If you happen to be in Tarsus, driving east along the central Adana Blv, you will find to your left, at the large roundabout 100m north of the Ulu Cami and the so-called Church of St Paul, a fountain with an intriguing statue in the middle of a small basin. It shows a triton standing on its coiled scaly tail with back and sides covered with large erect snakes, twelve of them: they hold the water pipes. More smaller snakes appear to be arranged as a sort of crown on the head of the figure. This is Şahmeran, and the connection seems to be with Persia, since Şahmeran translates as ‘king of snakes’ in Farsi. However, there is also talk of Egyptian origins, but in any case the legend of Şahmeran appears widespread all over the East, normally with a reference to medicine and healing. In fact, the coupling of healing with snakes is still with us, as the staff of Aesculapius (a roughly-hewn branch with one coiled snake, illustrated here) well testifies.
A 50cm by 50cm relief of Şahmeran (now in Kars museum) was recently unearthed at Ani near the cathedral. The plaque shows a creature with a snake’s body, a dragon’s head protruding from its back and a human face that looks decidedly female. The Tarsus Şahmeran is definitely a man, at least according to local lore (you can find a number of images of him on the Internet, for example on this TripAdvisor page here). In Tarsus Şahmeran is linked to the nearby bath, the Şahmeran hamam. It is open for business today though its origins are very old. The building is c. 15th–century, with 19thcentury restorations , but it is said to rest on top of a Roman bath, as yet unexplored. It is here that Şahmeran is said to have met his end, when he was discovered peeping at his beloved from an opening in the cupola. He was swiftly dispatched on the marble massage table by having his head cut off. Stains of his blood are apparently still visible and the local people have been dreading the snakes’ revenge ever since.
Meanwhile, Şahmeran left his body to science so to speak, with momentous consequences. Both the local ruler and his deputy had fallen seriously ill and Şahmeran instructed a young man by the name of Lokman in the art of medicine. He told him to take his (Şahmeran’s) body, cut it into three parts and boil it. The meat was served to the ruler, who was healed, and the stock to his ‘vizir’, who died—and rightly so, since he was devious and untrustworthy. Justice was done. From these promising beginnings, Lokman proceeded to learn about herbs, potions and infusions. Indeed, he acquired the skill of understanding the speech of plants. He would go for walks in the countryside, listen to what they said, and then he knew what to do: his career was assured.
by Paola Pugsley. Her Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, which includes Tarsus, will be published this summer. For other books by Paola on Turkey, see here.