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.