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 east of Antalya, which became known as Pamphylia, meaning “the land of the tribes”, reflecting the mixed origins of the new arrivals. Although Pamphylia was a remote area, cut off from the main Anatolian trade routes by mountains on all sides, 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 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.
Founded around 1000 BC, Perge ranked as one of the great Pamphylian trading cities, despite the fact that it’s nearly 20km inland. Its defensive siting was deliberate, 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.
Perge’s theatre, just outside the site entrance, has been closed for excavation for several years. Originally constructed by the Greeks, it was substantially altered by the Romans in the second century AD. Capable of accommodating fourteen thousand people on 42 levels, it was the venue for theatrical entertainment, poetry contests and musical concerts. To the northeast, Perge’s massive horseshoe-shaped stadium was at 234m by 34m the largest in Asia Minor, with a seating capacity of twelve thousand. It was used not only for chariot races, but also wild beast hunts, public executions and gladiator spectacles.
Beyond 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 stands the Tomb of Plancia Magna, a benefactress of the city. 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.
Southwest of the agora, in the excavated Roman baths, 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.
Perge’s Hellenistic Gate, at the northwest corner of the agora, is with its two mighty circular towers the only building to survive from the Hellenistic period. Behind, the horseshoe-shaped court and ornamental archway were both erected at the behest of Plancia Magna. The former was once adorned with statues – the bases of which were found during mid-1950s excavations. Beyond is the start of a 300m-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 reliefs near the tops of the columns, just beneath the capitals. One depicts Apollo, while another shows a man in a toga, offering a libation at an altar.
From the nymphaeum, an ornamental water outlet at the end of the street, 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.
Still used to stage the annual Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival, the theatre of Aspendos is among the best preserved in Asia Minor. Aspendos changed hands regularly in ancient times between the Persians, Greeks and Spartans, before coming under the control of Alexander the Great around 333 BC. After his death, Aspendos became part of the Seleucid kingdom and was later absorbed by the kings of Pergamon. In 133 BC, the city became part of the Roman province of Asia. Roman rule consisted mainly of successive 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. What you see today is pretty much what the spectators saw during the theatre’s heyday. 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 finished work simultaneously, so 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 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.
Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival
Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival
The Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival is staged in Aspendos’s theatre every year, over a three- to four-week period starting in mid-June. Both Turkish and foreign companies perform, and the programme consists of popular and experimental opera, ballet and classical concerts (Madame Butterfly and Swan Lake feature regularly). 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 (TL30–60 for foreigners, less for Turks) 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 and check waspendosfestival.gov.tr for programmes. Cheap city buses run here from Antalya and Side, and 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.
A number of year-round shows, including the popular Fire of Anatolia (waspendosfestival.gov.tr) dance troops, are performed at the Aspendos Arena, a nearby modern facility erected to help preserve the original arena. While many of these shows are excellent, if you are going in order to experience the ancient theatre, be sure your tickets are for the right place.