In the ancient city of Assos in Turkey there existed a bizarre phenomenon – the stone sarcophagi within the Assos necropolis could decompose bodies unusually fast. Instead of taking between 50 and 200 years for the bodies inside to disintegrate, they took just 40 days. Hence, they became known as σαρκο φαγοσ (‘sarko fagos’) in Greek, which translates to ‘flesh-eater’, and it is from this interpretation that the word ‘sarcophagus’ originated.
Assos is a small historically rich town in the Çanakkale Province of Turkey, founded from 1000 to 900 BC by Aeolian colonists from Lesbos. The settlers built a Doric Temple to Athena on top of the crag in 530 BC, from which Hermias, a student of Plato, ruled the region, bringing great prosperity and transforming Assos into a center for some of the greatest philosophers in the world. It is here that Aristotle was married to Pythia in 348 BC. This ‘golden period’ of Assos ended several years later when the Persians arrived, and subsequently tortured Hermias to death. The Persians were driven out by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. It was then ruled for a century by the Kings of Pergamon, before they lost control of the city and it was absorbed by the Roman Empire.
The first sarcophagi appeared in Assos’ necropolis in the 5 th century BC. They were simple coffins made from andesite stone with a flat cover on top. In Roman times, they became more ornate.
The sarcophagi appear to have been recognized early on for their unique characteristics and were widely traded from the harbour of Assos, reaching as far as Rome and Egypt.
Scientists still do not fully understand what properties of the stone cause the bodies within to rapidly decompose, but research is ongoing to unravel the mystery of the ‘meat-eater’ sarcophagi of Assos.
Top image: Flesh-eating sarcophagus, Assos, Turkey. Source: Häferlkaffee / Twitter
By Joanna Gillan