Ancient Sardis (Sart in Turkish) stands in the small village of Sartmustafa, 65km east of Manisa. The surrounding countryside, on the lower slopes of the Bozdağ range, is dominated by sultana-producing vineyards. Capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, Sardis also saw Persian, Greek, Roman and Christian rule, and housed a prosperous Jewish community. While not as impressive as Ephesus – whose Temple of Artemis was paid for by Croesus – the partially restored ruins are pleasantly free of crowds and touts. Both its clusters of ruins are easily reached on foot from the main road in Sartmustafa village, though the uphill one is a hot walk in summer.
Sardis became incredibly wealthy thanks to the gold flecks that were washed down from Mount Tmolos (now Bozdağ) and caught in sheepskins by the locals. According to legend, the source of this wealth was the eighth-century BC Phrygian king Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold. Unable to eat, his curse was lifted when the gods bid him wash his hands in the River Paktolos, which flowed down to Sardis from the south.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Lydians invented coinage under Sardis’s most celebrated king, Croesus (560–546 BC). When his wealth attracted the attention of the Persians under Cyrus, the Delphic oracle ambiguously advised a worried Croesus that should he attack first, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus went to war and was defeated, and after a two-week siege Sardis fell; taken prisoner by Cyrus, Croesus was burned alive, though some accounts have him rescued from the pyre by a rainstorm.
As a Persian city, Sardis was sacked during the Ionian revolt of 499 BC. It revived under Alexander the Great, but was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 AD, and rebuilt by the Romans. Although Sardis ranked as one of the Seven Churches of Asia addressed by St John in Revelation 3:1–6, that didn’t spare Byzantine Sardis from conquest by Saruhan and destruction at the hands of Tamerlane in 1401. The city only came to light again when American archeologists excavated here between 1904 and 1914.