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Scroll of Asclepius with an inscription. Source: Background; Alexey Pavluts / Adobe Stock, Insets; Left;CC BY-SA 3.0; Right; CC BY-SA 4.0

Second Century Asclepius Inscription Found at Anatolian Site

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Archaeologists performing excavations in the ancient city of Hadrianopolis in Paphlagonia, in the Black Sea region of northern Turkey unearthed a piece of rock that contained a most revealing inscription. “The Savior presented Ailios Deiotaros to Asclepius,” the translated inscription said, which indicates that an Asclepius cult was active in this Hadrianopolis more than 1,800 years ago.

Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine and healing, and cults in his honor first developed in Greece in the fifth century BC. There were several cities named Hadrianopolis, this one being occupied during the late Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, and while he may have been Greek in origin, the god Asclepius would have been worshipped by city dwellers in all these eras.

The Anatolian Hadrianopolis Asclepius inscription suggests there was a cult healing temple at this ancient site. This marble torso and head of Asclepius is from the Acslepeion of Piraeus, and it is a 2nd century BC Hellenistic variation of the original cult statue attributed to the sculptor Skopas from the first half of the 4th century BC. (George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Anatolian Hadrianopolis Asclepius inscription suggests there was a cult healing temple at this ancient site. This marble torso and head of Asclepius is from the Acslepeion of Piraeus, and it is a 2nd century BC Hellenistic variation of the original cult statue attributed to the sculptor Skopas from the first half of the 4th century BC. (George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The New Asclepius Inscription Find

The discovery of the inscription is just the latest intriguing find connected to a series of excavations that began at Hadrianopolis in 2003, under the direction of Associate Professor Ersin Çelikbaş, an archaeologist from Turkey’s Karabuk University. Speaking with the Anadolu Agency , Çelikbaş explained the significance of this unique discovery.

"We can say that the culture of Asclepius was detected for the first time in the Black Sea [region],” he said, noting that the Turkish archaeology community had suspected the presence of such a cult but had never before been able to find proof.  “The discovery of the inscription clearly revealed that there was indeed an Asclepian culture in Hadrianopolis."

Çelikbaş said that the inscription would have been used to dedicate an ancient hospital. Hadrianopolis would have been an ideal location for a Asclepian healing center , since the Akkaya thermal springs can be found within its borders.

"Usually, the Asklepios [hospitals] are around the hot water springs. The proximity of the Akkaya thermal spring is the biggest reason why the Asclepius culture is here. Hadrianopolis is one of the most important cult centers of the ancient period, especially the Roman period,” he said.

The archaeologists say that the inscription was engraved into the rock sometime in the second century AD.

"This means the early imperial period,” Çelikbaş confirmed.” We can say that Hadrianopolis was an important Roman city and a cult center in the early imperial period." By Roman times Asclepius was well known throughout the region, and a healing center built in a bustling city like Hadrianopolis would have been quite popular.

Hospitals or healing temples associated with the Asclepius cult, which the Hadrianopolis Asclepius inscription may attest to, were more spiritual healing centers. Ascelpius is known as the “Greek god of medicine and healing” and his double snake-wrapped staff is the Western symbol for medicine. (Michael F. Mehnert / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hospitals or healing temples associated with the Asclepius cult, which the Hadrianopolis Asclepius inscription may attest to, were more spiritual healing centers. Ascelpius is known as the “Greek god of medicine and healing” and his double snake-wrapped staff is the Western symbol for medicine. (Michael F. Mehnert / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Cultic Healing Practices in the Second Century AD

The hospitals or healing temples associated with the cult of Asclepius were not like hospitals in the modern sense . They had a strong spiritual rather than scientific orientation and relied on knowledge acquired during altered states of consciousness to prescribe cures.

Those who attached themselves to Asclepius cults would flock to these healing temples, all of which were dedicated in the god’s name. They would come seeking remedies for all types of ailments, which the great god himself would be expected to provide.

Pilgrims to the temples (like Ailios Deiotaros, the individual referenced in the latest Asclepius inscription) would first undergo ritual purification, after which they would make offerings to Asclepius and other gods.

They would then spend the night in a special holy part of the temple, where healing energies were concentrated and where Asclepius’s presence could be felt. The pilgrims would be instructed to remember any dreams or visions they might have, which would then be reported to a cult priest-healer. It would be up to that individual to interpret the meaning of those dreams or visions, and recommend a treatment based on that interpretation.

In addition to the priest-healers, animals were also included in wellness and recovery rituals. Non-venomous snakes were often used in various types of ceremonies and procedures, and they were allowed to freely crawl around inside healing temples to pass among the sick and injured. Some healing temples also had sacred dogs that would be brought in to lick the wounds of the ill.

There are no written records that detail any successes credited to these healing procedures. But the cult of Asclepius thrived for centuries, which suggests that many if not most people who came to the cult’s hospitals seeking treatment must have left pleased with the results.

The Hadrianopolis site in Anatolian Turkey near the Black Sea has only been excavated since 2003 and as such is quite new, but it has already become famous for its ancient mosaics like this one. (anews)

The Hadrianopolis site in Anatolian Turkey near the Black Sea has only been excavated since 2003 and as such is quite new, but it has already become famous for its ancient mosaics like this one. ( anews)

Archaeological Treasures Abound at Hadrianopolis

Hadrianopolis is located in the Eskipazar district of the Turkish province of Karabuk. It was founded in the first century BC and used as a settlement until the eighth century AD. The city undoubtedly reached its greatest height of prosperity during the Roman period, and at some point during this era it was named after the first century AD Roman emperor Hadrian.

As an archaeological site, the city has become known for the spectacular mosaics that were installed on the floors of its churches. The imagery featured on the mosaics includes depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates river system, along with designs of animals such as the horse, panther, deer, elephant, and the mythological griffin, a creature that is imagined as having the body of a lion and the head of a bird.

A tremendous variety of ruins have been discovered at the Hadrianopolis site, covering many centuries of occupation. Over the past two decades archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a 1600-year-old weighbridge, multiple churches and temples, mosaics, rock tombs, public baths, a defensive fortress, a theater, a domed structure with arches, sections of city walls, Roman villas, municipal buildings, and a few structures that were likely associated with cultic practices.

Many smaller artifacts that reveal the lives and lifestyles of the city’s occupants have also been recovered. Some of the highlights include caches of ancient coins, grave goods of different types, arrowheads, an 1,800-year-old votive plate, and a rare iron mask that would have belonged to a Roman soldier.

Much of what has been found could be considered typical of a settlement with links to the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods of European history. But the discovery that Hadrianopolis was home to an apparently thriving Asclepius cult could not have been predicted, and that is why the discovery of the Asclepius inscription has generated so much excitement among the archaeological community in Turkey.

Top image: Scroll of Asclepius with an inscription. Source: Background; Alexey Pavluts / Adobe Stock, Insets; Left; CC BY-SA 3.0 ; Right; CC BY-SA 4.0

By Nathan Falde

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