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Die Felsgräber der Könige von Pontos in Amasya

Die Felsgräber der Könige von Pontos in Amasya

By Robert Fleischer (IstForsch 56). Pp. x + 155. Ernst Wasmuth, Tübingen 2017. €24.80. ISBN 978-3-8030-1777-2 (cloth).

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Among the rock-cut chamber tombs of Anatolia, those in Amasya are unique inasmuch as they are mentioned in ancient literature. Strabo, a native of the city says that “within this circuit are both the palaces and monuments of the kings,” monuments (mnemata) being a common word for tombs. Amasya is a well-known place, and of course the tombs have long been known. Dozens of travelers in the 19th and 20th centuries and others before have mentioned the tombs in their narrations, with some errors but sometimes also with interesting reflections. The expedition of Georges Perrot visited Amasya in 1861 and produced good drawings of the tombs. Since then, although the tombs have been visited and mentioned many times, all referenced in the book, in fact nothing of importance has been added to our knowledge of them. On the contrary, some details observed by Perrot seem to have been forgotten and had to be rediscovered by Fleischer.

The Pontic kingdom was created ca. 302 B.C.E. by Mithridates I in the turmoil after the division of the realm of Alexander the Great, and the royal tombs are thus rather late in the tradition of Anatolian rock-cut tombs. A group of five tombs above the city is rather conspicuous, and since only five kings ruled in Amasya, it fits well, especially as one of the tombs is unfinished and the fifth king Pharnaces I moved his residence to Sinope after conquering it in 183 B.C.E.

The tombs can be approached from one side, from one tomb to another. They are called Tombs A–E, with A–C side by side, D farther away, and E at the end, with cut galleries between them to facilitate passage. The chronological order has been shown as ACBDE rather than ABCDE, with the third tomb crammed in between the first two where there was barely room for it.     

The idea for the present study was conceived but not completed in 1976; it was revived in 2001 and then performed by a three-man group with aid of photogrammetry. The first half of the book is a thorough survey of the five tombs with ample photographic and drawn documentation. The tombs are rather similar in outline, with a pronaos with steps in front of it and a door situated remarkably high above the floor (1–3 m), perhaps an influence from Iran. Nevertheless, there are certain differences between the tombs: surrounding corridors; openings above the roof, a gabled roof or an archivolt and a horizontal ceiling; a barrel vault along or across the chamber. A bench along the walls may be high or very low or entirely missing. Tombs C and E have an archivolt, which is interpreted as a shift from Greek influence to local tradition.

Early 19th-century travelers commented on preserved decoration or ornamentation in the tombs, although this is lacking today. Nevertheless the decoration has partly been reconstructed from dowel holes and other holes in the floor or walls, marks from a separate anta base, and scratched grooves showing the places of column bases. Some of these cuttings were observed by Perrot’s expedition, but they have been thoroughly studied now and have been drawn as facades with columns in antis, except the tombs with archivolts. Many dowel holes on the facade of Tomb E show that it was covered with slabs, evidently of limestone from a nearby quarry, though these have not survived.         

The reconstructions are shown in plans, facades, and sections (partly repeated in fig. 119), with the reconstructed parts drawn in red. The facade, column bases, and anta bases are the only elements that can be reconstructed with the aid of holes and other marks, and we must note that they were separate members, not cut from the living rock as is usual in rock-cut tombs. For column shafts and capitals, anta capitals, architrave, tympanon, sima, and acroteria, which are lavishly represented in the reconstructions, it should perhaps have been stressed more that we have no surviving documentation. Of course, none of that contradicts the elaborate reconstructions provided, but alternative reconstructions could be envisioned—for example, entablatures might resemble the clumsier facades of Paphlagonian tombs. 

Above Tomb E, an inscription was cut in the rock face stating that the phrourachos Metrodoros dedicated an altar and a flower bed to the gods on behalf of King Pharnaces. Traces on the archivolt of Tomb E were interpreted by Perrot as marks for fastening letters showing King Pharnaces’ name. This raises many questions concerning when the letters were executed and when they were removed, as the tomb was not used by Pharnaces, who lived for many years after his move to Sinope.

The second half of the book studies other tombs in and outside Amasya and also includes short chapters on such subjects as stepped tunnels, dowel holes, doors, chambers, and the later fate of the tombs.  

Rock-tombs in Pontus are not very common, and in fact little is known about earlier burial traditions. There are a few more tombs in other parts of Amasya in addition to the royal ones, and a few of them are also considered in the book. Among them is a large tomb, the owner of which is named by an inscription as the archiereus Tes. This tomb has a door opening situated higher above the floor than those of the royal tombs and a chamber that is square and has an added niche with a rock-cut sarcophagus. There are numerous remnants of medieval frescoes in the chamber and on the pronaos walls. Two other smaller tombs in Amasya are also described. A similar tomb elsewhere in Pontus has the name “Hikesios” in huge letters on the pronaos wall. These tombs, no doubt later than the royal tombs and much influenced by the archivolt specimens among them, suggest that the tomb intended for Pharnaces may have had the name inscribed in the same way.

The book offers an excellent treatment of the tombs, and it can be hoped that tombs in Pontus not mentioned here will receive the same thorough study in the future. The book ends with abstracts in English and Turkish, an index, and an ample bibliography. It is a thorough and well-documented study with excellent illustrations and few misprints.

Paavo Roos
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Lund University

Book Review of Die Felsgräber der Könige von Pontos in Amasya, by Robert Fleischer

Reviewed by Paavo Roos

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.roos

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