Explore The central and southern Aegean
Away from the coastal regions, the major settlements in ancient Caria tended to be concentrated along the upper reaches of the Meander River, now the Büyük Menderes, and its tributaries, particularly the Marsyas – today’s Çine Çayı. Aydın, a small, bustling city easily reached from Kuşadası, is the base of choice for visiting the archeological sites of the Çine valley, most notably Nyssa and Alinda. Further east, Aphrodisias, on a high plateau south of the Büyük Menderes, is similarly isolated, but buses are more obliging since it’s fast becoming the archeological rival of Ephesus in the southwest Aegean.
Still further inland, the functional city of Denizli has transport connections in every direction, most obviously with Hierapolis/Pamukkale, an ancient site cum geological wonder that’s the star of every other Turkish tourist poster ever produced.Read More
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.
As you approach the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pamukkale from Denizli, a long white smudge along the hills to the north suggests a landslide or mine. Getting closer, this clarifies into the edge of a plateau, more than 100m above the valley and edged in white travertine terraces. The Turks have dubbed this geological fairyland Pamukkale, or “Cotton Castle”.
Deriving from a bubbling spring at the foot of Çal Dağı, this stunning natural wonder has been created over millennia. As thermal water surges over the edge of the plateau and cools, carbon dioxide is given off and hard chalk (travertine) accumulates as a solidified waterfall, slowly advancing southwest. Seen at sunset, subtle hues of ochre, purple and pink are reflected in the water, replacing the dazzling white of midday. The spring itself emerges in what was once the centre of the ancient city of Hierapolis, whose blissfully located ruins would merit a stop even if they weren’t coupled with the incredible natural phenomenon of the terraces.
The hotels here at one time siphoned off the precious mineral waters for their own heated pools; the waterflow is now strictly rotated in order to preserve the site and allow more diminished deposits to “regrow”. Present restrictions mean that visitors can dip into but a handful of the pools on the southern edge of the terraces.
The therapeutic properties and bizarre appearance of the hot springs were known about for thousands of years before an actual town was founded here by one of the Pergamene kings during the second century BC. After incorporation into the Roman Empire in 129 BC, development proceeded apace. Hierapolis seems to have enjoyed considerable imperial favour, especially after catastrophic earthquakes in 17 AD and 60 AD. No fewer than three emperors paid personal visits, stimulating local emperor-worship alongside the veneration of Apollo and his mother Leto, who was venerated in the guise of Cybele.
The presence of a flourishing Jewish community aided the rapid and early establishment of Christianity here. Hierapolis is mentioned in Paul’s Epistle to the (neighbouring) Colossians, and Philip the Apostle was martyred here, along with his seven sons. However, as at Aphrodisias, paganism lingered well into the sixth century, until a zealous bishop supervised the destruction of the remaining ancient worship sites and the establishment of nearly one hundred churches, several of which are still visible.
Hierapolis slid into obscurity in late Byzantine times, nudged along by Arab and Turcoman raids. After the Selçuks arrived in the 1100s, the city was abandoned, not to figure much in the Western imagination until Italian excavations began in 1957.