Aphrodisias is an archaeological site that covers the remains of the ancient town with the Temple to Aphrodite and the town’s marble quarries.
The site is representative of the expansion of Hellenistic culture in southwestern Anatolia. The town has other notable monuments such as the theatre, market square, auditorium, public baths and stadium. High quality marble was quarried a few km’s away, and turned into sculptures in the workshops of Aphrodisias.
Map of AphrodisiasLoad map
Western Turkey is dotted with stunning Greco Roman archaeological sites. It's a bit like Maya ruins in Yucatan. Take a look at the many tentative sites of Turkey, count how many mention an amphitheatre or a forum, and you will understand.
And similar to the Maya ruins in Yucatan, you start to wonder where to draw the line? Does each and every well preserved site deserve a spot on the list? Or should it just be the exceptional ones?
With this in mind, I made my way from Denzili to Aphrodisias by cab. It was late December, completely offseason. When we turned off the main road in Tavas, there was no more traffic and the area became very rural and very quiet quickly; probably a reason why the site is so well preserved.
On site, I was the first visitor that day. The site itself is fairly large and as I understand not fully excavated. But what was is on display is impressive and well preserved. Most will state the stadium to be the preeminent site. The Turkish authorities claim it to be the largest remaining Roman stadium. It is nice, but Messini in Greece felt it's equal in size and preservation.
Overall, the site is very consistent and large. I think it's a fine addition. Let's see how many more Greco Roman ruins in Turkey will make the cut.
Aphrodisias is a bit off the beaten path with no major town nearby. The next big town is Denizli which has a large bus terminal and a train station connecting you to Ephesos and Izmir. Note on the Denizli bus terminal: It's well organized as soon as you know how. Each bus company has a designated lot with a number. In the departure area, there are plenty of tables telling which company has which lot number.
By far the best and easiest option for Aphrodisias is to get a return cab in Denizli. I think I paid less than 50€ for a return ride with 2-3h wait time. In high season, there seem to be organized day trips from Pamukkale, too.
If you are hellbent on doing this on your own, supposedly you can catch a dolmus from Nazilli to Karacasu. Nazilli is situated along the railway line/highway from Ephesos to Denizli, so you could do stop over here. But I don't think it's worth the time and effort as long as cabs are reasonably priced.
While You Are There
As next steps, you can head West to Ephesos, East to Konya or South direction Antalya or Fethiye. I continued South West by bus to Fethiye for Kaunos and Xanthos.
I visited this WHS in Spring 2021 as an early day trip from Pamukkale. Unlike some other WHS and tWHS with a few or no intact remains, Aphrodisias has many monumental remains that are more or less intact and in very good condition. Even the huge amount of statues in the museum are in very good condition when compared to those in other museums which usually are missing some of their body parts.
Aphrodisias is quite a large WHS and even if you opt for a quick visit you'll surely need a couple of hours to cover the main sites and the excellent museum well. Ever since the tetrapylon of Palmyra was destroyed, I set my eyes on visiting the tetrapylon of Aphrodisias. The best time for photograpy is in the early morning when the sunlight shines on the intricate details of the remaining decoration of the tetrapylon. The monumental gateway built around 200 AD stands at the end of an ancient road that leads from the main north-south street of the town into a large forecourt in front of the Sanctuary or Temple of Aphrodite. The character of the temple building was altered when it became a Christian basilica. This temple was a focal point of the town. The Aphrodisian sculptors became renowned and benefited from a plentiful supply of marble. Many full-length statues were discovered in the region of the agora, and trial and unfinished pieces pointing to a true school are in evidence near the site entrance, inside the museum and just outside the museum. Sarcophagi were recovered in various locations, most frequently decorated with designs consisting of festoons and columns. Pilasters have been found showing what are described as "peopled scrolls" with figures of people, birds and animals entwined in acanthus leaves.
This ornate type of decoration can also be admired at the mask and garland frieze. These blocks were part of the extensive friezes that once decorated the Ionic colonnades in the city centre of Aphrodisias. They ran around the North Agora and the Place of Palms, inside the basilica and across the East Propylon. The garlands are tied with ribbons over theatre masks representing characters from popular drama. Various categories of gods, citizens, slaves, soldiers and athletes can be identified in the masks. The garlands are composed of leaves and fruits, including apples, grapes, pomegranates, acorns, ivy berries and pine cones, evoking prosperity and community celebration. Most of the surviving frieze blocks come from the North Stoa of the Place of Palms, dedicated to the Roman Emperor Tiberius by a local benefactor known as Diogenes, son of Menandros. The frieze blocks were excavated mainly in 1937 and taken to the Iżmir Archaeological Museum. However, these were returned to Aphrodisias in 2009.
Another highlight of Aphrodisias is the Sebasteion or Augusteum, which according to a 1st century inscription on its propylon was jointly dedicated "To Aphrodite, the Divine Augusti and the People". A relief found in the ruins of the south portico represented a personification of the polis making sacrifice to the cult image of Aphrodite of Aphrodisias. This connection between the goddess and the imperial house was also a particularly politic one at the time, as the Gens Julia – the family of Julius Caesar, Octavian Augustus, and their immediate successors – claimed divine descent from Venus/Aphrodite. The Sebasteion was the temple dedicated to the worship of the early Roman emperors. Its main components were a temple and a 90 metre long processional avenue flanked by three storey colonnaded buildings. The second and third storeys of these buildings were decorated with life-size relief panels. More than 80 of the original 200 reliefs were found lying where they fell when the buildings collapsed. The restored part of the South building uses the original architectural blocks with replicas of the reliefs. Most of the original reliefs are now displayed in the museum.
Solivagant has especially focused on the huge stadium so I won't go in further detail. The same tractor seems to still be used! Make sure not to miss the Bouleuterion (council house) or Odeon, which is centered on the north side of the North Agora, with a seating capacity estimated at about 1,750 people. Upon careful inspection here as well as in the Roman theatre, you'll be able to spot cute ancient graffiti etched in some of the "seats". All in all I believe this WHS surely deserves its place on the WH list and is truly one of Turkey's most important and well-preserved archaeological sites. When I visited early in the morning I had the place all to myself, except for the company of some friendly squirrels, tortoises and birds.
Aphrodisias is a rather pleasant detour from Pamukkale to Ephesus. I assume getting there by public transport is a hassle, so go there by rental. The site is easily found. Go for Aphrodisias Museum in Google Maps. It’s around 300m off the main road. Free parking is available and to my surprise the parking lot had quite a lot of cars parked. The site itself includes the museum (no extra fee), where the most precious pieces of marble are in exposition. The archeological remains are nice, but not the best I’ve seen so far. Even though founded as a Greek city, most buildings are Roman. Highlights are the stadium (see Solivagants picture) and the temple of Aphrodite, that was later turned into a church.
Aphrodisias is apparently scheduled by Turkey for nomination in 2017. We were in nearby Denizli to visit the inscribed site of Pamukkale/Hierapolis and were then driving down to the Selcuk area for Ephesus. So, at only 34 kms south off the direct route, it seemed worth taking in - even if we were hitting our “interest limits” on seeing Classical ruins! It turned out to be a worthwhile site, quite apart from that potential WHS “tick” banked for the future! What is less clear to me is how Turkey is deciding which of its many T List sites from this era are going forward next and how many more such cities the List can take!
Aphrodisias has been a sacred site dating back into prehistory and in Greek times, developed as a shrine to Aphrodite, after whom it became named in 2nd/3rd C BC. The Romans conquered the area in the 1st C BC and the city was favoured by them because of its Venus/Aphrodite connections. Augustus, in particular, granted it a range of privileges declaring it “the one city in all of Asia I have selected to be my own”. The city is/was particularly famous for its sculpture – close by are quarries which yield a beautiful white and gray marble. As a result, the city became something of an artistic and cultural hub. During the Byzantine era the Shrine of Aphrodite was turned into a Christian Basilica and remains from this era constitute part of what is “on show”.
Our arrival was somewhat complicated by the fact that the large overhead road sign clearly showed a right turn into the “Antik Kenti” of Aphrodisias – but immediately there was an unmanned barrier which wouldn’t open! We looked around and there was no other obvious way to go or to get the barrier to rise. Was the site closed? It was only 4 pm. However, a guy walking down the road towards us, motioned that we should ignore the barrier and take the left lane. We reached a car park only to be accosted by an irate guy who told us we should have parked in a car park on the other side of the main road (unmarked and unsigned!!) and taken his tractor-pulled shuttle coach to the site! We duly returned to the main road and found the car park where we paid our 7TL for the parking (with “free” shuttle! A nice little earner for the town). Entry to the site itself was a further 15TL (c5 Euro). Inside, the site was not busy – but it does appear that it is on the “day trip” list from coastal resorts such as Kusadasi and also a stop on the way for those going Pamukkale.
In the end we spent some 2.5hours in the site and its museum before driving on to our Pension in Kusadasi. The site is pleasantly rural and spread out (but not too much) among cypress trees and fields – indeed a tractor was harvesting a crop from a field which occupied the middle of the amazing Stadium!
The highlights of the site are
a. The Museum - this has received a significant extension in recent years to permit the friezes of decorative panels and reliefs from a building called The Sebasteion to be displayed. The (reasonably complete) remains of these are laid out in the original sequence on both sides of a very long room. Apparently they were only excavated as recently as 1979/81 and are very fine. Indeed one could easily spend a couple of hours just examining each panel in turn and understanding its story – most of which are concerned with glorifying the “Gens Julia” – the family of Augustus and Caesar which claimed divine descent from Venus/Aphrodite, since the purpose of the Sebasteion was as a “Temple of Augustus used for performing the cult of the Roman emperor (Sebastos is the Greek form of Augustus).”
b. The Stadium – we were to see several Roman Stadia on this trip but this one was somewhat special in its completeness and is, apparently, considered one of the best from the classical era.
c. The Tetrapylon - A 2nd C Corinthian gateway which has been re-erected/repaired – reasonably authentically as far as I could make out. Turkey is not always “clean” on this issue – Turkey’s T List site of Laodicea, back in Denizli was a bulding site of new construction including beautiful new marble columns turned by machines from raw blocks – but I wouldn’t expect ICOMOS to have any real problems at Aphrodisias. Even with the following item -
d. The excavated Sebasteion – situated well below the nearby ground level, one can see how it had “disappeared” until recently. A few copy frieze panels have been constructed to give a better idea how those in the museum had been placed. Surely ICOMOS will allow these?
e. The Temple of Aphrodite - the reconstruction in 500AD to turn it into a church was major and the resulting building was far larger than the Temple it replaced. It remained a church until the Seljuk invasion in 13/14th C.
The site was obviously undergoing a lot of preparation for its potential nomination (If it really is to be considered for 2017 then its Nomination file will need to be produced by Jan 2016 – only 7 months away). This preparation seemed to consist of 2 elements. The superficial such as a completely new “crazy paved” walkway around the site and the more fundamental in the forms of various “Projects” which were advertised around the site e.g “ The Hadrianic Baths Conservation Project” and “the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun South Agora Project”. Well – we will see! Despite being emotionally anti the inscription of yet more Classical ruins I guess that “Quality” must count. One issue on which I will be interested to see how ICOMOS rules, is that of to what extent, if at all, the friezes in the Museum can be regarded as contributing to the site’s OUV.
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