I have visited Aphrodisias – the city of love and beauty – a few times. Each time I wished I had more time to spend in this fabulous ancient city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, for it is really quite large and full of many beautiful objects. Much has been unearthed in Aphrodisias, but who knows, how many more treasures it is still hiding from us. This time we paid this Greco-Roman city a visit right before Christmas. It was an early morning, the air was crisp and sunny and the ground was covered in frost. What a difference from my earlier visits in the height of summer in scorching Anatolian heat! Aphrodisias, the ancient Carian city, is located about 200 km south of Izmir and a hundred kilometres inland from the Aegean coast. Nowadays it is a quiet place, which thankfully has allowed it to be preserved in such an excellent condition.
Right at the entrance we were greeted by a display of sarcophagi, carved out with intricate details of fruit, and foliage, Eros’ faces and figures. They were found scattered all over the site, but mostly by the main roads. Does it mean people were buried in sarcophagi in public places so that the living would be always reminded of their dearly departed?
Another special feature of Aphrodisias is a frieze of carved masks of both mythological creatures as well as humans who really existed. They were found mostly around the public squares called Agoras. The level of detail is quite astonishing. Each face is unique and comes alive with its own expression. The sculptors of Aphrodisias were sought after all over Roman Empire. Their works have been found in Rome, Constantinople and Anatolian Greco-Roman cities. Many sculptures were found in the public squares and buildings of the city and they are now displayed in the museum right by the entrance of the site. The city sourced its white and grey marble from the local quarries just a few kilometres away and the easy availability of such a fine material undoubtedly contributed to the sculpture becoming the top art form in Aphrodisias.
The city had a grid-lined street plan and the main construction works began in the first or second century BC. There is a large theatre seating 7000 spectators with inscriptions on its walls that Citizen Zoilos has been the patron of the building. He also paid for other constructions such as a part of the Northern Agora and the Temple of Aphrodite. Zoilos was a freed slave who is thought to have been enslaved by pirates and then sold to the first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus. The emperor later freed Zoilos who returned to his hometown of Aphrodisias, rich and with many important connections with Rome which helped his city prosper.
Between the Northern Agora and the Theatre, the urban park was later constructed. It was called The Place of Palms. Indeed, around its 170 m long pool with pipes for fountains were two rows of Cretan date palms. There were columns and sculptures and friezes. It must have been a lovely place to stroll in the heat of the summer days, the palm trees offering shade and the cooling sound of the fountains from the pool pleasing the senses. No wonder the city was also well-known for its philosophers, for the environment of such beauty must have appealed to the great thinkers, too.
There was an entrance to the Basilicas from the park. The Basilicas, completed around 100 AD were the public halls used for administration, business and justice. Emperor Diocletian issued a famous Edict of Maximum Prices in 301 AD and it was inscribed on the Basilicas’ marble-panelled facade. The list includes around 1400 goods and services from all over the Roman Empire, stating their maximum permitted prices. The items ranged from grain, wool and wine to slaves, chariot horses and wild animals for the games.
The one building which doesn’t fit into the gridline pattern is the Temple of Aphrodite. There was a strong cult following of the goddess of love and beauty. People made pilgrimages to the temple from faraway places. They asked Aphrodite to help them in matters of love and relationships. Love and relationships are some of the most fundamental aspects of human life, one can imagine, how many people have stepped through the magnificent gates called Tetrapylon leading to the temple with their prayers and offerings to the goddess…
One can wander around the ruins of the great ancient streets of Aphrodisias for days, the Agoras, the Baths, the Bouleterion (The Council House), the sculptors’ workshops, to name a few buildings. Right at the edge of the city, there is the best-preserved ancient stadium in the world. The city itself had around 10,000 to 15,000 citizens, but the stadium seated 30,000. Such was its popularity for hosting sports games like foot races, boxing and wrestling and gladiator fights that people came here for shows from neighbouring cities as well.
Aphrodisias was destroyed by the 4th and especially 7th-century earthquakes. After the 7th-century earthquake, it never really recovered. The last major construction works have been made in 350 AD when the city wall was built and in 500 AD when the temple of Aphrodite was rebuilt into a Christian cathedral. After that, the city fell into a quiet slumber, with less and less human activity. The sleeping beauty has been rediscovered and her magnificence can now be seen by all who pay her a visit. It is a deep experience to walk around the ancient treasures accompanied by birds singing, the roses blossoming, the lizards playing hide and seek among the ruins, the sun glistening on the frosty grass blades in winter… The love and beauty Aphrodisias represents are imbued in everything and its special ambience can be felt by everyone visiting this marvellous city.