After leaving Pamukkale, we climbed out of the valley containing Colossae, Hieropolis and Laodicea and over the mountains to Aphrodisias. This rugged country is a long way from Australia and the only link to our cultural background I can think of is that St Paul probably followed this route on one of his early journeys, probably somewhere around 55-60CE. Scholars believe that when he was coming from Jerusalem, he got off a boat along the coast of modern Turkey, walked up the mountain range to Antioch in Pisidia and then followed the ancient roads to Hieropolis, Aphrodisias and then all the way to the coast at Ephesus. Anyone completing this journey on foot would need to be a mountain goat or have a sturdy donkey. The geography of much of Western Anatolia is so mountainous, that the old trade routes would have had to follow the valleys that the roads of modern Turkey follow today. Luckily for us the drive on to Ephesus is only a 100km and we completed it in far better time than Paul of Tarsus would have done.
The story of the rise and fall of Aphrodisias has a curious symmetry to the tale plus a happy ending. It started off as a Neolithic settlement around 5800BCE. It had a natural local resource, marble, that ensured that it had a greater economic outlook than the other traditional farming communities in this ‘Asian’ section of the Roman Empire. The presence of the Parthian Empire to the east of Aphrodisias (covering large swathes of modern Iraq and Iran) and the almost constant wars with Rome between 66BCE and 217CE meant that the sight of Roman armies (some from Egypt under Mark Antony) filing past the city became another economic advantage. Aphrodisias grew in wealth with the rise of the Roman Empire as evidenced by the construction of magnificent civic buildings sponsored by local identities made wealthy by trade with the Romans as well as the support of the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperors. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, Aphrodisias’s economic advantages fled. Being battered by earthquakes in the fourth and seventh centuries, meant decline was inevitable and it was finished off by sacking by the invading Seljuk Turks in the twelfth century. Gradually abandoned with settlement moving to safer areas, this beautiful Roman city slept under earth and rubble for eight centuries, to be rediscovered in the twentieth century, opening a window on the glory days of the Roman Empire.
There is much to see today at Aprhrodisias and the following list of sites provides a structure for a tour of this ancient Roman City.
- The Tetrapylon
- The Stadium
- The Temple of Aphrodite
- The Bouleuterion(council chambers)
- The North Agora
- The Hadrian Baths
- The Theatre
- The Sebasteion (the Temple of Emperor)
- The Aphrodisias Museum
Our own tour took us to the Theatre first. It was built in the second half of the first century, organised by the busy ex-slave, “Gaius Julius Zoilos, freedman of the divine Julius’s son Caesar” as a local inscription describes him. It must have been a wonderful place for the 8000 capacity audience to view Greek masterpieces as the sun set. It has had a colourful history, with its orchestra area being converted to animal and gladiator fights in the second century CE. Like the rest of Aphrodisias, it was damaged by earthquakes over the centuries and much of it was eventually covered by the modern village of Gyre. Twentieth century citizens knew that there was something there as the top tiers were visible above the ground and so it was excavated from 1966 and the wonderfully preserved theatre was exposed to a new age. During the excavation, much of the statuary that decorated the stage building was recovered in excellent condition and is on display in the Aphrodisias Museum.
Graffiti artists back in the first century must have had a lot of time on their hands when they went to the theatre at Aphrodisias. With the entire theatre being made of solid marble, they needed to bring a hammer and chisel, not a pen to their public ‘canvas’. The self-portrait above was presumably done by a very bored theatre patron. A game board was also drawn on one of the seats for a quick game of ‘stones’ (something like backgammon) when the performance was dragging on. The other version of the game-board pictured above was a more up-market version as it was on a seat in Hadrian’s Bath House. The crossed circle from a theatre seat is an example of Christian graffiti that was drawn on the pagan marble structures throughout Turkey as Christianity started to supplant the Roman religion at the end of the third century CE.
To get an insight into the layout of this Roman City, refer to the diagram at the end of the article.
Our tour continued on past the Agora and it was a moving sight as we viewed it through the rain showers. Much of it was flooded as Earthquakes over the centuries have raised the water table making this area susceptible to flooding. We moved on through the Baths of Hadrian with its largely intact black and white tile floors.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the tour was the Temple of Aphrodite where we arrived next. This much damaged building exemplifies the issue of societies transitioning between one set of religious beliefs on to a completely new, society-wide held set of religious beliefs and practices. We saw this clearly in our visit to Istanbul, particularly at sites like Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. These sites hosted Greco-Roman Religious Citadels who in the fourth century CE gave up their control and power over the minds of their citizens with the arrival of Christianity. This process was then repeated a thousand years later with the world famous Christian Church, Hagia Sophia, being converted to a sacred citadel of Islam, brought to Istanbul by the conquering Turks. One of the curiosities of the 21st century is that there is now talk in the new ‘Islamised’ world of Turkey of Hagia Sophia being returned to Islam and being reconverted to a mosque. That would be a major reversal in the history of global religious transitions. The temple of Aphrodite at Aphrodisias also exemplifies this continent-wide process of changing religious dominance in the fourth and fifteenth century CE.
Due to continuous construction, destruction and reconfiguration, there is little trace of an earlier temple on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite except for some mosaic tiles. However buried nearby and uncovered in the early 1960s near the temple, was a statue of Aphrodite (image on the right). The remains of the Temple of Aphrodite that we see today began to be built in the first century BCE and was completed in the reign of Augustus Caesar. Fourteen Ionic columns remain of the original forty. In the fifth century, Aphrodisias had converted to Christianity and the local Christians no longer had to graffiti their displeasure about the existence of this pagan temple (see image below), they could reuse most of the materials of the temple and build a new Christian Church on the same spot; the only forces of destruction this church would have to face were the earthquakes of the region. The invading Seljuk Turks arrived in the twelfth century. Perhaps to their credit, the locals didn’t convert the old Christian church to a Mosque, it was let decay and the mosque was built elsewhere in Geyre.
The Temple of Aphrodite was also commissioned by the ex-slave Zoilus and the dedication of Aphrodisias to the Goddess Aphrodite may have been a significant reason why Caesar and his descendants showed such favour for Aphrodisias (eg. non-taxable status) given that Caesar’s family claimed direct descent from the Goddess Venus.
From the temple of Aphrodite, our stroll through the remnants of the second Century took us to the most well-preserved building in Aphrodisias, the Bouleuterion. It was the equivalent of modern council chambers and must have been a beautiful space to gather and discuss the important civic issues facing the locals.
From the Bouleuterion the tour trail took us on a long walk down to the hippodrome of old Aphrodisias. The ‘site notes’ suggest that it is the best preserved example of such a stadium in the Mediterranean. It was mainly used for Athletic events but in later centuries it was used for wild beast shows and gladiatorial combats. In the seventh century, the hippodrome looks like it was ‘all shook up’ by earthquake and it looks like the marble seats have been frozen in time ever since (See image below).
The image that is the trademark of the Aphrodisias archaeological park is the Tetrapylon, the monumental gateway to the Sanctuary of Aphrodite. It is amazingly beautiful in that it is largely intact and is a sight that surprises both from a distance and up close. The local sign explains it all…
“…was built in ca. AD 200. It led from Aphrodisias’s main north-south street into a large forecourt in front of the Temple. A complete scientific reconstruction, or anastylosis, of the gateway was completed in 1991. This reconstruction was made possible by the extraordinary preservation of the structure – 85% of its original marble blocks survive. Before reconstruction, the standing ruins were dismantled, and new foundations were laid. The gateway was then painstakingly reassembled, incorporating steel reinforcing bars in the columns and other structural elements, and adding new cast-concrete elements where necessary.”
There is not enough time in a day to visit Aphrodisias when you are on the way to somewhere else. This is a place where each building you visit is just as interesting and accessible as the last one. In the case of the last site we arrived at, the ‘Sebasteion’, we discovered it was a very unusual building that told us a lot about Aphrodisias culture of the first and second century as well as the nature of the Roman Empire and its relationship with the client states that it had conquered and incorporated into its empire.
Last two images are from “A Digital reconstruction of Visual Experience and the Sebasteion of Aphrodisias” by Ozgur Ozturk.
In 1979, the archaeologist Şükrü Tül began excavating the site of Sebasteion by removing a house that had been built over the top of it. After the house removal, his team found many marble ‘reliefs’, sculptural fragments and inscriptions which led him to believe that the building beneath was dedicated to the Imperial Cult, the worship of the Julio-Claudian Emperors of Rome. The excavation revealed four structures…
- A Monumental Gateway, the Propylon;
- Two Porticoes with sculptural reliefs inserted on the walls at three levels;
- A Temple to the Roman Emperors, the remains of which had largely disappeared.
One of the porticoes with its collection of sculptures celebrating Roman culture collapsed during the earthquake of the fourth century and the material from this portico ended up as ‘Spolia’ in the wall of the city that was built in the fifth century. The other portico collapsed at a later date and by this stage, the citizens no longer saw any need to reuse the fragments and so they were covered over by the passage of time, awaiting uncovering in the Twentieth century and these surviving sculptural reliefs are now on display in the Museum. These reliefs from the Sebasteion depicting Gods and sacrifices were also defaced as part of the Christian attempt to eradicate references to Paganism in a similar fashion to what happened to the Temple of Aphrodite.
The Sebasteon speaks of a city that was reinforcing its local allegiance and relationship with the Roman Emperors and the whole building speaks of an attempt to monumentalise and celebrate the Roman world order. Aphrodisias was not alone in attempting to make clear their love and support for the Romans, there are 77 recorded temples and sanctuaries in other cities of Asia Minor with a similar purpose. A cynical modern visitor could probably reflect on many modern examples of client states currying favour with world powers; however, few of them would have done it with the style and beauty of the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias.
Our experience of visiting Aphrodisias was made memorable by a number of issues. The first is the fact that it is so out of the way of the major tourist routes, that visitors are quite few in number so a quiet, slow visit is not hindered by others cramping your style; eg. The freedom of dancing on an ancient theatre’s stage without anyone noticing or commenting. The second is the quality of the preservation of the ruined city, made possible by its thousand years of cover and neglect. The third issue for us was the weather Gods who were very active for our visit. We had to take shelter a number of times from both rain and hail storms. Sheltering under a tree overlooking the flooded Agora in the company of a mongrel black dog is not an experience that can be pre-organised or bought anywhere else.
Visiting Turkey? Here are the stops on our tour!