In the middle of this sun-baked Anatolian plateau in western Turkey, U.S. archaeologists are working painstakingly to preserve the tomb of King Midas, around whom grew the myth of the golden touch.
Archaeologists believe the 2,600-year-old tomb is the oldest standing wooden structure in the world.About 90 pyramid-shaped mounds of earth rise on the land where the Phrygians had their ancient capital of Gordion.
The largest and highest of the burial mounds is believed to be the tomb of King Midas, believed to have lived from 725 B.C. to 675 B.C.
The tomb chamber, within a mound about 150 feet high and 900 feet in diameter, has started to show signs of deterioration, mostly because of lack of air circulation and the high rate of humidity inside the grave.
"There are cracks in the north wall and the wall is slightly bulging out," explained Professor Kenneth Sams of the University of North Carolina, who has undertaken the preservation work in the name of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
"There is no imminent danger of collapse but we want to keep this unique monument as it is for the coming generations," he said.
The tomb was excavated in 1957 under the direction of the late Rodney S. Young of the University of Pennsylvania.
According to historians, it was the Phrygians who first introduced the tumulus, or mound, burial style in Anatolia. This small central Anatolian village is 60 miles southwest of the Turkish capital city of Ankara.
Thirty grave chambers have been excavated, 25 by the U.S. excavators over the past few decades and the rest by the Germans in 1900.
The Midas chamber was made of squared logs and an outer casing of round logs of juniper and pine to take the pressure of the rubble from a wall covering the tomb. Phyrgians built a roof and a waterproof stone covering on top of the tomb and then covered it with tons of earth.
The body and funeral gifts were placed inside the rectangular chamber, which measures about 320 square feet.
Large white fungi cover the upper sections of the wooden chamber.
"They are slowly eating the wood," says Sams. "We have to bring mycologists (fungi specialists) here to determine how many kinds of fungi exist here and why they find this place so comfortable."
Sams said the archaeologists are in the preliminary stage of the conservation work. First, they are trying to find the reason for the fluctuations in the humidity, which ranges from a low of 35 percent to a high of 85 percent, while temperatures remain steady throughout the year at about 60 degrees.
The Phrygians moved into Anatolia from Thrace and the Balkan peninsula in 10th century B.C. and became the major power in Asia Minor in the 9th century B.C., inheriting the remains of the Hittite civilization. They served as a cultural bridge from the Hittites to the Anatolian civilizations of the Lydians and the Greeks.
They bequeathed to Greek mythology and Roman religion their mother-goddess Cybele.
Professor Ekrem Akurgal, one of Turkey's most prominent archaeologists, said many Phyrgian kings were named Midas, but the one whose tomb is being preserved is the great monarch who established Phrygian hegemony in Asia Minor and is mentioned in Assyrian tablets of the period.
Akurgal said this Midas is the one on whom the legend of the golden touch is based.
According to the legend, Midas, son of King Gordius, was a spendthrift who begged the gods for the power to turn anything he touched to gold. His wish was granted but Midas nearly starved because even the food he tried to eat turned to gold.
The curse was lifted when he cleansed himself by bathing in the river Pactolus, known today as Sart Cayi, famous for its golden sands.
The burial mounds are on a site on which, according to Greek legend, Gordius tied his cart to a pole with an intricate knot - the Gordian knot. Oracles said that whoever untied the knot would rule Asia. Alexander the Great cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, according to the story.
Archaeologists today are particularly interested in the woodwork of the Phrygians.
In the Midas burial chamber, excavators found remains of tables, inlaid wooden screens, bronze and leather belts, bronze cauldrons and other items lying beside the skeleton of the king.
A team of U.S. art conservators and archaeologists led by Elizabeth Simpson of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are restoring these artifacts.
"This extraordinary furniture from Gordion occupies a special place in the history of woodworking and of ancient art in general," she said.