The name Side means “pomegranate”, a well-known fertility symbol in antiquity that we also find on coins. The origin of Side itself is shrouded in mystery. Arrian tells us that the city was founded by people from Cyma, a city north of Smyrna (modern Izmir), but if we believe Eusebius the city was settled at least two hundred years before the Trojan War, i.e. about 1405 BC. For now, neither option can be proved.
In antiquity, however, Side occupied a special place because of the language that was spoken there which did not resemble any other known language or dialect and certainly didn’t sound like Greek. It was unique to Side if we believe Arrian (and why shouldn’t we believe him?). Inscriptions and coins use this unique language as far back as the 5th and 3rd century BC. In any case, it has been determined that it can only be of Anatolian origin, i.e. proper to Pamphylia because it is in no way related to the Greek dialects of Sillyum or Aspendos. Greek started to be used only after the conquest of Alexander the Great, which is sustained by an inscription from about 300 BC.
On his march through Pamphylia in the early spring of 333 BC, Alexander took possession of Side. Not much has been said about it, just that he left a garrison behind before moving on to Sillyum. After his death, his general Ptolemy ruled over the city till the Seleucid Dynasty took over in the 2nd century BC. Later on, Side was included in the Pergamon Empire. However, the city was involved in the profitable piracy business and the Cilicians used it as a pivotal base for their slave-trading. When Emperor Pompey expelled the pirates in 67 BC, the people of Side hurriedly erected a statue in his honour. The city flourished under Roman occupation but weakened as soon as the empire fell apart. This is evidenced by the city walls which were built about the fourth century inside the once larger city limits.
There was a short revival however in the fifth and sixth century. The Theatre was repaired and a new Forum was built in honour of Arcadius (395-408), as well as several other buildings. But the Arab invasion of the 7th century caused its final decline and by the end of the 10th century, the few remaining inhabitants moved to the newly founded Antalya. The last people who lived here were the Seljuks in the 12th century. We have to wait till 1895 when Greek Muslims migrated from Crete and sought refuge among the ruins. The new village called Selimiye is consequently built on top of old Side. It takes some detective work to find the old remains among today’s houses, gardens and alleys. On the other hand, a large part of the antique city is still buried under drift sand, especially in the north-eastern corner where the Roman city walls literally disappear in the dunes.
At the entrance of the city, a parking lot has been built and I’m glad I can leave my car there and don’t have to figure out the narrow street pattern. I am lucky to enter the city just where I wanted, meaning through the Hellenistic Gate (Megale Pyle) from the 2nd century BC with its two round towers, just like the ones in Perge but in much poorer condition. If I had not seen the Hellenistic Gate in Perge, I would have missed this one entirely and it would have been very difficult to imagine what the towers looked like.
The shocking picture here is the newly asphalted road, a coat smeared over and on top of the old Roman pavement – a barbarian crime, nothing less!
Behind me rise the impressive remains that belong to a large Nympheion, another mental link for me, this time with Sagalassos. I just didn’t expect to find a fountain of this size in Side. The explanation panel is set up in Turkish, English and German, together with a drawing of the fountain’s reconstruction. This Nympheion dates from the 2nd and 3rd century, just like most of the ruins around here – i.e. the heydays of the Roman Empire.
The antique and now asphalted colonnaded street runs past elegant remains of a covered sidewalk with shops behind them. I can walk freely among these remains and this certainly adds to the charm. I climb to the top of one the sand dunes, hoping to spot the sea, and I do. In fact, my view reaches as far as Alanya to the east while in the north I’m stopped by the peninsula of Side. Inviting dark blue water splashes against the rocks and sunken ruins, creating a screen of thousands sunlit stars.
I move on and climb to the next dune top and from here I clearly see the large Theatre, but that is for later as I’m close to the beach and decide to walk to the old port which is now entirely sanded up. I pass impressive ruins with column stubs that look like a Nympheion but are labelled as being the façade of the Library. The space in front was once occupied by the Agora measuring the nearly standard 100 x 100 meters, but I miss the shops that usually surround it. Remains of columns and ceiling caissons lie everywhere and I can’t help thinking that the sand surely will damage these carvings (a normal abrasive) – not the happiest way to preserve ancient stones.
The road now leads me to the centre of today’s Selimiye with a continuous row of restaurants and souvenir shops on either side. The merchants and waiters try all the tricks in the book to draw the attention of the tourists; it is obvious that nothing has changed since antiquity.
At the end of next side-street, the white marble columns of the Temple of Apollo appear, the standard picture in every travel guide that now becomes real. The effect of Carrara marble against the intense blue sky and sea is simply perfect. From between the arches of nearby Lima Basilica, I take my first pictures, while at the same I marvel about the size of this Basilica from the 5th/6th century which remained in use for many more centuries in a reduced size.
The longer I stare at those few slender columns of the Temple of Apollo, the more I see. The delicate not entirely Corinthian capitals supporting a pediment decorated with numerous individual faces staring down at me. Somewhere between the broken marble on the floor, I find a piece of the pediment with one of those faces; finely decorated edges with lion-heads; this temple must have been something very special indeed. Next to it I should find its twin, a temple dedicated to Artemis, but I fail to see anything indicating the presence of a building. As always, the location has been chosen with perfection and is not less impressive than the location of Cape Sounion in Greece.
Back in the streets of Selimiye, I get terribly annoyed by the noise, the cars and the tourists but above all by this idiotic asphalted street still lined with stubs of the original colonnade. I discover the remains of the Romans Baths, the so-called Harbour Baths from the second century but since modern houses have been built inside and against the old walls it is difficult to get a clear overall picture. These baths must have been quite large, measuring 36 x 19 meters, but it is a pity to find them in such poor shape.
Finally, I arrive at the theatre that has been considerably propped up and the many vaults are reinforced with iron beams. I wonder how safe it is to get inside. I always find a theatre a very exciting place to visit, where the past remains so palpable simply because over the centuries thousands of people have walked through its open or vaulted corridors, or chatted comfortably sitting on the stone benches. The entrance takes me immediately to the diazoma, the promenade halfway the theatre right in the middle. It is said to be one of the largest theatres in Pamphylia and should hold approximately as many people as the one in Aspendos. This is hard to judge because the scene is poorly preserved and almost nothing is left from the backstage-wall (paraskenia) either. From the coolness of the vaults I admire its location amidst the sand covered remains behind which the entire coastline unfolds towards Alanya.
The sides and upper parts of the theatre are off-limits because of the danger of collapse, but most the “safe” parts have been well restored. Like the city, this is clearly Roman although there was originally a Greek theatre on this spot. Meanwhile, I have stepped all the way down and when I look back over my shoulder, I’m surprised by the height. Of the people at the entrance on the diazoma I only see their heads. I think this is the first time in my life that I feel dwarfed in a theatre, overwhelmed by the entire construction. I walk to both extremities of the semi-circle while admiring the decorated remains on the podium. It is said that the scene was completely overgrown with trees and bushes when it was first discovered, tearing the construction apart. Comparing the pictures George Bean took in the 1960’s (see: Turkey’s Southern Shore) with today’s appearance, it is obvious that a lot of work has been done. After a while I climb back to the diazoma to find that the stairs to the upper seats start in the vaulted corridor – there was no outside access in this theatre.
Back outside on the main street, I automatically reach the small Temple of Dionysus that is attached to the remains of the Arch of Vespasian. The cars have to drive underneath the Arch, taking turns since the opening is not wide enough to enable two cars to pass together. When in the 6th and 7th century the population of Side had shrunk considerably, this arch became a city gate in the newly built protection wall. In a way that is still visible today because beyond this point the modern restaurants and shops stop, giving way to the ruins of the antique stores with walls reaching approx. 1 or 2 meters high. One of these stores is quite special because the living quarters of the owner were located behind the up-front store, and in one of the rooms I even discover the original mosaic floor still in place.
To the right of the Triumphal Arch of Vespasian are the remains of a Nympheion, squeezed between the street and the space that belongs to the Archaeological Museum. This museum has been set up inside the well preserved Roman Baths. It is one of those rare occasions where I can have a real feel of what such baths must have looked like in spite of the modern concrete roofing that seems to blend in elegantly. Entering through two arched doorways, I access the frigidarium, the coldest part of the baths; next is the sweating room and finally I reach the largest room, the caldarium or hot room where pipes of the floor-heating system are still visible in places; the last two rooms were the tepidarium or washing rooms. The marble floors and the walls of the basins are in very good condition and the spare natural light sources add to the genuine feeling. Among the statues and other artifacts of the collection I cannot find many striking pieces, except for an inscription in the language of Side which I have never encountered before; and a Pamphylian sarcophagus from the 2nd century with high reliefs of dancing cupids under the sloping roof festooned with lion heads. The less important or broken pieces have found refuge in the adjacent garden but are certainly worth a visit; also the workshop where a richly decorated sarcophagus is being painstakingly puzzled back together.
All in all, I spent three and a half hour walking around in old Side, purposely ignoring the modern tourist traps of course - lovely!
[Click here to see all the pictures of Side]
[Click here to see all the pictures of Side]