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.