Situated on a high plateau over 600m above sea level, ringed by mountains and watered by a tributary of the Büyük Menderes, Aphrodisias is among the most isolated and beautifully set of Turkey’s major archeological sites. Acres of marble peek out from among the poplars and other vegetation that cloaks the remains of one of imperial Rome’s most cultured Asian cities. Late-afternoon visits have the bonus of often dramatic cloud formations, spawned by the elevation, and the attendant dappled lighting.
Aphrodisias was one of the earliest occupied sites in Anatolia. Neolithic and Bronze Age mounds have been found here, and there has been some sort of fertility cult here for just as long. The Assyrian goddess of love and war, Nin, became meshed with the Semitic Ishtar, with the Hellenic Aphrodite eventually assuming the goddesses’ combined attributes.
A loop path around the site passes all of the major monuments, with first stop at the magnificent, virtually intact theatre. Founded in the first century BC, it was extensively modified by the Romans for their blood sports three centuries later. At the rear of the stage building is a large square, the tetrastoön, originally surrounded by colonnades on all sides, and one of several meeting places in the Roman and Byzantine city. South of the tetrastoön lies a large baths complex.
The path skirts the north flank of the theatre, right under the hill’s summit; down and to the north you’ll see the Sebasteion – two parallel porticoes erected in the first century AD to honour the deified Roman emperors – and the double agora, two squares ringed by Ionic and Corinthian stoas. Numerous columns still vie with the poplars, and the whole area is bounded to the southwest by the Portico of Tiberius, which separates the agora from the fine Baths of Hadrian, preserved right down to the floor tiles and the odd mosaic. North of the baths, several blue-marble columns sprout from a multi-roomed structure commonly known as the Bishop’s Palace, from its presumed use during Byzantine times. East of here huddles the Roman odeion, with nine rows of seats.
A few paces to the north, fourteen columns of the Temple of Aphrodite are all that’s left of the city’s principal sanctuary. The Byzantines converted it to a basilica during the fifth century, so considerable detective work was required to re-establish the first-century BC foundations. Even these were laid atop at least two older structures, with evidence of mother-goddess worship extending back to the seventh century BC. The Hellenistic/Roman sanctuary had forty Ionic columns arranged eight by thirteen, with the cult image erected in the main hall. The Byzantines removed the columns at each end of the temple, fashioning an apse to the east, an atrium and baptistry on the west, and it’s this architectural pastiche you see today. Immediately north is the so-called School of Philosophy, tentatively identified, like the bishop’s palace, on the basis of resemblance to other such structures elsewhere.
The northernmost feature of the site, 200m off the main path, is the 30,000-seat stadium, one of the largest and best preserved in Anatolia, where a version of Delphi’s Pythian Games were held, with sporting, musical and dramatic events.
Returning to the main loop trail, the last thing you’ll notice before exiting onto the museum square is the re-erected tetrapylon, a monumental gateway with two double rows of four columns, half of them fluted, supporting pediments with intricate reliefs. This second-century AD edifice is thought to mark the intersection of a major north–south street with a sacred way heading toward the Aphrodite shrine.