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Aphrodisias - the famous Sanctuary of Aphrodite

  • Written by Sam Rohlfs
Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias was a town in Caria, Asia Minor. It is located near the modern village of Geyre, Aydın, Turkey. The ancient city of Aphrodisias is one of the most important archaeological sites of the Greek and Roman periods in Turkey.

Aphrodisias lies in the Maeander River basin, in a fertile valley 100 miles southeast of the port of Izmir. Famous for its sanctuary of Aphrodite, the city's patron goddess, Aphrodisias enjoyed a long and prosperous existence from the first century B.C. through the sixth century A.D. Today, many of the city's ancient monuments remain standing, and excavations have unearthed numerous fine marble statues and other artifacts. The great beauty and extraordinary preservation of this site combine to bring the civic culture of the Graeco-Roman world vividly to life.

Archaeological research at Aphrodisias is sponsored by the Institute of Fine Arts in cooperation with the Faculty of Arts and Science of New York University.

Aphrodisias was named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of Love. According to the Suda, before being known as Aphrodisias, the city had three previous names: Lelegon Polis and Ninoë. The city was later renamed Stauropolis in the Christian era.

The city was built near a marble quarry which was extensively exploited in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and sculptors in marble from Aphrodisias became famous in the Roman world. Many examples of statuary have been unearthed in Aphrodisias, and some also survive from other parts of the Roman world.

Archaeology

As many pieces of monumental stone were reused in the Late Antique city walls, many inscriptions could and can be easily read without any excavation; the city has therefore been visited and insciptions recorded repeatedly in modern times, starting from the early eighteenth century.

The first formal excavations were in 1904-5, by a French railroad engineer, Paul Gaudin.

The most recent excavations were begun by Kenan Erim under the aegis of New York University in 1962 and are ongoing, currently led by Professor Christopher Ratté (at NYU) and Professor R.R.R.Smith (at Oxford University).

Geological History

The site is in an earthquake zone and has suffered a great deal of damage at various times, especially in the 4th and 7th centuries. An added complication was that one of the 4th century earthquakes altered the water table, making parts of the town prone to flooding.

Evidence can be seen of emergency plumbing installed to combat this problem. Aphrodisias never fully recovered from the 7th century earthquake, and fell into disrepair. Part of the town was covered by the modern village of Geyre; some of the cottages were removed in the 20th century to reveal the older city. A new Geyre has been built a short distance away.

Temple of Aphrodite

The Temple of Aphrodite was and still is a focal point of the town, but the character of the building was altered when it became a Christian basilica. The Aphrodisian sculptors became renowned and the school of sculpture was very productive; much of their work can be seen around the site and in the museum. Many full-length statues were discovered in the region of the agora, and trial and unfinished pieces pointing to a true school are in evidence. Sarcophagi were recovered in various locations, most frequently decorated with designs consisting of garland and columns. Pilasters have been, found showing what are described as "peopled scrolls" with figures of people, birds and animals entwined in acanthus leaves. The sculptors benefitted from a plentiful supply of marble close at hand.

Bouleuterion

The Bouleuterion (Council House) is centered on the north side of the North Agora. As it stands today, it consists of a semicircular auditorium fronted by a shallow stage structure about 46 m wide. The lower part of the auditorium survives intact, with nine rows of marble seats divided into five wedges by radial stairways. The seating of the upper part, amounting to an additional twelve rows, has collapsed together with its supporting vaults. The plan is an extremely open one, with numerous entrances at ground level and several stairways giving access to the upper rows of seats. A system of massive parallel buttresses shows that the building was originally roofed. The auditorium would have been lighted by a series of tall, arched windows in the curved outer wall. Seating capacity can be estimated at about 1750.

The available evidence indicates a construction date in the Antonine or early Severan period (late second or early third century A.D.). The scaenae frons (stage front) was certainly put up at this time, as the style of both sculpture and architectural ornament suggest. Statue bases terminating the retaining walls of the auditorium bore the names of two brothers, senators in the early Severan period, and two inscribed bases placed symmetrically against the exterior facade held statues of Aphrodisian benefactors, Claudia Antonia Tatiana and her uncle Lucius Antonius Dometinus, who were active at the end of the second century (Sculptures of the Bouleuterion). Tatiana is known to have had close ties with Ephesos and it is possible that the striking similarities between this building and the Bouleuterion on the Civic Agora there, dated by inscription to the mid-second century, are due to some initiative on her part. We do not know what stood here before the second century A.D., but it is likely that the present building replaced a smaller one contemporary with the laying out of the Agora in the late first century B.C.

The Bouleuterion at Aphrodisias remained in this form until the early fifth century, when a municipal official had it adapted as a palaestra, recording his achievement on the upper molding of the pulpitum (stage). This term usually refers to a wrestling ground, but in the fifth century it could be used to describe a hall for lectures, performances, and various kinds of competitive displays, as suggested by a number of factional inscriptions carved on the seats. Numerous additional cuttings in the surviving seats, probably for poles supporting awnings, suggest that by this time the building had lost its roof. The orchestra was lowered and provided with a marble pavement, reused, perhaps, from the earlier phase.

The architecture of the Bouleuterion is being studied by Lionel Bier, Professor, Art Department, Brooklyn College.

Other buildings

There are many other notable buildings, including the stadium which is said to be probably the best preserved of its kind in the Mediterranean except, perhaps, for the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. It measured 262 by 59 m and was used for athletic events until the theatre was badly damaged by a 7th century earthquake, requiring part of the stadium to be converted for events previously staged in the theatre.

Inscriptions of Aphrodisias

The quality of the marble in Aphrodisias has also resulted in an unusually large number of inscribed items surviving in the city. Upwards of 2000 inscriptions have been recorded by the New York excavators, many of them re-used in the city walls. Most inscriptions are from the Imperial period, with funerary and honorary texts being particularly well-represented, but there are a handful of texts from all periods from the Hellenistic to Byzantine.

The Jewish Inscription

Excavations in Aphrodisias uncovered an important Jewish inscription whose context is unclear. The inscription, in Greek, lists donations made by numerous individuals, of whom several are classed as 'theosebeis', or Godfearers. It seems clear through comparative evidence from the inscriptions in the Sardis synagogue and from the New Testament that such Godfearers were probably interested gentiles who attached themselves to the Jewish community, supporting and perhaps frequenting the synagogue. The geographical spread of the evidence suggests this was a widespread phenomenon in Asia Minor during the Roman period.

Late Antique and ecclesiastical history

In the Late Antique period the city was renamed Stauropolis 'City of the Cross', a name more fitting to the Christian era than the pagan "City of Aphrodite". The name Aphrodisias is still used by the "Hierocles Synecdemus", by Novel clx of Justinian, and figures in the signatures of the Fifth Œcumenical Council in 553. The name of Stauropolis appears for the first time about 640 in the "Ecthesis" of pseudo-Epiphanius (Heinrich Gelzer, Ungedruckte ... Texte der Notitiæ episcopatuum, 534). The name Tauropolis, said to have been borne by the town prior to that of Stauropolis, is an error of several scholars.

Le Quien (Oriens christianus, I, 899-904) mentions twenty bishops of this see, among whom were:
Ammonius at the First Council of Nicæa in 325
Eumenius at the First Council of Constantinople in 381
Cyrus at the Council of Ephesus in 431
Critonianus at the Council of Chalcedon in 451
Severianus at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553
Ephraem of Caria, a liturgical poet, etc.
Another bishop, Theopropios, is mentioned by an inscription (Revue des études grecques, XIX, 298).

In the seventh century Stauropolis had twenty-eight suffragan bishops and twenty-six at the beginning of the tenth century. Between 1356 and 1361 the see must have been abandoned by the metropolitan, but the title was long retained and he was given the revenues of other churches (Waechter, "Der Verfall des Griechentums in Kleinasien im XIV. Jahrhundert", Leipzig, 1903, 34-7). Isaias of Stauropolis attended the Council of Florence (1439) and fled to avoid signing the decree of union.

Stauropolis remains (as of 1913) a Roman Catholic titular metropolitan see of the former Roman province of Caria.

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