Situated on a high plateau over 600m above sea level, ringed by mountains and watered by a tributary of the Büyük Menderes, Aphrodisias is one of Turkey’s most isolated and beautifully set 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.
It’s quite easy to find your way around – most of the site’s main features are accessible on a path that loops around the complex, maps are dotted around, and all signage is in English as well as Turkish. In general, it’s best to follow a clockwise route, which will allow you to finish your visit in the air-conditioned cool of the museum. What’s more, that route means that the short climb to the theatre will come when you’re fresh, at the start, rather than adding to the sweat at the end.
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.
Despite a strategic position near the meeting point of ancient Caria, Lydia and Phrygia, and its proximity to major trade routes, for many centuries Aphrodisias remained only a shrine. However, during the second century BC, its citizens were rewarded for their support of the Romans during the Mithridatic revolt. Imperial favour bestowed, various emperors patronized the burgeoning city. Aphrodisias became particularly renowned for its school of sculpture, sourcing high-grade marble from nearby quarries, and local works soon adorned every corner of the empire, including Rome itself.
Perhaps because of this fixation with graven images, paganism lingered here for almost two centuries after Theodosius banned the old religions. The reputation of its Aphrodite love cult had served to protect Aphrodisias since its inception, but by the fourth century AD, two earthquakes and sundry raids began to take their toll, and decline was the dominant theme of Byzantine times. The town was abandoned completely during the thirteenth century, its former glories recalled only by the Ottoman village of Geyre – a corruption of “Caria” – among the ruins.
Only since 1961 has work by a New York University team permitted a fuller understanding of the site. The intention is to render Aphrodisias on a par with Ephesus and the eventual results will certainly be spectacular, though for now some of the more interesting areas remain off-limits.