Excavations being carried out in the ancient city of Syedra, traced back to 2,900 years ago, continue to shed light on the vibrant history of Turkey. Located in the Alanya district of southern Antalya, a massive 164 square meter (1,765 square foot) floor mosaic was found picturing the Greek mythological hero, Heracles (or Hercules in Roman). In the mosaic located in the ancient Roman bath, Heracles is depicted as performing his twelve labors.
Discovering a Mosaic of Epic Proportions
“We have never seen such a mosaic on which the mythological scene of the 12 Labors of Heracles is depicted before. The fact that the figures of the mosaic are made in human dimensions also stands out. In this sense, it is a unique mosaic,” stated associate professor Ertuğ Ergürer of Karamanoğlu Mehmetbey University Faculty of Letters in the Archaeology Department, the head of the excavations in Syedra, in an interview with Turkish press Anadolu Agency .
He added that the mosaic had first been identified in 2019, but its identity concealed in a bid to protect it from intrusion. After a year of undertaking necessary precautions to be adequately prepared, the research team began unearthing the mosaic completely by the end of 2020. Fortunately for both the archaeology team and the field of history in general, the mosaic was well preserved and largely protected from the elements.
The bath building where the Heracles mosaic is located. ( Turkey Department of Culture )
The floor mosaic is 7.9 meters (25.9 feet) in width and 21.91 meters (71.88 feet) in length, and dated to the 2nd century AD. Spread over 164 square meters, it is believed to be one of the largest mosaics of Heracles found in Turkey, a country with strong Greco-Roman influence due to its Byzantine past. The finds have been shared on Twitter.
What is perhaps even more poetic is that such a find has been made in Syedra, a city renowned with its many layers of history and occupation. Ruins occupy every corner of Syedra, which is associated with a feeling of the overwhelming passage of time. Ergürer noted that the population of the city was likely 5,000-6,000 people at the time of the mosaic.
The Labors of Heracles
Heracles, the ‘greatest of the Greek heroes ’ was born Alcaeus or Alcides, the child of Zeus and Alcmene. He had been fostered by Amphitryon, and was a half-brother of Perseus and Dionysus on either side. In an apparent fit of madness, imposed upon him by Hera, the Queen of the Pantheon and Zeus’ wife, Heracles killed his wife Megara. He would now be on a quest of tragedies, fated to carry out crimes and actions by powers that now controlled his life.
Close up of a section of the 12 Labors of Heracles mosaic in Syedra, Turkey. ( Turkey Department of Culture )
In a bid to atone for his sins, he consulted the Oracles of Apollo in Delphi who sent him to Tiryns and perform the tasks assigned by King Eurystheus, his cousin through his mother. For twelve years, Heracles traveled all the over world completing these ‘Herculean’ tasks, which is the origin of this phrase in the English language. After completing these twelve tasks, he was forever immortalized in the pages of mythology, and also depicted on artifacts like vases, sarcophagi, paintings, and inscriptions.
“The mythological hero, known as Heracles in Greek mythology and Hercules in Roman mythology , is given twelve very difficult tasks. He is asked to fulfill these tasks. His first task is to kill the ‘Nemean Lion’, which has a skin that does not penetrate with the sword and spear. Here he strangles him. The fight with various mythological characters and figures is staged. In the last scene, there is a scene where the Hesperids take the apple and rest. Some scenes were destroyed in antiquity, and some scenes are quite well preserved,” concluded Ergürer.
The twelve labors would later be connected by a continuous narrative – a long, epic, poem of tragic proportions. The greatest tragedy? The poem, written by Peisander and dated to 600 BC, has since been lost. Mosaics like this help show us a multiplicity of narratives about mythologies, Greek and otherwise, which add to the larger discipline of history.
Top image: The huge mosaic of the Twelve Labors of Heracles discovered at Syedra, Turkey. Source: Turkey Department of Culture
By Sahir Pandey