The twelfth century BC saw a large wave of Greek migration from northern Anatolia to the Mediterranean coast. Many of the incomers moved into the area immediately to the east of Antalya, which came to be called Pamphylia, meaning “the land of the tribes”, reflecting the mixed origins of the new arrivals. Pamphylia was a remote area, cut off from the main Anatolian trade routes by mountains on all sides; nevertheless three great cities grew up here – Perge, Aspendos and Side.
Most of Pamphylia fell to Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. After his death the region became effectively independent, though nominally claimed by the various successor kingdoms that inherited Alexander’s realm. During the first century BC the Romans, annoyed by the activities of the Cilician pirates operating from further along the Mediterranean, took control of the coast. Their rule ushered in three centuries of stability and prosperity, during which the Pamphylian cities flourished as never before. In later years, Mark Antony was sent to take charge of the region, treating it as his personal domain until defeated by Octavius at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, after which Pamphylia was formally absorbed into the Roman Empire under the Pax Romana.Read More
Perge was founded around 1000 BC and ranked as one of the great Pamphylian trading cities, despite the fact that it’s nearly 20km inland – a deliberate defensive siting so as to avoid the unwanted attentions of the pirate bands that terrorized this stretch of the Mediterranean. Later, when Alexander the Great arrived in 333 BC, the citizens of Perge sent out guides to lead his army into the city. Alexander was followed by the Seleucids, under whom Perge’s most celebrated ancient inhabitant, the mathematician Apollonius, lived and worked. Most of the city’s surviving buildings date from the period of Roman rule, which began in 188 BC. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Perge remained inhabited until Selçuk times, before being gradually abandoned.
Just before the site entrance, the theatre has been closed for repairs for some time. It was originally constructed by the Greeks, but substantially altered by the Romans in the second century AD. Built into the side of a hill, it could accommodate 14,000 people on 42 seating levels and was the venue for theatrical entertainment, poetry contests and musical concerts. To the northeast of the theatre is Perge’s massive horseshoe-shaped stadium, the largest in Asia Minor at 234m by 34m, with a seating capacity of 12,000. It was the venue not only for chariot races, but also wild beast hunts, public executions and gladiator spectacle.
Past the site entrance, stretches of the Seleucid walls have survived, giving some indication of the extent and ground plan of the original city. Just in front of the outer gates is the Tomb of Plancia Magna, a benefactress of the city, whose name appears later on a number of inscriptions. Passing through the first city gate, you’ll see a ruined Byzantine basilica on the right, beyond which lies the fourth-century AD agora, centred on a ruined temple. To the southwest of the agora are the excavated Roman baths, where a couple of the pools have been exposed. Across the cracked surface of the inlaid marble floor, the original layout of frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium can – with the help of a few signs – still be discerned. Also visible in places are the brick piles that once supported the hypocaust floor of the baths, enabling warm air to circulate underneath.
At the northwest corner of the agora is Perge’s Hellenistic Gate, with its two mighty circular towers, the only building to have survived from the Hellenistic period. Behind, the horseshoe-shaped court and ornamental archway were both erected at the behest of Plancia Magna, the former once adorned with statues – the bases of a number of which were found during excavations carried out during the mid-1950s. Beyond is the start of a 300-metre-long colonnaded street, with a water channel running down the middle and the shells of shops to either side. Walking along it, you’ll be able to pick out the ruts made by carts and chariots in the stone slabs of the roadway. Also visible are a number of reliefs near the tops of the columns, just beneath the capitals, one of which depicts Apollo, while another shows a man in a toga, offering a libation at an altar. At the end of the street is the nymphaeum, an ornamental water outlet from where a stream splashes down into the water channel below. Above here is the acropolis – probably the site of the original defensive settlement, of which little has survived. To the west of a crossroads just before the nymphaeum is a palestra, dating from 50 AD, according to an inscription found on its south wall. West of here, archeologists have found a necropolis leading from one of the city gates, sarcophagi from which can now be seen in the Antalya archeological museum.
Aspendos changed hands regularly in ancient times between the Persians, Greeks and Spartans, finally coming under the control of Alexander the Great around 333 BC. After his death a decade later, Aspendos became part of the Seleucid kingdom and was later absorbed into the realm of the kings of Pergamon. In 133 BC, the city became part of the Roman province of Asia. Roman rule consisted mainly of a succession of consuls and governors demanding protection money and carting off the city’s treasures. Only with the establishment of the Roman Empire did the city prosper, growing into an important trade centre, its wealth based on salt from a nearby lake.
Aspendos remained important throughout the Byzantine era, although it suffered badly from the Arab raids of the seventh century. During the thirteenth century the Selçuks arrived, followed a couple of hundred years later by the Ottomans, who ruled here until the eighteenth century, when the settlement was abandoned.
The Aspendos theatre was built in the second century AD by the architect Zeno. He used a Roman design, with an elaborate stage behind which the scenery could be lowered, instead of allowing the natural landscape behind the stage to act as a backdrop, as had been the custom in Hellenistic times.
The stage, auditorium and arcade above are all intact, as is the several-storey-high stage building, and what you see today is pretty much what the spectators saw during the theatre’s heyday, a state of preservation due in part to Atatürk, who, after a visit, declared that it should be preserved and used for performances rather than as a museum. A dubious legend relates that the theatre was built after the king of Aspendos announced that he would give the hand of his beautiful daughter to a man who built some great work for the benefit of the city. Two men rose to the challenge, one building the theatre, the other an aqueduct, both finishing work simultaneously, with the result that the king offered to cut his daughter in two, giving a half to each man. The builder of the theatre declared that he would rather renounce his claim than see the princess dismembered and he was, of course, immediately rewarded with the hand of the girl for his unselfishness. Later, the theatre was used as a Selçuk kervansaray, and restoration work from that period – plasterwork decorated with red zigzags – is visible over the stage.
The acropolis and aqueduct
To the right of the theatre entrance, a path leads up to the acropolis, built on a flat-topped hill. The site is a little overgrown, but a number of substantial buildings are still in place, foremost among them being the nymphaeum and basilica, both 16m in height, as well as sections of the main street and a drainage system in good condition.
To the north of the acropolis, on the plain below, stretches a Roman aqueduct. Originally 15km long, it brought water to Aspendos from the mountains above and incorporates an ingenious siphonic system that allowed the water to cross the plain at low level; you can still (with care) climb the towers. The aqueduct and towers can also be reached by taking a left turn down a paved path just outside Belkis, skirting around the western side of the hill.
About 25km east of Aspendos, SIDE, one-time trysting place of Antony and Cleopatra, was perhaps the foremost of the Pamphylian cities. The ruins of the ancient port survive, but over the last few years Side has become dominated by packaged tourism development. Constant restoration work is necessary to combat the deterioration brought on by thousands of visitors trekking through the ancient city day and night, but they are hardly able to keep up and many areas, particularly the theatre and colonnaded street are subjected to an accelerated rate of destruction. Given that accommodation and restaurant prices here are often double what you would pay in nearby Antalya, Side makes a decent stopover en route to another destination, but is hardly worth using as a base for exploring the region.
Ancient Side has been almost overwhelmed by the modern town, but if you set out early enough, you can still enjoy some corners of the city before they are smothered by the packaged tourism masses. East of the badly preserved city gate, the old walls are in a better state, with a number of towers still in place. Back at the gate, a colonnaded street runs down to the agora, the site of Side’s second-century slave market, today fringed with the stumps of many of the agora’s columns. The circular foundation visible at the centre of the agora is all that remains of a Temple of Fortuna, while in the northwest corner, next to the theatre, you can just about make out the outline of a semicircular building that once served as a public latrine, seating 24 people.
Opposite the agora is the site of the former Roman baths, now restored and home to a museum. It retains its original floor plan and contains a cross-section of locally unearthed objects – mainly Roman statuary, reliefs and sarcophagi. Just south of here, the still-intact monumental gate now serves as an entrance to the town’s modern resort area. To the left of the gateway is an excavated monument to Vespasian, built in 74 AD, which takes the form of a fountain with a couple of water basins in front. Inside the gate is the entrance to Side’s stunning 20,000-seat theatre, the largest in Pamphylia, and different from those at Perge and Aspendos in that it is a freestanding structure supported by massive arched vaults, and not built into a hillside.
From the monumental gate, modern Side’s main street leads down to the old harbour and turns left toward the temples of Apollo and Athena. The Athena temple has been partly re-erected, and its white portico is becoming Side’s trademark and a favourite place to take sunset photographs. Both temples were once partially enclosed in a huge Byzantine basilica, parts of which gradually disappeared under the shifting sand; the still-visible section now provides a home to birds and bats.
In the days when Side was an important port, the area to the west of the temples was a harbour. Even in Roman times it was necessary to dredge continuously to clear silt deposited by the Manavgat River, and it soon became clogged up after the city went into decline. Elsewhere, you’ll find a number of other buildings, including the city agora, on the eastern side of the peninsula just a stone’s throw from the sea, and, a little inland from here, a ruined Byzantine church that’s gradually disappearing under the dunes. Off Camii Sokak, are the remains of antique baths where Cleopatra is supposed to have bathed, which include several separate rooms, baths, a garden and even a marble seat with a dolphin armrest.
Side (meaning “pomegranate” in an ancient Anatolian dialect) was founded in the seventh century BC, its colonists attracted by the defensive potential of the rocky cape. It grew into a rich port with an estimated 60,000 inhabitants during its peak in the second century AD. Initially a significant proportion of Side’s wealth rested on the slave trade, with the city authorities allowing pirates to run an illegal slave market inside the city walls. This trade was later outlawed, and after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Side survived only until the Arab invasion during the seventh century AD. The Arabs put the place to the torch, driving out the last inhabitants, and Side was abandoned until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was resettled by Muslim fishermen from Crete. Despite later attempts by the Turkish government and various archeological agencies to evict them, these villagers stayed, and by the 1980s their descendants were starting to reap the rewards of Side’s tourist boom.
Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival
Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival
The Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival is staged in the theatre every year, from mid-June, over a three- to four-week period. Both Turkish and foreign companies perform, and the programme consists of popular and experimental opera, ballet and classical concerts. With an inflow of choreographers and musicians from the ex-Soviet Union, Turkish opera and ballet companies have improved out of all recognition, and stage design and costumes match the standard of the performers.
Tickets are available both in advance and on the night from the theatre, and you can also buy them in Antalya and Side, though the booking office seems to switch venues each year – ask at the tourist office. Check wwww.aspendosfestival.org for programmes. Cheap city buses run here from Antalya and Side centre. Most festival-goers bring along supper to while away the time before the start of the 9.30pm performance, as well as cushions to sit on, and an umbrella or waterproof in case of a thunderstorm.