Antalya, ruins of Sillyon

Sillyon, the city in Anatolia that Alexander the Great failed to conquer

The city, which reached its splendour under the Byzantine Empire, was finally conquered by Seljuk Turks in 1207.

Turkish archaeologists have begun excavations in the ruins of Sillyon, a 3,000-year-old city located in the Serik district -in Antalya province- famous because Alexander the Great himself was unable to conquer it during his campaign in Asia Minor (current Anatolia).

“The existence of this ancient city has been known since the 18th century, but no scientific studies have been carried out until now. 2020 will be the year of Sillyon,” said Murat Taşkıran, an academic at the University of Pamukkale and head of the team of archaeologists who will work on site, composed of 30 experts.

Built on a 235 meter high tabletop hill overlooking the Antalya Plain, Sillyon has seen numerous peoples and empires pass by, from Persian or Hellenistic civilisation to Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk or Ottoman civilisations. Today it is possible to see with the naked eye the remains of a Roman theatre, a castle, some baths, a tower and a temple in one part of the city, and an old Muslim cemetery and a small mosque in another side.

Specifically, 250 ancient tombs have been identified in the Muslim cemetery, which is considered one of the oldest catalogued. The city was an important stronghold of the Persian Empire and became famous in history for the resistance against the armies of Alexander the Great, who during his campaign against the Persians was unable to conquer it.

In Byzantine times, it also resisted Arab raids

“Since Hellenistic times the city has stood out for its defensive system. Sillyon is one of the few cities that Alexander could not take. The same thing happened in Byzantine times: in the 8th and 9th centuries, all Arab incursions were repelled,” explained Taşkıran. “Sillyon is like a closed book. It is a city that, after excavation, will answer all our questions,” the academic added.

In fact, from ancient times the impressive defences of Sillyon already had a reputation of unbreakable. Located near Attaleia (Antalya), its foundation is uncertain; its existence is mentioned for the first time around 500 BC, but it went unnoticed in historical records until 333 BC.

It was on that date when, according to the Greek-Roman historian Arrian of Nicomedia, Alexander the Great had to lift the siege of the city after attempting a first assault against its defences; Arrian says that Sillyon was well fortified and defended by an important garrison made up of mercenaries and “native barbarians.”

Sillyon lived its splendour under Byzantium, until the Seljuk conquest

Enlarged by the Seleucids – heirs of Alexander the Great – the city stood out for minting its own currency since the 3rd century BC until the reign of the Roman Emperor Aurelian, at the end of the 3rd century AD. In the Byzantine period it acquired great importance and is mentioned in the chronicles for being the place where a storm destroyed an entire Arab fleet at the end of 677, after the frustrated siege of Constantinople.

Apart from that, the Byzantines took advantage of their defenses and their strategic position, establishing in Sillyon an imperial representative who complemented the strategos of the Cibyrrhaeot Theme. An important public road also started from Sillyon, connecting the southern coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia) with Nicaea and Constantinople.

Sillyon’s importance grew to the point of overshadowing neighbouring Perge, becoming the seat of a bishopric. After the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 and the transfer of the Byzantine imperial capital to Nicaea, the city fell in 1207 along with the rest of the Pamphylia region into hands of the Seljuk Turks.

The Seljuks renamed Sillyon as Karahisar-Tekke, maintaining its strategic importance for the control of southern Anatolia while the city progressively losing population. The ruins of what was the only city that Alexander the Great could not conquer were documented around 1862 by the French orientalist Pierre Trémaux.