Laodicea, a City Reborn

How a hometown archaeologist came to spearhead Turkey's biggest dig in a century

By / July 2013

By digging four feet into the ground, Dr. Celal Şimşek has traveled back in time 7,500 years. Şimşek oversees excavations on the ancient city of Laodicea in southwestern Turkey. The city covers two square miles, making it the largest dig in Turkey, a country flush with sites of archaeological import.

Founded by the Seleucid king Antiochus II, colonized by the Romans and later the Byzantines, Laodicea was a major Anatolian population center. It was situated along major trading routes, not far from the port of Ephesus.

But Laodicea was also situated along fault lines. A major earthquake during the reign of Emperor Focas (602-610 C.E.) dealt the city a fatal blow. Its inhabitants abandoned the city and fled to surrounding settlements. Over the course of 1300 years, wind, rain and erosion, along with some occasional back filling, buried the city underground.

How Şimşek, who grew up 75 miles away, came to uncover Laodicea is something of a saga. He angled for the commission for decades, studying archeology and art history at Selçuk University in Konya, getting field experience at Mt. Nemrut (site of many limestone statues from the first century BCE), and writing his doctoral thesis on the Hierapolis Necropolis, one of the best preserved tomb sanctuaries in Turkey.

In 1999 he founded the archeology department at Pamukkale University in nearby Denizli. He figured the university would provide a great base for heading up a major archeological dig at Laodicea.

But the Turkish Ministry for Tourism and Culture had nearly decided to award Laodicea to Italian archeologists who had been doing ground surveys and preliminary work since the mid 90’s. Then in 2001, Esat Sivri, a local businessman known on site as “Uncle Esat,” began a grass-roots public awareness campaign.

Touting the slogan “Laodicea is calling us,” Sivri drummed up support. He leveraged relationships in the press. On one occasion Sivri asked the minister, “What, are my archeologists illiterate? Don’t they know what they’re doing?” Hundreds of prominent citizens twice joined together to walk the six-mile trek from Denizli to the ruin. The campaign paid off. Şimşek won the contract and in 2002 he and his team finally began major excavations at Laodicea.

Set on a plateau in the midst of the fertile Lycos valley, the site is removed from the flurry of noise and movement emanating from nearby Denizli. Snowcapped ranges to the south and east and the natural wonder of Pamukkale’s travertine slopes across the valley to the north provide breathtaking views.

Through the ancient city gate, a newly constructed gift shop and café offers visitors coffee, key chains, and booklets showing off the city’s history. The serenity is a welcome relief from the hawkers of “genuine fake watches” and “essential tour books” at Ephesus and other more commercialized digs.

The site includes two open air theaters, with a combined seating capacity of 12,000 people, and a 75,000 square-foot bathhouse. The main drag through Laodicea was a column-lined lane called Syria Street. On the southern edge of the city lies the ruins of a large gymnasium and stadium, roughly the length of three football fields, built in honor of the Roman emperor Hadrian in 135 CE.  The complex is a maze of marble and travertine arched pillars, with 70 to 80 percent of the structure underground. Laodicea also boasts two additional Roman bath houses, five memorial fountains, five agoras, a counsel hall, numerous temples, and twelve churches.

Şimşek’s team includes fifteen archeologists, eight restoration specialists, three architects, and around thirty master craftsmen who specialize in stone, marble, or masonry. “This system is like an orchestra,” says Şimşek, “and I’m the conductor.”

Standing beneath a 36-foot high section of wall belonging to an agora built in the Roman period, Şimşek looks on as his orchestra plays. Marble workers, chisels in hand, climb scaffolds up a columned wall. A crane, marked by a giant Turkish flag rippling in the wind, raises Corinthian capitals, architraves, friezes, and cornices into the air.

Not all the columns survived in one piece. Şimşek points at one six-foot section, wide enough that it would take two grown men to wrap their arms around it, and says “we repaired that section from 96 different pieces.” The team catalogues and sorts everything it finds for restoration. And like some giant three-dimensional puzzle they glue and clamp these ancient treasures back together.

The most complete section of the wall spans six of the herculean columns. At Şimşek’s direction, the team took it down five times. He wanted everything to be perfect. The final time they disassembled the wall, it was to correct a leveling error of less than one inch.

The sight of what’s been discovered so far produces an almost uncontrollable flow of information – and excitement – from Dr. Şimşek. Uncle Esat said it simply, “Celal is in love with this place.”

If Dr. Şimşek were only limited by his excitement and intensity, he would probably uncover all of Laodicea. But he has to be choosy. At the current rate of excavation and restoration, he says there are at least 600 years of work left to do.

Şimşek says that he sees one of his primary tasks as endearing the ancient ruin to the modern inhabitants of Denizli. “At some sites,” he says, “a professor comes, does some work and leaves. And no one knows about it. But not here. Everyone in Denizli is doing something to help bring this city to light.” Local businesses provide meals for workers. Tour groups from schools frequent the site.

Local producers provide marble and travertine for restoration at no charge. But the biggest payoff has come from Denizli’s city government. Starting in 2008, the municipality began funding the project to the tune of approximately $1.5 million per year. The remaining 30% of the budget needs are still met by the Tourism and Culture Ministry and Pamukkale University.

According to Şimşek, this kind of support from the local government is more than a first in Turkey, it’s a model for the future. It may be one of the ways Turkey will increasingly take ownership of the mine of ancient sites scattered within her borders. The sun may be setting on the day when western archeologists enjoy the lion’s share of these ancient cities.

This could be a big year for Laodicea. For one, Şimşek is hopeful that the city will be named a UNESCO world heritage site. 2013 is also the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, by which Constantine the Great legally recognized Christianity in the Roman Empire. Şimşek and his team have found a church at Laodicea that they believe was built during the time of Constantine himself.

Şimşek says this may be the only remaining church building from the era of Constantine the Great. The church’s layout is unique in the history of Christian architecture, and its cross-shaped baptistery is one of the best-preserved examples from antiquity.

Inside, restorers, doubled-over on the ground, use what look like dental hygienist tools to remove hundreds of years of dirt and sediment from thousands and thousands of mosaic floor-tiles. “They’ve got the hardest job here,” Uncle Esat told me. “It’s like digging a well with a needle.”

But dig they must. Their aim is to open the church to the public by the fall of this year, and to host a monumental ceremony with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from around the world. Şimşek says he hopes the move will display the tolerance of the Anatolian people, not to mention how much they value their cultural inheritance.


Andy Owens is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.