The Cilician Gates is the name of a strategic pass in the Taurus Mountains that was used for centuries. Before Alexander, Cyrus the Great with Xenophon and his Ten Thousand had marched over this pass and after him; we know that the Romans, the Mongols, and even the Crusaders were here. As recent as the 20th century, the railroad engineers working on the train connection between Istanbul and Baghdad had to find their way over the Taurus Mountains at this point.
Xenophon mentions that the pass consisted of a “carriage track” although the road must have been paved at the time. The passage through the Cilician Gates was, however, very narrow saying that it was wide enough for a four-horse chariot, meaning that four horses abreast could move over it at the same time. Yet the road was exceptionally steep and a near natural barrier for any army to pass unopposed. It was and is frequently crossed by streams trickling from the walls on either side.
The width of a four-horse carriage as mentioned by Xenophon is hard to match Curtius’ statement that it was wide enough for four armed men to walk abreast. The landscape is very rugged and inhospitable, even today, and on my first passage, I tried in vain to imagine how an army could manage to move over such a terrain. Curtius says that the natural formation resembles fortifications made by human hands – how true that is!
The route Alexander followed out of Cappadocia must have run past modern Kemerhisan, Çiftehan, and Pozantı to arrive at the Gülek Boğaz Pass as the Cilician Gates are called today.
The Romans, great road builders as they were, have left records of their improvements together with a series of milestone all along the road, like the lonely one standing in front of the local roadside restaurant. The stone carries an inscription stating that Caracalla repaired and improved the Via Tauri as this road was called around 217 AD. Another milestone in this same area was erected by Severus Alexander giving the distance to the Gates, the confines of the Cilicians, which matches the figure mentioned in the inscription at the Cilician Gates further down the road.
It is evidently very exciting to find that wall inscription off the main highway down on the adjacent valley floor knowing that originally it was engraved high above the ancient Via Tauri that led down to the coastal city of Tarsus. It is hard to image that W.M. Ramsay, who visited this area in 1882 had to use a telescope to read this inscription on the cliff above the stream (now tunneled underneath the modern road). The text can be translated as “Caracalla (with the addition of his real full name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) made the road wider by cutting through the mountains”. It is a miracle that this inscription has survived modern construction works as it now seems to stand on the valley floor, squeezed between the supportive wall of the highway, the narrow stream and the mountain slopes on the other side.
When Alexander arrived at the spot known as Xenophon’s encampment near the Gates (probably less than three kilometres away), he went to investigate the situation. The narrow pass was pretty easy to defend from the high overhang above the road from where a small force could destroy the approaching enemy. It is clear, once again, that Alexander was not taking any chances. He ordered his light-armed Thracians ahead to occupy the different access paths and check them for enemy forces. At the same time, a band of bowmen was posted on the ridges above the access road, ready to attack if needed. It is so easy to see them mentally while moving over this road! Alexander left Parmenion with the heavy infantry near Cyrus’ encampment while he himself marched towards the Gates under cover of darkness in order to take the enemy by surprise. That surprise did not work out as his approach was noticed and the small force that was supposed to defend the Gates, fled at first sight of Alexander and his men. This was much easier than Thermopylae!
The next morning at the crack of dawn Alexander marched his men through the narrows. The operation lasted a full day, but the road to Tarsus laid open to him. Justin is so optimistic as to write that Alexander reached the city in one full day, but this is a distance of some 75 kilometres which Xenophon covered in a four-day march instead.
Before reaching Tarsus, it is still possible to actually walk over a reasonable stretch of said Via Tauri for about five or six kilometres through an unforgiving landscape of rough rocks and spiny bushes. A delicate arch is still spanning the road at the horizon, but this is a mere reconstruction since the original one collapsed after repeated explosions carried out at the mining site in the valley below. The mining company was ordered to rebuild it - thank Zeus for that.
It takes the modern traveller a good deal of imagination since today’s highway across the Taurus Mountains has been widened and levelled compared to the narrow ancient passage although it still follows the same course. Then as now, the road runs downhill from here onwards into the coastal plain and gradually the landscape becomes much friendlier with cultivated fields and blossoming orchards along wide rivers. Xenophon has noticed the difference too saying that once across the pass, Cyrus entered a beautiful and well-watered plain that produced sesame, millet, wheat and barley – easy to picture!
Still marching on the Via Tauri Alexander received notice that the governor of Tarsus no longer wished to hold the city for Persia and was ready to give up the town. The townspeople clearly got scared, not of Alexander, but of their governor who might be plundering Tarsus on his way out. This was something Alexander clearly understood and he immediately rode up at full speed to the people’s rescue, just in time before the man could take any booty with him as he hurried for the Persian court.
Another ancient road has recently been discovered near the
village of Anavarza (Roman Caesarea) which during the first and second centuries was the most important city of and was larger than Ephesos. The town itself has suffered severely from repeated earthquakes over the centuries, the last one as recent as 1945. The most striking element, however, is a double columned highway, approximately Cilicia 35 meters wide and 2.7 kilometers long. It has been established that the columns were of the Corinthian order and were erected at 2.15 meters intervals. So far, 1,360 columns have been unearthed and plans are to restore them as well as the entrance gate. I wonder how much and in what shape this portion of the road existed in Alexander’s days.
Another ancient road has recently been discovered near the