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In the shadow of history

SivrihisarRoads in central Anatolia stretch across the rolling steppe, whose soil lies hibernating under a blanket of snow, and in summer turn to gold under the bristling ears of wheat. Villages glimpsed in the distance and towns each much like another watch silent and impassive as the cars speed past. When you drive westwards out of Ankara on the road that leads to Eskişehir, Bursa and Afyon, a couple of hours later you begin to notice spires of rock to your right, reminding you of the Cappadocian landscape. These are the harbingers of the town of Sivrihisar, where the road divides; the right fork heading northwest and the left southwest for the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Sivrihisar, or Pointed Fortress, is definitely not like any other provincial Turkish town. For one thing it is home to sights such as Sivrihisar Ulu Mosque, one of Turkey's rare and beautiful early mosques, Kızıl Kilise (the Red Church), and numerous traditional Turkish houses, mainly in the district of Yenice.

In and around the village of Ballıhisar to the south are the ruins of the ancient Pessinus for those interested in archaeology and mythology wishing to delve further back in the pages of history. Nasreddin Hoca, the witty country imam about whom innumerable humorous stories of his words and deeds are still related, was born in the village of Hortu near Sivrihisar in 1206, although he spent his adult life in the town of Akşehir near Konya. After chatting to the local shopkeepers and joining in the conversation in any coffee house in Sivrihisar, you will see a common bond between the ever friendly and cheerful people of the town and that legendary comedian who poked kindly fun at human failings and had such a keen sense of the ridiculous.

The history of Sivrihisar, which lies in the province of Eskişehir, goes back to the Hittites, who after retiring from the stage of history were succeeded by the Phrygians Pessinus, 14 kilometres south of Sivrihisar, was one of the most renowned Phrygian cities.

Just as Sivrihisar stands today on the main route leading from central Anatolia to the Aegean and the Mediterranean, so in Phrygian times Pessinus lay on the celebrated Kings Road. Sivrihisar, which under the Byzantines had been known as Justinianapolis, was renamed and rebuilt by the Seljuks in the 11th century, using stone taken from the ruins of Pessinus. For a time Sivrihisar was ruled by the Turkish Karamanoğulları principality, and subsequently conquered by the Ottomans during the reign of Sultan Mehmed I (1413- 1421).

Although Sivrihisar had such a long and varied history, the number of monuments remaining to bear witness to this history are relatively few. Sivrihisar Castle, one of the buildings constructed of stone from Pessinus, is in ruins. The most notable monument here is Ulu Mosque, built in 1274 by the Seljuk emir Mikail bin Abdullah. The roof is supported by 67 wooden columns, and the walnut pulpit is one of the finest of its kind in existence.

The late 13th century Hoşkadem Mosque and the nearby Hazinedar Mescit, distinguished by the painted wall decoration and frescos on either side of the prayer niche, were both founded by Necibüddin Mustafa.The Alemşah Kümbet or tower tomb built in 1328 by Melikşah for his younger brother Sultan Şah, and Kurşunlu Mosque built in 1494 are other early monuments in the city. On the lower slopes of the hill behind the town is the Red Church, so named after the red ashlar stone from which it is built. Faded frescoes can still be discerned on the walls. The merchants of Pessinus traded in woollen cloth and salt, the latter probably transported here from the Salt Lake to the east. The ancient city's most important structure is the temple dedicated to the mother goddess Cybele close to the village mosque. In Phrygian times the city was ruled by the high priest of this temple and five priests who had emasculated themselves in fertility rites. Considerable archaeological knowledge is necessary to gain any clear picture of the city as it once was, with its hilltop acropolis, central agora, amphitheatre to the east of the village, water channels and necropolis. Or perhaps the mauve violets which stretch their delicate necks amongst the grass are whispering the city's story if only we could understand. Or you can lend an ear to the blind shepherd tapping his way with his staff, who tells a myth of Cybele:

'One day Cybele was walking on Mount Dindymos [today Günyüzü], when she caught sight of a handsome, strong and agile young man. Cybele's immortal heart was instantly lost to the mortal youth, and secretly following him, she learned his name. He was Attis, the son of a nymph, and he was about to marry the daughter of the king of Pessinus. On the day of his wedding Cybele appeared to him, and driven insane by the goddss'se enchanting vision, Attis emasculated himself and died. The blood of the beautiful Attis seeped into the earth and made it bountiful, so that violets sprang from the spot where he fell. Cybele was so distraught at the death of her beloved, that she turned him into a pine tree. Thenceforth every year rites were held in his name at which young men severed their manhood in a similar frenzy, and each spring new violets sprang from beneath that pine tree.'

Skylife 04/2002

Can Kızıltan, freelance writer

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