A Polish diplomat assigned to his country’s embassy in Ankara, Turkey has helped solve an archaeological and historical riddle that has puzzled scholars for more than two centuries. Accomplishing a feat that eluded professional archaeologists, this amateur explorer became the first individual to discover the remains of the lost ancient city of Thebasa, which played a historically important role in the 500-year conflict between the Byzantine Empire and various Muslim Caliphates over control of the peninsula of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).
Roving Diplomat Comes Across Thebasa
Diplomat Robert D. Rokicki has long been interested in ancient history and archaeology. He often indulges this passion by exploring the untamed Turkish countryside, searching for hidden ruins or overlooked historical sites.
“I can freely perform my favorite way of tourism here, which I call ‘histracking’—off-road hiking in search of historical places,” Rokicki told the Anadolu Agency news service. “It combines natural and cultural discovery. Turkey is the world’s best destination for this kind of activity, as it is rich in historical monuments and natural wonders and provides a friendly environment.”
While wandering through the wildlands of southcentral Anatolia near the Taurus Mountains last year, Rokicki entered the village of Pinarkaya in Turkey’s Karaman province, which he believed might have a connection to notable historical events. However, those events had nothing whatsoever to do with the lost city of Thebasa.
“In fact, I was looking for a different place related to the popular legend of the seven sleepers,” he admitted.
The ancient site of the Grotto of Seven Sleepers in Ephesus, Turkey ( TripAdvisor)
This reference is to a story preserved in both the Christian and Islamic spiritual traditions. The legend of the Seven Sleepers , or the Sleepers of Ephesus and Companions of the Cave, tells of a group of young people who hid inside a cave near the city of Ephesus around the year 250 AD, as they were attempting to escape the ongoing Roman persecutions of Christians . The legend says the youth slept for 300 years, before finally waking and emerging from the cave.
Rokicki found nothing during his wanderings that related to this particular episode (assuming the tale of the Seven Sleepers contains some historical truth). What he found instead were the remains of long-lost Thebasa, a fortified city in Asia Minor (Anatolia) that had remained under Roman and Byzantine control up through the early ninth century AD.
“Thebasa’s discovery was a bit accidental,” Rokicki noted, cheerfully acknowledging his good fortune.
A Brief History of Lycaonia and the Search for Thebasa
Thebasa was one of several cities that could be found in ancient Lycaonia, an interior region of Asia Minor located just north of the Taurus Mountains.
The Taurus mountains run for hundreds of miles in what is now Turkey. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
After a few centuries of independence, Lycaonia fell under Roman control in the third century BC. For the next few centuries its lands were used by Rome to cement alliances between itself and various small empires, kingdoms, and city-states in Asia Minor, which means it was passed around as a gift to several different political entities looking to expand their territory.
Lycaonia only became a distinct Roman province in 371 AD. Eventually it became a frontier stronghold for the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, which was founded in Anatolia (Asia Minor) in the fifth century AD. Lycaonia was fully Christianized by the fourth century, becoming the first region in Asia Minor to convert completely to the new religion.
Location of Lycaonia in Anatolia. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
As a natural crossroads on ancient trade routes, Lycaonia was heavily traveled. Thebasa was not on the main routes passing through the territory, however, and that’s partly why its location remained a mystery for so long.
“Due to the scanty and ambiguous information, the city has been searched for in various places, often very distant from one another,” Rokicki explained.
Scholars and adventurers have been searching for Thebasa for more than 200 years. Among the most famous of these searchers was the famed British author, archaeologist, and stateswoman Gertrud Bell , whose explorations began in the late 19th century and continued into the early 20th. The last individual to submit a proposal for where Thebasa might be found was Austrian academician Gertrud Laminger-Pascher, who published her theory back in 1991.
Now, 30 years later, the truth about where Thebasa could be found has finally been revealed, by an amateur who stumbled upon the lost city completely by accident.
Why All the Fuss about Thebasa?
Thebasa seems to have been a relatively obscure city, up until the sixth century when the Muslim conquest of neighboring Cilicia changed the political dynamics of the region.
Cilicia was a region of southeastern Anatolia that helped define the border of the greater Byzantine political entity. When they lost it to the Arab Caliphate, it shifted that border to the southern part of Lycaonia, which put Thebasa on the frontline between two hostile powers .
In anticipation of future trouble, the Byzantines built a castle in the city, to buffer their ability to defend the area against a Muslim invasion. Their worst fears proved to be justified, and in 793 AD an under-siege Thebasa was forced to surrender to Muslim forces led by a general named Abdurrahman bin Abdalmalik.
In a bold move, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I launched a strong offensive against Thebasa’s Muslim occupiers in 805, and managed to retake the city. But Byzantine redemption proved to be short-lived, as the armies of the Muslim caliph Harun ar-Rashid smashed through Nikephoros I’s forces and recaptured Thebasa just one year later.
But the story of Thebasa, and of the Byzantine Empire in the area, was far from finished. Under the resurgent leadership of soldier-emperor Nikephoros II , in 964 and 965 Byzantine armies swept through southern Anatolia and ultimately recaptured the lands of Cilicia from their Muslim rulers. Strategically located between the Lycaonian capital of Iconium (modern-day Konya) and the Cilician city of Adana, Thebasa would have played a vital role in this execution of this plan, as Nikephoros II’s armies would have needed to liberate and occupy it to reestablish their presence in the region and complete a successful military campaign.
As explained by Professor Stephen Mitchell, a British Academy fellow and the honorary secretary of the British Institute at Ankara, the discovery of the true location of Thebasa helps resolve questions about how Byzantine forces could have moved between Iconium and Adana so efficiently during their campaign to retake Cilicia and surrounding areas from the Muslims.
“His (Robert D. Rokicki’s) work adds a whole new chapter to the story of the conflict between the Byzantines and the Arabs in the 10th and 11th centuries,” Mitchell said, generously acknowledging the contributions of a determined amateur explorer.
Since Rokicki’s discovery is so recent, the revelations to emerge from it have undoubtedly just begun. Archaeologists will be descending on the Thebasa in the months and years to come, searching for ruins, artifacts, and inscriptions that may reveal more about an ancient city that some of history’s mightiest empires once struggled to control.
Top image: Polish diplomat Robert D. Rokicki points to where he believes the ancient city of Thebasa is located. Source: Anadolu Agency
By Nathan Falde