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  • Writer's pictureFrank Klaus Jordan

Phaselis - ancient seaside city spared by the gods

King of Asia

Ptolemaîos pulls the fur collar tighter around his neck. The snow crawls into his armour and makes him shiver. He doesn't trust the peaceful sight between the mountain passes in front of him. In Alexander's attempt to cross the Lycian mountains the army is under constant attack by hostile tribesmen. His army is suffering badly from the snow and cold and nobody understands what it is that drives Alexander northward in the very heart of winter. After Miletus and Halicarnassus had fallen, the Macedonian army encountered no resistance along the Lycian coast. Town after town readily submitted without a fight, including the large cities of Xanthos and Patara. "There," Seleucos whispers. "the outriders are back." "My lord ...", one scout reports, "... the path is clear, the valley is deserted." Seleucos throws a hand full of snow in Ptolemaîos face and says with a laugh: "We should call it a day, my friend, and let the army camp here before nightfall."

Alexander couldn't find sleep after his commanders had retired for the night. He left his tent and, lost in thought, walked along a small mountain path. It was a cold and peaceful night and the full moon poured its pale light across the valley. At the end of the path, a steep rock face loomed in front of him. A small stream arose from it, reflecting the moonlight. "Alexander, King of Macedon!" a voice was calling from behind. Reaching his sword Alexander turns around, ready to defend his life. Five steps behind him stands a man of huge stature, dressed in a long feathered cloak. Alexander is looking around for his hound, but Peritas is sleeping peacefully right next to this ghostlike stranger. The feathered giant had emerged from nowhere, and the moonlight made its appearance even more uncanny. Taking the hood off his head the giant says: "You will not need your sword and I'm not here to fight you."

"Who are you and why are you here?" Alexander replies. The man stared at him with steel blue eyes and a strange expression on his face, when he answers: "My name is Aristandros and I'm watching the waters of this stream." "What is it you see?" Alexanders asks. "For the first time since ages immemorial, the water level of this creek has dropped and has now revealed a message to us." the giant replies. "What message? Alexander wants to know. With an outstretched hand, the feathered Seer points to the place where the stream springs from the rock face, illuminating an inscription of mysterious characters carved into the stone. "This message, my Lord." "Can you decipher these signs?" Alexander asks. The Seer's voice suddenly sounds strange, as if someone else speaks out of him when he reads:

here comes the ruler of Asia

his eyes share the light of day

and the darkness of night

The giant Seer points at Alexanders face and says: "Your right eye is blue as the bright sky. Your left eye as gloomy as the night. You will rule Asia, young king, and I will be at your side to protect you. Bring your army out of these mountains, back to the sea. Go east and follow the coastline to the city of Phaselis. There we will meet again." In disbelieve, Alexander looks back at the ancient signs on the rock face. But the water level of the stream had again increased so much that he couldn't see the inscription anymore. Peritas' cold nose was suddenly touching his hand. He reaches down and strokes over the dog's head. "What a watchdog you are, sleeping, next to a giant stranger." A moment later he realises that Aristandros was gone, disappeared into nowhere. "Come Peritas, let's go back and get some sleep." Alexander speaks to his dog. "Ah, I forgot, you slept already."

Temple of Athena

Aristandros could hear the pounding drum of the Lycian trireme while it was still a long way off. The deep percussive blow of wood striking water, followed by a sound of dashing surge, gradually emerged with each stroke of the oars. As the trireme hurls towards the city, its timber and cordage are creaking and groaning and the bronze ram hisses like a snake slicing through the water.

Alexander impatiently waits on deck while 170 oarsmen push the Lycian ship safely into Phaselis' city harbour. Slowly they pass through the towers that hold an iron chain, strong enough to block the harbour's entrance if needed. A delegation of the city council is waiting to greet him when Alexander steps on land. The pier of the harbour is made of large terrazzo tiles framed by wonderful marble statues. He is warmly welcomed by the senators who offer him a golden crown as a sign of respect to their new king. But Alexander has no need for such formalities. He is eager to visit the temple of Athena that, legend has it, accommodates an ancient relic of the Trojan war.

Celebrated by the residents, Alexander is promenading along a colonnaded street, the cities' busiest place. Halfway through the street Alexander and his entourage reach the Agora, an open space, its floor made of shiny stone blocks. The square, lined with marble columns, looks majestic and gives access to the two-storeyed Bouleuterion, the assembly hall of the council of citizens. From here Alexander is ascending between lines of eucalyptus and oleander trees to the Acropolis, above the city's theatre. He enters the hillside through a massive marble arch that opens the way to the temple of Heracles and Hermes. He has to climb further up before he reaches the square in front of the temple of Athena, Goddess of war and wisdom and Phaselis' patron deity. Catching his breath, he is admiring the beauty of the building, the neatly fitted stonework and the colourful roof decorated with scenes of honour and glory about ancient heroes. Four marble columns at the front adorn the entrance to the sacred hall.

"So we meet again, King of Asia." a familiar voice reaches Alexander from behind. "What makes a king leave his army behind, rushing to see the temple of Athena in Phaselis?", the same voice asks provocatively. "Is it the same reason that makes a king sleep with Homer's Iliad under his pillow every night?" Alexander smiles and replies: "I missed you, Aristandros. And my army is just one day's march behind." The Seer takes Alexander's arm and leads him to the entrance of the temple. Aristandros' giant arms touch two golden ornaments of the temple's doors and, with a shrieking noise of the enormous green bronze hinges, the two massive wooden wings move open. Alexander enters the sacred hall when a bald-headed man in an Egyptian priest garb falls on his knees in front of him, putting his forehead on the marble floor. "Be welcome, Son of Amun.

Not able to make sense of the priest's words, Alexander approaches the centre of the pillared hall. The white marble of the columns and the gold plated ornaments all over the wooden ceiling illuminate the gigantic statue of the goddess Athena, standing on a large circular plinth in the back of the hall. The statue is carved from a stone Alexander has never seen before. Her garment and armour are of pure gold. Her right hand lifts up a golden owl and with her left, she holds a golden shield resting on the ground. Spellbound by the object of his desire, Alexander approaches the statue. Out of the pedestal reaches a bronze hand, holding an ancient relic of the Trojan war. The divine past of this weapon, once made by Hephaistos, the blacksmith of the gods, is captivating Alexander. His hand gently strokes the ash wood shaft until he reaches the cutting bronze and silver edge of its head. The Trojan heroes in the tales of his teacher Aristotle come to life. This is the spear that killed Hector - the spear of Achilles.

"Did you find what you came for, King of Macedon?" The giant Seer gently puts his arm on Alexander's shoulder and says: "You should know that it is not your ancestor's spear that rules your destiny. This temple is a sacred place of revelation but you have to open your eyes and read the signs." Aristandros points to the marble relief on Athena's pedestal, asking, "Look at this wonderful piece of art. What is it you see, my king?" "I see a warrior on a mighty horse, leading his cavalry." Alexander replies, walking around the plinth of the goddess. "I see him everywhere, here in the Persian desert, and here at the great pyramids of Egypt, there at the tower of Babel and even in India fighting war elephants." Alexander stops and wonders, "He must be an ancient hero Aristotle forgot to tell me about. He has a magnificent horse though. What is his name?" he turns to Aristandros. "the name of the horse or the hero?", the Seer asks with a smile on his face. "both of course", Alexander replies, guessing that Aristandros wouldn't know the answer. But then he is mesmerised by the words the giant Seer speaks. "The horse, my young king, is called Bucephalus and the hero is the new king of Asia."

Ruins between Pines

Whatever is left of the temple of Athena and the Acropolis today, is covered under a thick blanket of vegetation and some of the Mediterranean flowers and roses, Phaselis was once famous for. The ruins of a columned building and large ashlar blocks is all that gives an indication about the site of the temple. However, due to the absence of excavations, the beauty of the temple remains a myth.

Blessed with three natural harbours, ancient Phaselis was a major commercial seaport within the Mediterranean region, known for its shipyards and shipbuilding. It was a thriving port city of the Lycian Federation, minting its own coins, shipping all kinds of natural resources as well as olive oil and perfumes. It was also home to the Greek rhetorician and tragic poet Theodectes, a pupil of Plato and intimate friend of Aristotle.

Today a national park, the three bays and picturesque ancient ruins, catching the late afternoon light beneath shady pines, are still a poignant reminder of once-prosperous Phaselis. The remnants invite to walk along the grand harbour street, the aqueducts with Roman baths and the Agora.

The beautiful theatre faced with marble reliefs and a seating capacity of 3 thousand people, is a perfect spot for a quiet rest. Climbing to the centre of the top row, one will appreciate the ancients' genius for siting this theatre. Enjoying from here the grand vista at Mount Olympus, we understand why the Phoenician traders called Phaselis a 'seaside city spared by the Gods'.

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