#Aphrodisias is a remarkably preserved Roman-period city in ancient Caria, SW Turkey, which was famous in antiquity for its sanctuary of Aphrodite and its marble sculptors. Known to tourists and travellers since the 18th century, it has been the subject of scientific exploration since the early 20th century. New York University has conducted extensive excavations since 1961 under the aegis of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and since 1995 with the collaboration of Oxford University. The archaeological site of Aphrodisias was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List at the 41st World Heritage Committee session held in Krakow on July 9, 2017.
The Importance of Aphrodisias Excavations
The excavated monuments of Aphrodisias and their associated sculptures and inscribed texts document the social history and visual culture of an ancient city in unusual detail. Aphrodisias sheds valuable light on larger issues such as the interaction between Greek and Roman identity, the functioning of empire, religious conflict and accommodation, and the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages. It makes a major difference to our understanding of the ancient world.
The site has been known to European travellers since the 18th century, when several expeditions came to record the wealth of inscriptions built into the city walls. First and most important was William Sherard in 1705. The city and its monuments were drawn by an expedition sponsored by the London-based Society of Dilettanti in 1812 and published in Antiquities of Ionia III (1840). A French expedition of C.-F. M. Texier came in 1835, recorded some of the main monuments, and published them in volume III of Texier’s Description de l'Asie Mineure faite par ordre du Gouvernement Français, de 1833 à 1837 (Paris, 1839-49). A French team directed by Paul Gaudin and Gustave Mendel excavated at the site in 1904 and 1905 in the temple of Aphrodite and especially in the Hadrianic Baths, where a number of well-preserved portrait statues were found. The finds from 1904 were removed and sold in Izmir and in Europe. The finds from Mendel’s campaign in 1905 were brought to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum under the leadership of Osman Hamdi Bey. Another French team came again for one campaign in 1913 under André Boulanger but it was interrupted by the convulsion of World War I. An Italian expedition directed by G. Jacopi came for one campaign in 1937 and excavated the Portico of Tiberius in the Place of Palms (formerly known as the South Agora) with its important series of mask and garland friezes.
The first systematic and continuous excavations at the site were begun in 1961 under the aegis of New York University, and were directed by the late Kenan Erim until his death in 1990. These excavations concentrated on the city’s central monuments, with spectacular results. Major areas of excavation included: the Temple of Aphrodite, the Theatre, the Place of Palms, the Council House, the Basilica, and the Sebasteion. The most important finds from these excavations are on display in the Aphrodisias Museum, built on the site in 1979.
Prof. R.R.R. Smith and the Current Project
Since the death of Professor Erim in 1990, the project has been based at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and directed by R.R.R. Smith, and since 1995 in collaboration with Oxford University with the invaluable permission of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the General Directorate of Monuments and Museums. The current project led by R.R.R. Smith, Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art at the University of Oxford, focuses on documentation and conservation of previously excavated monuments, on targeted new excavations, and on scientific research and publication.
In the current project initiated in 1991, firstly the inventories were taken of all contents of the excavation depots, new depots were built both for the excavation house and the museum. A geophysical survey of the whole site was carried out in line with small soundings to understand the urban settlement. This work showed that the Late Hellenistic city grid continued to be used in later periods. Excavation, conservation, restoration and publication work continue to the present day without interruption. The project is also concerned with exhibiting the finds. A new museum hall (Sevgi Gönül Salonu) for the sculptures of the Sebasteion was built as an annex to the Aphrodisias Museum and was inaugurated in 2008.
As of 2021, six major projects are in process: (1) Excavation, restoration and publication of the Tetrapylon Street and making it accessible to the public, (2) The partial anastylosis of the Civil Basilica and making it accessible to the public, (3) The conservation of the Hadrianic Baths, (4) The conservation, restoration and publication of the pool in the Place of Palms and making it accessible to the public, (5) The partial anastylosis of the Sebasteion Temple, (6) The construction of two new exhibition halls in the Aphrodisias Museum.
Aphrodisias was a free and autonomous city within the Roman province of Asia. It was best known for the sanctuary of its patron goddess, Aphrodite, and for its marble sculptors. The community prospered under the early and middle Roman empire (first-second centuries AD), when it built the complete set of marble buildings that made the town a proper city in ancient eyes. In the later third century, Aphrodisias was chosen to be the capital, the metropolis, of a new Roman province of Caria, and was able in the late antique period (fourth-sixth centuries) to maintain its classical life and fabric until the widespread urban collapse of the seventh century.
The Aphrodisians were fortunate in their history: they created a spectacular marble city and an astonishing abundance of high-quality marble sculpture and statuary to decorate it. The settlement was fortunate too in its relative isolation from the main through-roads of medieval and modern Anatolia: it is due to this circumstance that the city and its sculpture are uniquely well preserved. Aphrodisias is the best place to study the distinctive marble culture of the Roman period in Asia.
Aphrodisias was, in ancient terms, a medium-sized town (72 hectares, with a population of maybe 10,000 inhabitants), but one with a metropolitan grandeur of architectural design. Its monuments and marble sculpture define a distinctive period of ancient city life. After the international political turmoil in the Mediterranean (the Roman Revolution) of the first century BC, the city’s engagements with outside events were few. We have an archaeological and epigraphic history of a thriving local community, whose inscriptions, statues, and buildings were their history. In this period, civic benefaction and honorific rewards (statues, tombs) were the stuff of local politics.
Pre-History (c. 4500 BC – 2nd century BC)
The site has a long prehistory. The earliest intensive occupation dates to the Late Chalcolithic and early Bronze Ages (mid-fifth to third millennium BC). In this period, a small agricultural settlement was established on two low mounds (the Pekmez hill and the Theatre hill). These mounds were then continually occupied until the modern period. Excavations carried out here in the late 1960s and early 1970s found a sequence of occupation levels and remains of small mudbrick houses and burials in large jars (pithoi). The Early Bronze Age pottery (third millennium BC) is especially important: it fills a significant gap in our knowledge of southwest Anatolia in this period, and attests to contact both with the Aegean coast and with sites further to the east, such as Beycesultan. Other finds of interest include a number of marble goddess-figurines, made from the same local stone that would supply the Aphrodisian sculpture workshops in later periods.
From the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 BC) until the founding of the city (early second century BC), pottery finds show that a small settlement continued to exist at the site, centred on the Theatre hill. Abundant archaic Lydian and Carian pottery of the later seventh and sixth centuries was found here. The earliest archaeological evidence in the sanctuary of Aphrodite (or whatever the local goddess of the site was called before she became known as Aphrodite, in the later Hellenistic period) also dates to the sixth century BC. Fragments of large marble lions, seated terracotta goddess figurines, and fine imported pottery are probably from votive offerings. Interaction with Lydia is attested by two inscriptions of the fourth century BC in the Lydian language and perhaps by prominent burial tumuli in the environs. The earliest architectural remains in the sanctuary of Aphrodite, under the temple, are later, of the third century BC.
Hellenistic & Augustan periods (2nd century BC – 14 AD)
Aphrodisias was founded as a Greek city-state in the early second century BC, in the wake of the intensive urbanization of the Meander valley region promoted by the Seleucid kings based in Hellenistic Syria. Unlike nearby Antioch on the Meander, however, Aphrodisias was not a royal colony. It probably owed its existence instead to the initiative of leading local landowners, who wanted the perceived benefits of city-status. As an important local source of communal identity, the pre-existing sanctuary of Aphrodite was an obvious choice for the site of the new town.
In the first century, Aphrodisias appears a few times on the stage of ‘international’ history, already as a loyal friend to Rome. In 88 BC the city sent help to a Roman commander besieged in nearby Laodikeia by Mithradates VI of Pontos. The Roman general Cornelius Sulla sent a gold crown and an axe with a dedication to Aphrodite. Julius Caesar also made an expensive offering to Aphrodite, a golden statue of Eros, perhaps when he was campaigning in Asia Minor in 47 BC. As Sulla before him, Caesar was exploiting a perceived connection between the Aphrodisian Aphrodite and the Roman Venus-Aphrodite, mother of Trojan Aineias and foremother of the Julian family. In 41/40 BC, the city fiercely resisted the invasion of Labienus, a renegade Roman commander backed by Parthia, and was rewarded for its outstanding loyalty in 39 BC by the Roman Senate with privileges that were the basis of the city’s future prosperity: autonomy (‘freedom’) within the Roman province of Asia; exemption from all taxes paid to Rome; and asylum rights for its sanctuary (eleutheria, ateleia, asylia).
In 39 BC we first meet a remarkable Aphrodisian, C. Julius Zoilos, a former slave of Octavian-Augustus who was probably instrumental in securing the coveted privileges and who was sent back to his home city to run things there. He was clearly the most powerful figure in town through the 30s and into the 20s BC. The earliest large marble buildings at Aphrodisias belong to this time and were his work. He built the Theatre’s marble stage building, the north stoa of the Agora, and the first marble temple of Aphrodite. And he received at least two honorific statues. It was with Zoilos that Aphrodisias began its urgent programme of public building, to bring a small polis community focused on its famous temple up to speed, to give the city a proper urban profile. The only other surviving dated monument of this period is, significantly, the great frieze from Zoilos’ own tomb monument.
Early Imperial period (first century AD)
The city enjoyed privileged relations with the Julio-Claudian family and pursued a massive programme of urban building on the Hellenistic city plan. After the period of Zoilos, epigraphy records the prominence and activity of aristocratic local families, some with the Roman citizenship and names, such as Tiberius Claudius Diogenes. Under the emperor Tiberius, in AD 22, representatives of the city participated in the great review of temple asylum rights in Asia before the senate in Rome (Tacitus, Annals 3.62). They successfully defended their city’s privilege.
During the first century AD, the buildings begun by Zoilos were completed and expanded, and a number of new projects were inaugurated. For the assembly and festivals, the Theatre auditorium was rebuilt in marble, and the vast Stadium was constructed on the northern edge of town. The area between the Agora and the Theatre was developed as a secondary public square (Place of Palms, formerly known as the South Agora). The city goddess also received a new Roman-style Corinthian temple, the Sebasteion, for the combined worship of Aphrodite and the Roman emperors. The Sebasteion, built c. AD 20-60, is a defining monument of the period. Its reliefs feature successive emperors over two generatons -- Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Nero -- and was a concrete representation of the city's special relationship with the ruling Julio-Claudian family.
Work soon began on another huge monumental building, the Civil Basilica, which opens off the Place of Palms at its south-west corner. It is clear from technical features and details of architectural design that the building crews of the Sebasteion were re-formed for, or simply moved to, the Basilica project. When completed in the later first century AD, it was dedicated to the Flavian emperor(s), the new imperial dynasty at Rome.
Not all cities had such buildings and few had them built of marble and with such obvious architectural ‘design’ and scale. The Stadium, for example, accommodated 30,000 spectators to watch athletic contests associated with major religious festivals, far more than the population of Aphrodisias. It was a bold speculative investment, designed to enhance the prestige of the city and to attract visitors who would spend money during the festivals.
High Imperial period (AD 100-300)
Major construction continued in the city in the second century AD. This was the period of the most intense competitive building in the cities of Roman Asia. The Hellenistic-style colonnaded townscape was equipped now with grand, more Roman-style monuments. In the religious sector, the entrance to the outer Sanctuary of Aphrodite was marked by the Tetrapylon, and the Temple itself was encased in a close-fitting colonnaded court or temenos. At the same time, the west end of the Place of Palms was redesigned with a new stoa, behind which rose a massive bathing facility, the Hadrianic Baths. And in the mid-second century, the two-storeyed display facade called the East Gate (formerly known as the Agora Gate) was built to close the east end of the Place of Palms. In the later second century, the elaborate, roofed Bouleuterion or Council House was built on the axis of the North Agora, and another set of baths was constructed, southeast of the Theatre (Theatre Baths).
Grand marble building at Aphrodisias continued without interruption through the middle and later second century. This was the period of the Antonine emperors at Rome and of the greatest economic prosperity in the provinces. The public culture of benefaction and honours, of settled festival calendars, and of conspicuous marble building were at their height.
By c. AD 200 the city centre was fully built-up in monumental marble style, and there was little new construction in the third century. The inscriptions record vigorous, even intensified operation of the honorific process, now focused on the calendar of festivals and competitions. The first half of the third century was, according to the epigraphic record, a great age of new festival foundations and of honorific activity.
A powerful local impact was also felt in the third century from the empire-wide extension by the emperor Caracalla in AD 212 of Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire who did not already have it (the Constitutio Antoniniana). The use of the emperor's nomen Aurelius by the new citizens was widespread and shows that a large body of civic epigraphy and activity belongs to this period, the early and middle third century. Most notable is a sudden surge in the early third century in the production and use of marble sarcophagi: the new citizens enfranchised by Caracalla’s Edict seem to have been keen to participate in the elevating civic life represented by carved marble.
Late Antiquity (AD 300-600)
The flourishing city of the early and high empire had a long and prosperous second life in late antiquity, AD 300-600, from the reign of Constantine to that of Heraclius, until the urban collapse of the seventh century. This was a distinctive and different life, and archaeology and images can help us to grasp some of its essential features. Constantinople became the new capital of the eastern empire. There was a new style of Roman government, and Aphrodisias became part of it in c. AD 300 as, the metropolis or capital of the new province of Caria, and so the seat of a governor sent by the imperial administration. Christianity became the state religion, and traditional pagan polytheism in the city fought hard to preserve its ancient soul.
In large part due to its status as a provincial capital, Aphrodisias was able to maintain the basic fabric of a functioning classical-looking cityscape up to c. AD 600. There was enough built already. The emphasis was now on maintenance, adaptation, and remodelling for new functions. This could be more or less far-reaching, depending on the function. Many buildings were maintained, repaired after periodic earthquakes and kept as they were. The Tetrastoon in front of the Theatre, for example, was restored by a governor in c. AD 360. And the second-century Tetrapylon was taken down, restored, and put back up in c. AD 400 -- a major feat of engineering. The community's pride remained connected to the welfare of its monuments.
The only significant new building project after the mid-third century was the City Walls, constructed on the governor's initiative in the AD 350s. The walls were built, however, not with newly cut stone from the quarries, but from spolia, that is, re-used blocks taken from decommissioned buildings in the city and its cemeteries. The wall-building project was thus typical of late antique building in two respects: spolia construction, and the role of the governor.
Some buildings were adapted to new functions. After the decline of traditional athletics, the Stadium, for example, was turned into an amphitheatre in c. AD 400 by building a curved arena wall across its east end. The most highly charged and far-reaching adaptation of an old building, however, was the eventual conversion of the old Temple of Aphrodite into a Christian church (of St Michael) in the middle or later fifth century. The new power of the Christian authorities in the city (there was a bishop in residence from the fourth century) is seen too in the defacing in this period of offensive pagan cult images and images of sacrifice -- for example, in some of the reliefs of the Sebasteion.
Late antiquity was a period in which local notables spent more on their houses, and the domestic archaeology shows intensive architectural refurbishing and decoration in this period in several town houses, including the Atrium House, the North Temenos House, the Bishop's Palace, and House of Kybele (formerly known as the Water Channel House).
Byzantine, Beylik, Ottoman and the modern period (7th century AD – present)
Just like in other rural areas of Western Anatolia, the buildings and monuments of the city center was abandoned at the beginning of the seventh century AD. The roof tiles and wooden beams of the stoas were dismantled but the monumental marble architecture of the public buildings remained. In time, these monuments also started to collapse. The existing data does not explain this collapse by a natural disaster or attack. Instead, the collapse is related to the repeated Persian and Arab invasions and the unsuccessful policies of the imperial government in Costantinople in maintaining peace and dominance over the cities.
By AD 600, the classical lifestyle in Aphrodisias had ceased. Its new name Stauropolis was recorded for the first time in the Council of Constantinople in AD 680. In the Middle Byzantine Period (AD 843-1204) the city returned to its humble lifestyle similar to the pre-Roman period and once again became a small village on the Theater Hill, with its religious centre at the Cathedral of St. Michael (the former Temple of Aphrodite). The city came to be known simply as Karia from the eighth century onwards and in the ninth century, as a result of the Byzantine emperors’ attempts to revive classical cities, the population saw a certain increase – a fact that can be followed in the archaeology of the site. Until 1188 the city lived on as a small settlement focused on its cathedral with a resident bishop. In 1188 a nobleman from Philadelphia (modern day Manisa – Alaşehir) nobleman named Theodoros Mankaphas rebelled against the Byzantine empire during which he burnt down the cathedral of Stauropolis/Karia causing once again a great loss of population.
In 1197 the Seljuk Sultan Kaykhusraw I made an assault on the city and transferred 5000 Christians to Philomelium (Konya-Akşehir). This was followed by repeated conflicts in the region between the Byzantine and the Seljuk Empires until the third quarter of the thirteenth century. The Beylik of Menteşe conquered the Meander Valley in 1280-1282. This date is thus the beginning of the Beylik period in Karia (formerly Aphrodisias). A short time after this conquest, in 1308, the area was taken over by the Aydınoğulları Beylik. By 1356, the city had lost its title as a metropolitan see within the church hierarchy and started to be cited alongside other cities in official documents.
The earliest Ottoman attack on the city was carried out by Bayezid II in 1390 but it wasn’t until 1415-1416 that Mehmet I maintained full dominion over the area. According to archaeological data the city went through a period of relative prosperity and development in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, in the seventeenth century, when Izmir became the new main commercial center of the region, the trade routes in the Meander Valley lost their importance, and after this period the population went into major decline, never to be revived again, and in time the name Karia evolved into Geyre. The remaining small population of the village of Geyre slowly started abandoning the site in the 1950s and the few remaining families moved to new Geyre, founded just outside the ancient city walls. Today the villagers of modern Geyre contribute greatly to the excavation project.
Site & buildings
Aphrodisias was, in ancient terms, a medium-sized town (72 hectares, with a population of maybe 10,000 inhabitants), but one with a typically metropolitan grandeur of architectural design. Its monuments and marble sculpture define a distinctive period of ancient city life. After the international political turmoil in the Mediterranean (the Roman Revolution) of the first century BC, the city’s engagements with outside events were few. We have an archaeological and epigraphic history of a thriving local community, whose inscriptions, statues, and buildings were their history.
City grid, plan & streets
Aphrodisias was laid out on a new plan in the later Hellenistic period, within which later urban development was determined. An orthogonal grid of urban blocks was laid out over the entire site on a north-south orientation, and the major public buildings of the city centre, including the North Agora and Place of Palms, were designed to fit within this regular plan. Individual city blocks measured 35.5 x 39 m (= 120 x 132 Roman feet) and were separated by streets 3.5 m wide (= 12 Roman feet). Individual housing units seem to have been 60 x 60 Roman feet. The grid was laid around the sanctuary of Aphrodite and the Theatre (both of which have different orientations), and an area of six blocks between the sanctuary and the Theatre was reserved for the Agora. An earlier, unplanned settlement may have occupied the area east of the Agora. This would explain the diverging orientations of the Sebasteion and Atrium House.
The Sebasteion, excavated in 1979-81, was a grandiose temple complex dedicated to Aphrodite and the Julio-Claudian emperors. Its construction stretched over two generations, from c. AD 20 to 60, from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero. The complex was paid for by two prominent Aphrodisian families. It consisted of a Corinthian temple and a narrow processional avenue (90 x 14 m) flanked by two portico-like buildings, each three-storeyed (12 m high), with superimposed Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. These North and South Buildings, which defined the processional avenue, carried marble reliefs in their upper two storeys for their whole length. The reliefs were framed by the columnar architecture so that the two facades looked like closed picture-walls. Some 200 reliefs were required for the whole project, and more than 80 were recovered in the excavation. They featured Roman emperors, Greek myths, and a series of personified ethne or 'nations' of Augustus' world empire, from the Ethiopians of eastern Africa to the Callaeci of western Spain. The Sebasteion reliefs are close to contemporary historical interest in the visual culture and city life of the Greek East under the Roman empire. A new museum hall displaying the Sebasteion reliefs was opened at the Aphrodisias Museum in 2008.
Finds: Sebasteion Reliefs
South Building reliefs: emperors and heroes
The South Building was sponsored by two brothers, Attalos and Diogenes, and their family. Some eighty per cent of its reliefs survive, and its programme can be followed in detail. The third storey juxtaposed figures of the traditional gods with figures of the early Roman emperors and scenes of their conquests (Claudius over Britannia, Nero over Armenia). The emperors are here shown as new, active members of the traditional Olympian pantheon. In the lower storey, there was a remarkable series of mythological scenes, featuring Greek and local heroes and their exploits (Herakles, Telephos, Bellerophon, Achilles, Aineias). The heroes, great benefactors of mankind, make clear points of comparison for the emperors above. Some of the reliefs also make closer connections between the local goddess Aphrodite, her son Aineias, and the Julian emperors in Rome. The sequence of the reliefs can be reconstructed from their find-places in the excavation.
The subjects of the reliefs in the third storey are Roman emperors, imperial victory, and the Olympian gods. The emperors are represented as powerful warrior divinities and are mixed with the old gods as near-equal partners. They are, as one of the building inscriptions calls them, Theoi Sebastoi Olympioi, or 'Olympian Emperor Gods'. World rule is secured by the pantheon of old and new divinities. The reliefs were arranged in groups of three: a wider relief flanked by two narrower ones, with the wider relief placed above the doorway into each of the 15 rooms behind the façade. The main early Roman emperors are present: Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero, with younger princes and imperial women. Their most important activity is victorious war over barbarians, and they are represented in Hellenistic heroic style.
North Building reliefs: peoples of empire
The North Building was built by two brothers, Eusebes and Menandros, and their family. Its third storey featured a series of universal allegories (Day, Ocean) mixed with imperial scenes (Nero with his mother Agrippina). This series is the least well-preserved of the complex. The second storey contained the long series of personified nations of the Augustan empire, each pictured as a statue between the columns of the architecture. An inscribed label named each figure -- for example, ethnous Dakōn, 'of the people of the Dacians'. The idea was a visual listing of Augustan world empire. The places and peoples were among those claimed as conquered or brought into the empire under Augustus. The selection emphasised wilder peoples on the edges of empire. Few in Aphrodisias can have heard of many of them. The idea, the list, and the images were probably borrowed directly from a monument in Rome.
The Tetrapylon Street ran north-south from the Tetrapylon to the Theatre, and was the main public thoroughfare on the east side of the city centre. Part of the street immediately south of the Tetrapylon was excavated in the 1980s and showed that there was also a desirable residential area adjoining the area to the east of the street. In the street colonnades and associated with rich apartments above were found a series of some twenty late antique figured pilaster capitals with putti engaged in various rustic activities.
The street paving and colonnade are late antique, of c. AD 400. The east colonnade was two-storeyed with new or re-used columns below between new brick and masonry piers. The upper storey was arcaded and some of its double half-columns and brick arches were found collapsed on or embedded in the street paving. The lower storey housed tiled retail spaces, while rich finds from the upper floors include further pilaster capitals, coloured wall mosaics, elaborate bronze door knobs, bronze vessels, intaglio gems, and abundant window glass.
A tall masonry structure stands on the western line of the street, and an inscribed statue base that belongs in its single central niche was found in front of it in 2013. The text honours one Myon Eusebes Philopatris, one of the builders of the Sebasteion, for his construction of ‘the first bathhouse for the Council of Elders’ (to balaneion to gerousion prōton). A high-quality himation statue of the same period (early-mid first century AD) was found nearby in 2011 and probably belongs on the base. The Gerousian Baths were probably located behind the niched structure and the wall to its south.
The street colonnade collapsed in a violent conflagration in the early seventh century (610-617), after which medieval life resumed on top of the partly-cleared collapse. Further to the south, between the niched building and the Sebasteion, a Byzantine glass factory was found with large quantities of late Roman cullet, and an Ottoman installation probably for cloth dyeing.