In the middle of this sun-baked Anatolian plateau in western Turkey, U.S. archeologists are working to preserve the tomb of King Midas, around whom grew the myth of the golden touch.
Archeologists believe the 2,600-year-old tomb is the oldest standing wooden structure in the world.
About 90 pyramid-shaped mounds of earth rise on the land where the Phrygians had their ancient capital of Gordion. The largest and highest of the burial mounds is believed to be the tomb of King Midas, who is said to have lived from 725 BC to 675 BC.
The tomb chamber, within a mound about 150 feet high and 900 feet in diameter, has started to show signs of deterioration, mostly because of lack of air circulation and the high rate humidity inside the grave.
“There are cracks in the north wall and the wall is slightly bulging out,” explained Prof. Kenneth Sams of the University of North Carolina, who has undertaken the preservation work in the name of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “There is no imminent danger of collapse but we want to keep this unique monument as it is for the coming generations.”
The tomb was excavated in 1957 under the direction of the late Rodney S. Young of the University of Pennsylvania.
According to historians, it was the Phrygians who first introduced the tumulus, or mound, burial style in Anatolia.
Thirty grave chambers have been excavated. The Midas chamber was made of squared logs and an outer casing of round logs of juniper and pine to take the pressure of the rubble from a wall covering the tomb. The body and funeral gifts were placed inside the rectangular chamber, which measures about 320 square feet. Phyrgians built a roof and a waterproof stone covering on top of the tomb and then covered it with tons of earth.
Large white fungi now cover the upper sections of the wooden chamber. “They are slowly eating the wood,” Sams said. “We have to bring mycologists (fungi specialists) here to determine how many kinds of fungi exist here and why they find (it) so comfortable.”
Sams said the archeologists are in the preliminary stage. First, they are trying to find the reason for the fluctuations in the humidity, which ranges from 35% to 85%, while temperatures remain steady at about 60 degrees.
The Phrygians moved into Anatolia from Thrace and the Balkan peninsula in 10th Century BC and became the major power in Asia Minor in the 9th Century BC, inheriting the remains of the Hittite civilization. They served as a cultural bridge from the Hittites to the Anatolian civilizations of the Lydians and the Greeks.
Prof. Ekrem Akurgal, one of Turkey’s most prominent archeologists, said many Phyrgian kings were named Midas, but the one whose tomb is being preserved is the great monarch who established Phrygian hegemony in Asia Minor and is mentioned in Assyrian tablets of the period. Akurgal said this Midas is the one on whom the legend of the golden touch is based.
According to the legend, Midas, son of King Gordius, was a spendthrift who begged the gods for the power to turn all he touched into gold. His wish was granted but Midas nearly starved because even the food he touched turned to gold.
The curse was lifted when he cleansed himself by bathing in the river Pactolus, known today as Sart Cayi, famous for its golden sands.
The burial mounds are on a site on which, according to Greek legend, Gordius tied his cart to a pole with an intricate knot--the Gordian knot. Oracles said that whoever untied the knot would rule Asia. Alexander the Great cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, according to the story.
In the Midas burial chamber, excavators found remains of tables, inlaid wooden screens, bronze and leather belts, bronze caldrons and other items lying beside the skeleton of the king.