We had been travelling in Turkey, a trip that involved starting in Istanbul, flying out to Cappadocia and then heading back to the coast of the Aegean Sea to Ephesus with a stop at Aphrodisias along the way. After a few delightful days using Sirince as a base just outside Ephesus, we headed south to Marmaris on the southern coast of Turkey. Visiting Rhodes and Crete were our destinations before flying back to Athens and then heading home.
We decided to take advantage of our slow drive to Marmaris from Sirince and stop in at two famous places along the way, Miletus and Didyma. Miletus is no raging coastal tourist hotspot; as we drove into the site, there were a few locals around that looked up in surprise at our arrival. Perhaps Wikipedia gives its status away in the opening of its article on Miletus. “Miletus was an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia, near the mouth of the Meander River in ancient Caria. Its ruins are located near the modern village of Balat in Aydin Province Turkey .” Another tourist website also intimated that we would not be competing with any crowds at Miletus as we strolled the ancient site. “Judging by the modest number of tourists reaching the ruins of Miletus, it is hard to believe that in the antiquity it was one of the most important cities of the region, in its heyday challenging the power of Ephesus.” (https://turkisharchaeonews.net/site/miletus) In its ‘heyday’ in the 6th century BCE , it was one of the greatest and wealthiest Greek cities around the Aegean.
I would argue there are many reasons to visit Miletus (if you are in the area) and these reasons aren’t all about ancient history. One of them is if you are an environmentalist and you want to get some solid evidence of the effect of humanity’s impact on the environment over a couple of thousand years. If you look at a contemporary map of this coast of turkey, you will see it’s a reasonably straight coastline down to the Mediterranean. If you are a fan of the travels of St Paul however, only two thousand years ago the Elders from Ephesus in 57 CE were able to catch a boat down the coast from Ephesus and meet up with Paul at a dock in downtown Miletus. The same trip today would start by boat but end up with a trek of a couple of kilometres cross country to get to Miletus. The wonderful map below from Wikipedia shows the impact of land clearance and soil runoff that has filled in the valley of the Meander river and forced the ancient coastline to migrate many kilometres westward to where it lies today. When Miletus was originally settled in the 6th century, it was beside a huge coastal bay; the only section of that bay left today is Lake Bafa that sits landlocked behind Miletus. The citizens of the other significant Greek city on the other side of the old bay, Priene, were generally able to catch a boat across to Miletus. Unfortunately their port kept losing the sea.
Before giving an account of our exploration of Miletus, I think it’s interesting to note a significant relic of Miletus that has survived into the 21st century no longer stands proud in the city of its origin. German archaeologists had been very busy exploring Turkey in the late 19th and early 20th century. They discovered a couple of amazing relics from the area’s ancient history such as the Temple of Zeus from Pergamon and the Market Gate of Miletus and the remnants of these buildings were shipped back to Germany and put back together like huge stone jig saw puzzles on Museum Island in Berlin. The story of this process can be found in another section of this blog site at https://fogtravel.blog/berlinmuseum-island/. There is a curious irony in the fact that the original archaeological site does not attract huge numbers of visitors to the coast of the Aegean sea, but one of its ‘jewels in the crown’ attracts huge numbers of visitors to see it in a museum in Berlin. The image below is taken in the Pergamum Museum of Miletus’s market gate.
The diagram on the right is an attempt to make sense of the site of Miletus today. The entry road into the Miletus site leads the visitor past the small museum reopened in 2011 and then on to the front of the huge theatre which is one the major buildings on the site that has been completely excavated. The map here shows that the theatre is right at the edge of the wall that ran around the original city; the back of the theatre was in fact part of the city’s defensive wall. The theatre building illustrates the long history of six centuries of varying prosperity. The theatre we see today is generally what remains of the building after it was built over and renovated over the top of original theatre that began life in the fourth century. In Roman times, the theatre was upgraded in the time of the Emperor Trajan (98-117) CE) and contained 5300 seats and held 15000 spectators. The ‘orchestra area’ was expanded to allow for Rome’s favourite entertainment, gladiatorial and animal fights. Much of our stop at Miletus was spent exploring this huge entertainment centre and its design reminded us of the modern football stadiums back in Brisbane, designed to allow the free flow of spectators to find their appropriate seats.
One of the other famous social pastimes of the Romans was their baths. One structure highlighted in the local museum is the Baths of Faustina, built by the locals to honour the visit of the wife of Marcus Aurelius to their city in the mid second century CE. These baths were renovated during the 3rd century and the statue of the River God Meander survived in reasonable shape in situ down to the 21st Century. If the rather indolent looking statue of Meander stretched out in the baths at Miletus is a reflection of his character, it is no wonder that he didn’t interfere with the ancient citizens of the area felling all the trees along his river’s bank, thus leading to the huge amount of silt that went on to destroy the bay that Miletus’s trade depended on.
Another famous statue recovered in the Baths of Faustina was that of Apollo “citharados” or Apollo playing the lyre. You won’t be able to view this statue at Miletus but at least you won’t have to go all the way to Berlin to view this statue, dated to the 2nd century CE; you can find this statue in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. Unfortunately Apollo has lost his fingers so he is no longer able to play his ‘cithera’; the Turkish word ‘Kithara’ is translated today as ‘Guitar’
Like so many ancient archaeological sites in Turkey, there is just not sufficient funds available to future protect these sites from the elements. The image below of large sections of ancient Miletus under water I took from one side of the theatre. Time was calling us on to our next stop for the day at Didyma so I didn’t get to find the spot where the Miletus Market Gate was collected by German Archaeologists. It was felled by an earthquake around the 10th century CE and was pile of rubble at the end of the 19th century when it was gathered and put together by the Germans. I am very sympathetic to the argument that archaeological treasures belong in their homeland, but my selfishness is very grateful that I was able to eventually see the Miletus Gate in all its glory a few years later when we were able to visit Museum Island in Berlin.