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The Termessos Phenomenon

My wife and I visited Termessos in 1996 after a conference in Istanbul. We flew to Antalya on the Mediterranean Coast, rented a car, and drove slowly West along the coast for about a week.

Termessos was our first stop. It is one of the best-preserved ancient cities in Turkey, in large part due to its location at an elevation of 1000 meters in the Taurus Mountains about 30 kilometers Northwest from Antalya.

I found the site to be sensational. We must have spent at least three hours wandering around the ruins. There were no guides, not many visitors, and a lot to see.

The most memorable part of my visit was an overpowering desire to begin picking up the fallen stones and putting them back in their proper places.

Later, reflecting on this experience, it struck me that every Turkish citizen alive could spend every day of his and her life reassembling to ruins that exist across this wonderful country and never finish the job. There are just too many fallen stones.

This is what I call “the Termessos Phenomenon”. It’s the practical inability to preserve everything that deserves to be preserved. It applies not just to ancient ruins. It applies to all kinds of works of art. In particular, it applies to historic preservation campaigns, mostly city-based, in countries around the world.

What is worth keeping and what should be left to decay and turn to dust?

The short story of Termessos begins in 333 B.C. when Alexander the Great was defeated in his attempt to take control of the city because its location made it easy to defend against an invading force. It seems that the city was abandoned around 500 A.D. after an earthquake crushed the aqueduct that was its main source of water.

I would like to know why Termessos has not been rebuilt the way Ephesus has been rebuilt, but the reason is probably the obvious one: not all of the ruins in Turkey can be rebuilt.

The author Kurt Vonnegut had an interesting observation that I came across in a Financial Times feature story in its Weekend Edition for 25-26 August 2012: “Everybody wants to create something great, something awe-inspiring . . . something that’ll give them a hell of a lot of attention. But nobody wants to do maintenance. Nobody wants to make sure that that great thing still exists in our grandchildren’s time. Greatness requires upkeep. But . . . we are flawed, for we do not recognize this.” What is missing here is the reality that not everything built can be maintained or should be maintained.

The Termessos Phenomenon is likely to become more prominent in the coming years as global population continues to increase and climate change forces more migration. A highly visible and recent example is the disastrous fire in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. There was little public opposition to spending an enormous amount of money to repair the damage, but one consequence must have been reducing the financing available to repair or renovate many less treasured buildings.

Another vastly different case with a different outcome involves a Christian Science Church in Washington DC less than 400 yards up 16th Street from the White House. It was built in the “brutalist” concrete style and opened in 1970. On top of some structural problems, the building became so unpopular with the congregation that steps were taken to demolish it and replace it with a more functional building. This move sparked a vigorous campaign to preserve the building as an historic landmark. Ultimately, with courts supporting demolition on the grounds of religious freedom, the building was demolished in 2014 and replaced with a new office building that includes a less visible but more functional space for Christian Science services.

A third case is described in a New York Times op-ed by Ross Douthat published on 12 August 2023 entitled “Great Britain is Beautiful. It’s Also Decaying”. Here are both sides of the sword. He writes “Britain has been spared some of [the ugliness of new construction with no character] by its zeal for preservation.” But this zeal has become a huge obstacle to providing new affordable housing for the population.

What’s to be done?

Perhaps the best answer is to resist the temptation to preserve popular buildings and monuments, to be more judicious in deciding what to let go of. I would go further and urge politicians to resist pressures to memorialize so many people and events. Washington DC is a prime example of the problem. The Mall is being filled with museums representing ethnic minorities and other groups. Maybe we won’t need a memorial for soldiers lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or the victims of the opioid crisis, or astronauts lost in space.

But I’m all in favor of building the already-approved Peace Corps memorial!

1 commento

12 ott 2023

My inspired comment disappeared when I signed in as a member and could not produce a password. Perhaps it still exists somewhere.


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