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.