Turkey’s Aegean Coast has a rich history of coastal occupation and influence by Greek and Roman civilisations. The rich agriculture and strategic alignment of land and sea trade routes encouraged the settlement and construction of many significant metropolises, including Ephesus, Pergamon, Hierapolis and Troy. Architecture narrates their stories indelibly on the landscape: humble beginnings, battles for territory and access, expansion, glory and ultimate demise.
We spent four days exploring the key sites and archaeological offerings of the Aegean Coast; stopping one night in Cannakale, two nights in the coastal resort town Kusadasi, and a final night in Marmaris (after which we took a ferry to Rhodes).
Prior to arriving in Turkey, we researched which sites we wanted to visit then found a local operator who covered them (not all companies did). The tour picked us up in Istanbul and transported us between the key sites all the way to Marmaris.
To skip to the sites you’re most interested in follow these quick links:
Acropolis of Pergamon
Ephesus (inc. House of the Virgin Mary, and Temple of Artemis)
Hierapolis of Phrygia and the Travertines
Did you know that the ancient Greek city of Troy is actually on the Turkish west coast? I was quite surprised when I stumbled upon this fact in my Turkish guidebooks.
Of course I was familiar with the Troy of Homer’s Iliad – the love/kidnapping of a woman (Helen, Paris), battle between great heroes (Achilles, Hector), the fall of a great city (Greeks, a wooden horse); but I’d never really put much thought into where that all occurred. Wasn’t it just an exciting fable of gods and men?
The modern history of the ancient City of Troy is truly fascinating, and made a large contribution to the development of modern standards in archaeological practice. Nineteenth century English archaeologist Frank Calvert and German businessman and archaeological financier Heinrich Schliemann lay early claims to the site’s identification at Hisarlik, near Canakkale.
Our guide informed us (rather salaciously I thought), that Schliemann was hunting a particular treasure long-rumoured to have been hidden by King Priam in the Middle Kingdom period. He also mused that Schliemann’s search led to much destruction of the upper layers of the site, without the formal documentation that would be expected from a modern dig.
Without having researched through the vast quantities of archaeological literature and conjecture on the site myself, I would hazard a guess that our guide was over simplifying. Schliemann and his team are, in fact, credited with identifying the stratigraphy of nine (9) layers at the site. That is: 9 incarnations of the city from c.3000BC to 500AD.
The site itself gives evidence of sacking and burning, earthquakes, great mercantile achievements, general living conditions of the day, and geographical changes (the coast is originally thought to have been much closer to the walls). Excavation and conservation work continue at the site today to reveal the secrets contained within the walls.
How it feels to stand in the midst of such a site, to walk through the majestic entrances and alongside walls famed in ancient literature is really quite enigmatic. It reminds us that people lived here who traded, labored, fought, laughed and cried. They saw the same blue sky that we did, ate similar food farmed from the surrounding landscape.
It reminds us that being human has long been associated with shaping the natural landscape around us to provide shelter and security, whilst projecting an aura of strength and virility. The achievements of the walls of Troy are not incomparable to the achievements of modern architecture: sites designed to impress with their strength, impossibility and sheer beauty.
Pergamon: Acropolis and Asclepion
Did you know that the famous second century Roman doctor Galen hailed from Pergamon in Turkey? Or that parchment (pergamina) was perfected in Pergamon as an alternative to papyrus, and so named after the city?
The ancient Acropolis of Pergamon perches high above the city centre: an imposing and magnificent reminder to ordinary citizens of the power of the gods. Today, the remains of the complex’s impressive architecture stand testament to the enormous scale of the site and construction work of the Greek and Roman periods of its occupation. These include:
- Sanctuary of Athena
- Great Altar of Zeus
- Hellenistic Theatre (possibly the steepest in the ancient world)
- Theatre Terrace and Promenade to Sanctuary of Dionysis
- Sanctuary of Dionysis
- Great Library (said to be second only to the Great Library of Alexandria)
- Roman Baths Complex
The city was established strategically along land and sea trade routes, taking full advantage of this location to export textiles, pottery and pergamina (animal skin parchment). It grew to prominence as a Greek colony, became an independent Kingdom, and was ultimately consumed by the Roman Empire: bequeathed to Rome by the heir-less King Attalus III in 133BC.
Two other notable sites to see when visiting Pergamon include the Sanctuary of Asclepsios and the Red Basilica (Temple of Serapis). These are located within a kilometer or two of the foot of the Acropolis.
The Sanctuary of Asclepsios was a centre of healing and medical restoration widely considered to be one of the most important of Ancient Rome. One of the greatest medical physicians of all time practiced here: Galen. Galen’s treatises on the circulatory system stood as primary medical texts until well into 1600s Europe.
Hadrian built the Temple of Serapis as part of an expansion of Pergamon in the second century AD. Over time this was converted to a Byzantine Church, becoming an important centre for early Christianity before it was irreparably damaged by Arab raids. From its ruins a small Christian temple emerged; and finally, a mosque, which remains today. Visiting the site its layers of history are still vitally present and provide a sense of wonder.
Aside: Our visit to Pergamon was unquestionably enhanced because we had previously visited the Pergamon Museum (PM) in Berlin.
The PM was constructed specifically to house the Great Altar of Zeus; sold to Berlin by the Turkish government in the nineteenth century. The PM also houses a scale model of the whole site, providing a terrific context for the Altar.
As a museum professional I have very mixed views about the sites and museums we visit. On the one hand I believe it’s terribly important for cultural heritage to be preserved at its original site as far as possible; the significance of the location often underpinning the choice of site. On the other, if a site has been left to millennia of neglect, disinterest and gradual destruction (perhaps even pulled apart stone by stone for primary source construction material), I think the argument becomes more complex.
We could debate for years whether the removal of ancient artifacts and whole buildings to foreign institutions is good or bad. In the foremost, it is bad. However, If the archaeological removal of a site by an international team recontextualises, values, and draws attention to the rich history of a country, it has the potential knock-on effect of making the home country value their history more and take moves to preserve their history rather than leaving it to decay. The debate of repatriation of moveable cultural heritage is controversial and fraught and certainly not something I wish to weigh into here.
Suffice to say that the purpose of archaeology, anthropology and museology is to analyse, interpret, contexualise and present the story of humans. How can we understand who we are and prepare for who we may become, if we don’t know who we were and where we have come from?
Ephesus is one of the most popular and best preserved of the ancient, Eastern Mediterranean sites. An extensive metropolis, it once served as the capital for Rome’s Asian provinces. The site has been widely excavated, with some restoration, and provides a unique snapshot into public life of antiquity.
We began our visit at the far entrance to Ephesus, by the Baths of Varius and the small Odeon Theatre.
Passing by various temples, fountains and water pipes we arrived at the Hercules Gate and the beginning of Curetes St (so named for the statues of Curetes – Priests – at the foot of the colonnades). This wide road of marble extends past some of the Ephesian highlights: public baths, public latrines, terraced housing, Trajan’s temple and fountain, to the carefully reconstructed Library of Celsus and Gate of Mazeus and Mithraidates.
Turning right under the Gate, the road opens up to the large Agora (public square), and finally continues to the magnificent theatre that seated some 30,000 spectators. It is believed that the theatre’s design allowed for the stage to be flooded; perhaps for gladiatorial re-enactments of great sea battles?
The weather was hot and the streets were crowded, far more so than Troy and Pergamon had been. We were grateful to be taken to the equally crowded, but cool and shady sanctuary of Maryem Ana (the House of the Virgin Mary).
Maryem Ana was discovered in the nineteenth century after a nun had a visionary dream revealing its location. The remains of a first century house were identified at the site and the house reconstructed to become a site of Catholic pilgrimage and worship. Tradition holds that John the Apostle brought Mary, Jesus’ mother, to Ephesus for safety following Christ’s death in 33AD.
Lastly, we visited the remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Originally featuring some 127 columns each 18.4m high, the Temple was largely destroyed when city was sacked by Goths in 262AD. All that remains are one or two partial columns and some foundations.
Hierapolis of Phrygia and the Travertines
The entrances to Hierapolis were lined with the dead. For 2km along both sides of the north and south bound roads, tombs greeted visitors to Hierapolis; everything from simple grave markers through Sarcophogi, circular Tumuli, to large family vaults. Considering the city had a reputation for medicine and healing, one wonders whether the Necropolis left would-be patients with just a hint of doubt?
The city itself would have been visually impressive. The main thoroughfare was an avenue some 14 meters wide, lined with a veritable array of shops, houses and warehouses connected by a travertine façade 170m long. Travertine is a natural stone composed of calcium carbonate; this would have reflected the harsh summer sun, casting a blinding brilliance over the main street.
Unfortunately little remains of Hierapolis’ architecture. The façade of the Nymphaeon fountain cleverly disguised a complex network of pipes distributing running water to the city’s houses. In many places the city’s sewer system is exposed. The Frontinus Gate, featuring 3 arches and two side towers.
The Plutonium (Pluto’s Gate): a structure enclosing a small, hellish cave filled with naturally off-gassed carbon dioxide, into which priests ventured to prove their divine protection from Pluto (God of the Underworld). The Martyrium, thermal baths, and Temple of Apollo also remain in partial completeness. Finally stands the Theatre, with its significant decorative friezes depicting mythological scenes and deities.
Not to be missed are the striking white calcium terraces known as the Travertines. These natural hot springs were extolled by the Romans for their therapeutic powers. Today you can bathe in the pools, sloughing off the dust, sweat and grime accumulated from a hot day exploring ancient ruins, whilst taking in the magnificent panoramic views.
The site’s administrators have wisely cordoned off a pristine section of pools for viewers to see the crisp whiteness of the calcium deposits and luminous aqua colour of the water; a surreal effect one would expect to see from a master potter and glazer.
When did we go to Turkey?
Mid-late June 2012
What was the weather like?
Hot with glorious sunshine
How did we travel?
Independently (Istanbul) and on a tour Fez Travel (for the West Coast)
Why did we use a tour company?
The tour we chose covered the ancient sites we most wanted to visit, providing transport between these sites. Independent travellers joined our group occasionally. One well-travelled fellow explained that he was finding it complex and time-consuming to organise independent travel between the key archaeological sites, and this had detracted from his visit.
When we return…
We’d love to return to Istanbul then continue to Ankara and out through the Central region, in particular Cappadocia and Mt Nemrut National Park. Then we’d head down to the Mediterranean coast to Kas and walk the Lycian Way.
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