium complex at Sardis is closely related to other imperial bathing complexes such as the Vedius Gymnasium and Harbor Baths at Ephesus, or further afield, the baths at Timgad in north Africa, Trier in Germany, or the Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian in Rome. The Sardis baths are much more easily understood and appreciated than, for instance, the excavated but largely unrestored Vedius Gymnasium at Ephesus. Other types of monuments are less well preserved at Sardis. Its theater, for instance, was largely robbed out in antiquity and in the 19th century; its agora and gymnasium, mentioned in inscriptions, remain undiscovered. Although Miletus and Ephesus were very important cities in the Archaic period, when Lydian Sardis was at its apogee, the early phases of those cities are much less well known, and lack remarkable monuments such as the Lydian fortification or tumulus tombs of Sardis and Bin Tepe.

Tumuli are attested in many sites inTurkey, theMediterranean, and around the world. The cemetery most directly comparable to Bin Tepe is that at Gordion in centralTurkey, which has approximately the same number of tumuli, although concentrated in a smaller area. Those mounds are slightly older in date, and the largest, Tumulus MM, is slightly smaller than the largest at Bin Tepe, the tumulus of Alyattes. The chambers are made of wood, while Lydian tumulus chambers are usually built from cut stone blocks; and for various reasons, a number have been excavated unplundered, while very few unrobbed Lydian tombs have been excavated scientifically. The famous Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri inItalyis smaller in extent, and thanks to a much longer and more intense history of exploration, many more of its mounds have been opened; it is thus much better known than Bin Tepe. As the Lydians were believed in antiquity to be the ancestors of the Etruscans, there is an interesting cultural connection between these two sites. Less numerous groups of smaller tumuli are scattered through Turkey, from the Troad to Nemrud Dağ; the tradition is found in Macedonian and Thracian tumuli, in central and eastern Europe, central Asian kurgans, Korean tumuli, and the kofun of Japan. But in its wide extent and the tremendous size of its tumuli, Bin Tepe is unparalleled.