Among all the epithets his ancient worshippers accorded to the sun god Apollo, perhaps none is stranger than Smintheus, Lord of Mice. The imposing temple of Apollon Smintheus (circa 2nd century BCE) at Gülpınar is dedicated to this rare cult, associated with Apollo's role as a god of disease. Unlike the city of Troy and the town of Assos, Apollon Smintheus was not a settlement but a holy site.
I worked at Gülpınar as an archaeology student under the supervision of Professor Dr Coşkun Özgünel, who has been leading the excavation since the 1970s. The first question I asked on my first day in the field was: 'Where can I find ancient coins?' I had been obsessed with finding an archaeological artefact ever since I had seen the Indiana Jones films as a kid. The professor's answer was rather strange.
Ancient Greek temples usually had bathhouses (thermae) in close proximity that served the holy site's smelly visitors. Pilgrims, having come a long way, knew that BO never makes a good impression (especially to the Gods). Back then, as perhaps now, it was the public toilets that were the place to look for coins. Inside the bathhouse loos, when occupants assumed the position, coins often spilled out of their pouches unnoticed.
On hearing this, I selected a pickaxe from the racks and headed for the nearest ancient lavs. Sure enough, after hours of digging with unwavering enthusiasm, I eventually found my first coin. Like every lucky discoverer of an archaeological artefact, I was instantly faced with the dilemma of pocketing it or yielding it: with Dr Jones's mantra of 'It belongs in a museum' echoing in my head, I did the latter (Indy would have been proud).
After a few days at the excavation, however, I noticed that such artefacts weren't that rare at all. I recorded 15 coins, a bronze bracelet with a lion figure and innumerable pieces of ceramic pottery. The real problem with archaeology, I was soon to realise, is that there are simply too many things to dig up.
The epiphany came – much like St Paul's – while I was standing on an ancient stone road, an exhumed section of the route that had once connected the holy site with the town of Alexander Troas 30 kilometres to the north. Aligning myself with its trajectory, I uncovered the subterranean highway with my mind's eye, imagining it snaking for kilometres over the hills and lush shrubbery ahead. I wondered what marvels, like the remainder of this road, would remain uncovered for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
The artefacts that have been excavated, however, are displayed in the onsite museum. Among them are the famous temple reliefs depicting scenes from the Iliad epic. The temple and two bathhouses are also open to visitors.
Nearby places you might dig...
The village surrounding the site doesn't have any hotels. Advisably, stay in the nearby Behramkale (Assos) and visit the site for the day. If you're lucky, you might even come across an ancient coin on the ground; what you do with it is your own moral dilemma. Just remember, you're in the shadow of Mount Ida in this part of the world. The gods might be watching...