The ancient town of Perge next to Antalya

The ancient town of Perge

Visiting Perge you can get a good impression of what a Roman towns looked like with its theatres, stadium, agora, baths, streets and town gates, as large parts of the town have been excavated and are still being restored.

Perge is only 2 km north of the coast road (by the town Aksu, 25 km west of Serik and 16 km east of Antalya centre) by the river Aksu, called Kestros in antiquity. The road goes past the theatre and round the stadium to the parking area. Stop at the theatre before and have a look. If you want to avoid masses of tourists it is best to visit the place out of season or in peak season, please arrive early or late.
Open summer: 9-1930. Winter: 8-17. Parking: Free.

The Roman theatre has been under excavation and restoration since 1985 and may be temporarily closed.

The theatre is built into the mountain side. The broad diazoma* separates the spectators’ seats into 19 rows on top and 23 below, giving room for 15.000 spectators. Several seats are reserved with names engraved in them. Uppermost are remains of an arcade, and as in Aspendos the purpose has been to improve the acoustics. From the top you can see Sillyon’s flat town hill and Perge and the stadium. As in other Roman theatres there were entrances in both sides. In the 3rd century animal and gladiator fights became common and the theatre was surrounded by carved stone panels between marble supporting columns.

The stage building was as fine as in Aspendos. The first 2 storeys were built in the 2nd half of the 2nd century while the 3rd storey was added in the beginning of the 3rd century. The theatre was also used in Byzantine times*, and work on the building continued in the 5th and 6th centuries. The last repairs were made under Emperor Justian I (527-565). The remains of the ornaments are stored in an area opposite the theatre and in the arena in the stadium, some at the museum in Antalya, and a few things still in the theatre, among them a series of reliefs depicting the life of Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of the wine and the theatre. He was the son of Zeus*, the Greeks’ top god, and the divinely beautiful princess Semele. Zeus’ wife Hera*, who was always jealous of her husband and his escapades, wanted to get rid of Semele and her unborn child. She therefore transformed herself into Seleme’s mother and asked Semele to persuade Zeus to show himself in all his splendour and might. The gullible girl was taken in and implored Zeus to agree. Zeus could not resist her pleas and came down from Mount Olympos, the home of the gods, in his golden chariot and showed himself in all his radiance. This was too much for the mortal Seleme, who went up in flames. But before she died she bore the fruit of their love and threw him out of the flames. Zeus took the little prematurely born child and sewed him into his thigh where he was protected against Hera’s jealousy, until he could be “born” anew. When this happened he was given to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who placed him in a cave guarded by some caring mountain nymphs. When he  grew up he drank some juice from grapes that grew outside the cave, and then the wine was discovered. To introduce the new drink and spread the knowledge of wine growing he travelled the world in a chariot drawn by 2 panthers. 
The outside of the stage building formerly had a fountain and 5 basins. 

Across from the theatre is the stadium. It may be closed off as it is used for storing parts that have been excavated, but usually one can enter from the south or east. It was built in the 2nd century BC and is one of the biggest and best preserved from Roman times*. Its horse shoe shape covers 34 by 234 metres, the south end is open, and the main gate was probably here. The 12,000 seats rest on 70 vaults, 30 on the long sides, 10 in the north part with entry through every 3rd vault. On the other vaults inscriptions with names and commodities show that there were also shops. E.g. wooden statues  of  Artemis were sold. Originally the stadium was for sports games, sometimes with betting. As in the theatre fights between gladiators and wild animals became popular in the 3rd century, and the northern part has a protective balustrade.

The tomb of Plancia Magna, the generous builder, is outside the town wall right of the main entrance by the parking area.
Of the surrounding town wall with its prominent towers the east and west walls are Hellenistic in origin, while the south wall is Roman from the 2nd century. During the long period of peace, Pax Romana, which lasted more  than 200 years AD, the wall meant less. The town spread outside the walls, e.g. large buildings like the theatre and stadium. 

Tourists enter through the main gate, the Emperor’s Gate, part of the Roman built wall. It is a 40 metres long rectangular square, originally with walls on either long side, ending to the north with a gate and a triumphal arch and 3 niches  of similar size. This gate was richly decorated, especially the north side. Through the gate one enters a 90 metres long court in front of the original Hellenistic town gate. This square from Emperor Septimus Severus’ reign (193-211 AD) was for ceremonial use, and a podium in the west end must have served this purpose. The south west side has a monumental fountain, nym-phaeum, a big basin and behind a 2 storeyed facade wall that was richly decorated. An inscription tells that the nymphaeum was dedicated to Artemis, Emperor Septimus Severus and his wife Julia Domna and their sons Caracalla and Geta. But Geta’s name and statue were removed in 212 AD when Caracalla had murdered him! Facade fragments with reliefs of Artemis, Aphrodite, and nymphs, plus marble statues of the emperor and emperess are now at Antalya Museum. To the right of the nymphaeum a monumental entrance, a so-called propylon, leads to the baths. 

The Helenistic town gate from the 3rd century consists of 2 towers with a horseshoe shaped yard behind. The towers, made of finely hewn and joined stones, was in 3 storeys and had a cone shaped roof. During the Pax Romana the defensive works were not so needeed and were therefore transformed to a fine yard of honour between 120 and 122 AD. It was supported by Plancia Magna. The walls were covered with multicoloured marble and niches and Corinthian columns were added. The niches below were for gods like Aphrodite and Hermes. Excavations have disclosed 9 bases with names but not the corresponding statues. These must have been placed in the upper niches and there were statues of the legendary heroes from the Trojan War and founders of the town. But 2 of the bases carry the names M. Plancius Varus og C. Plancius Varus, Plancia Magna’s father and brother. Maybe they were especially generous to the town since they are placed here, or because they were related to the town’s benefactor. The north side of the court consists of a triumphal arch with 3 openings, Hadrian’s Gate, which looks like the Hadrian’s Gate in Antalya. This donor is also Plancia Magna and her statue is also in front of the gate. In the niches were statues of the emperors Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (117-138) with their empresses. These statues stand together with other finds from the court of honour in the Imperial Hall and the God Hall in the museum in Antalya. 

Through the propylon in Septimus Severus’ court you enter the Roman baths. With its 5 rooms and big south facing windows it is the finest in Pamphylia. It was probably built in the 1st century, but the inner decorations are from the 2nd century. At the beginning of the 3rd century the baths were extended, and in Byzantine time* new mosaic floors were made. The baths were probably in use until the Arab pirates’ attacks in the 7th century, i.e. for at least 600 years.

Firstt one enters a square sports ground, palaestra, surrounded by columns. On the south side are 2 large rooms. The one to the left is the changing room, the other one with apse contains a 13 by 20 metres basin. Inside the building had multicoloured marble paneling and marble statues of gods and goddesses around the pool. On the north side, towards the palaestra, was a water canal for foot wash. From here a door lead to the frigidarium*, the cold bath with remains of a basin. Next to it are 2 large connected rooms, the tepidarium (tepid or lukewarm) and calidarium, the hot bath with a small door to a steam bath, sudatorium (sweat bath) with 5 square bathtubs covered with marble. Under the 2 rooms the heating system can be seen where heated air circulated. The building north of the tepidarium  with entry from the palaestra and with a marble bench was the relaxation room where one could loiter about or sit and discuss this and that after the bath. 30 bases of columns have been found here and a few statues, now at Antalya Museum. A name on 11 bases tells that one Claudius Peison donated the sta-tues. Fragments of some mosaics have been preserved.

A bath typically began with undressing, then a little exercise in the palaestra and then into the first basin to wash off dirt and sweat.  A foot bath followed and then into the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium and finally possibly again the cold shock in the frigidarium. Or one could change the order according to one’s wishes. After-wards getting dressed and a chat with one’s friends. No entry for women.
East of the Hellenistic gate lies the square market place, the agora, placed on top of the Hellenistic town wall at the time when the Roman south wall was built, i.e. 2nd century AD. The agora is on all sides lined with Corinthian granite columns and shops with mosaic floors. An interesting stone with 3 rows of squares stands in front of one of the shops. This stone was used as a game table for a game where each player had 6 stones to throw as in dice. Another specimen was found in the south end of the columned street  and it is now in Antalya Museum. The game has been found in other towns also and must have been popular. It is believed to be a forerunner of the Turkish tavla that is played overall and backgammon, which is better known in Europe. So the agora served as shopping centre, meeting place, place of discussions, and casino. In the middle of the agora stand the remains of a round building which had 16 Corinthian columns and a cone shaped roof. This and a similar building in Side are supposed to have been temples for Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, destiny and trade. Another theory says it was a cistern where the water was gathered and distributed from. The remains of a sewage system can be seen in the south side.

From the Hellenistic gate a 350 metres long and 20 metres broad columned street runs north-south through the town centre under Apollonius’ Triumphal Arch, where another main street crosses, and up to the foot of the acropolis. There are 4 metres high columned passages with some columns wholly intact.  The columned passages  were for pedestrians and here and there mosaics have been preserved. Along the columns are 5 metres wide arcades with shops. The passages gave shade in the summer and protected against rain in winter, and it is no wonder they can be found in all the old towns around the Mediter-ranean. A special thing for Perge is the 2 metres wide water canal in the middle of the street which carried water from the Acropolis Fountain in the north end. Each 8 metres the canal is divided into basins where impurities could deposit. It functioned as a well but also had a cooling effect in summer. The 4 tall columns in the middle of the street show the god of art and science, the sun god Apollo with a halo and in a chariot pulled by 4 horses; and Artemis with her radiant diadem torch and bow and arrow as the goddess of hunting; the third one Kalchas, one of the founders of the town; and the last one Fortuna (Tyche) with a cornucopia.

Apollonius’ Triumphal Arch stands in the crossing where the columned street is crossed by another main street connecting the east and west gates. It is well preserved and according to an inscription it was erected under Emperor Titus (79-81 AD) by two wealthy citizens, Demetrius og Apollonius
The Acropolis Fountain in the north side of the columned street optically rounds off the columned street. It was in 2 storeys and with its  side wings it was 21 metres wide and richly decorated. Among other things a frieze, gable reliefs, columns and lion’s heads where the water gushed out have been found.  One of the statues was of Artemis* and another of Emperor Hadrian (117-138) in whose reign the fountain was built. The fountain has 3 niches and in the middle one can see the headless river god Kestros. The statues in the 2 other niches were of women. On both sides steps lead up to the acropolis. From a basin under the river god the water runs into the street’s middle canal and into the town’s baths. There are no signs of an aqueduct, so the water supply must have come from the spring, together with rain water cisterns.
By following the east-west street to the west you get to the gymnasium with the sports ground, palaestra, the next oldest building after the Hellenistic gate. Here the youth of the town received a physical as well as theoretical education. The square 76 metres wide ground, which is surrounded by various rooms, is dedicated to Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) by a builder named Julius Cornutus. It is probably placed on top of the original Hellenistic agora. To the north are the remains of a Byzantine building. 

Further down the street towards the town wall and the west gate are other baths, and towards the east gate the foundations of a temple can be seen. 
Outside the west and east gates lie the necropolises with several sarcophagi, but the finest have been moved to Antalya Museum.

South of the east gate and close to the town wall under the bishop’s palace the first Roman dwelling houses have been uncovered. They are spacious atriumhouses with marble tables, mosaics, and murals. 
There are 3 Byzantine basilica churches, one south of the agora,  one west of the columned street, the bishop’s church from the 5th century, and one on the town hill, where there are also several cisterns.

Please read as well:

Patara - important ancient Lycian Harbor town

Antalya City Walk - City Flair and ancient Harbor


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