BLOG 27 15/02/016 APHRODISIAS: The Favourite City of the Emperor Augustus.

Posted in on 15 February, 2016 in News

 Aphrodisias: The Favourite City of the Emperor Augustus.


The Tetrapylon, Aphrodisias.

The tetrasoon detail

Detail of the Tetrapylon

As the land where East meets West, Turkey is an archaeologist’s dream, and with such places as the Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük  in Central Anatolia, and Zeugma, a Greek city founded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals, it’s hard to know which to explore first. It is said that there are far more intact ancient Greek ruins in Turkey than there are in Greece and when the Romans conquered the area they enhanced existing towns and cities and built their own. Years of turmoil, earthquakes, floods and neglect took their toll. Often built in out of the way places, many are only just now coming to light. One of my favourite sites is Aphrodisias. It was also the favourite city of the Emperor Augustus. A few years before he became Emperor, Octavian, the Triumvir wrote, “Aphrodisias is the only city of all Asia I have that I have selected to be my own.” These words were carved in Greek lettering, high on the wall of the theatre and can still be seen today.

Emperot Augustus

Emperor Augustus


The theatre

Aphrodisias lies above the valleys of the Meander in Turkey’s Aegean hinterland, 320 kms. southeast of Izmir and about a two hour drive west of Pamukkale, which is about as far west as most tour groups go. When I visited it some twelve years back, I knew very little about it, except that in its heyday it was home to what was arguably the finest school of sculpture in all antiquity.

Unlike other ancient cites along the west and southwest coast of Anatolia, Aphrodisias received little attention from visitors or scholars until the late 18th and 19th centuries. In 1872, Osman Hamdi Bey, then Director General of the Imperial Museums of Constantinople, visited the site and decided to undertake exploration. Due to other commitments he was unable to carry out his project and granted permission to a French engineer, amateur archaeologist and collector named Paul Gaudin to carry out the work. The first campaigns focused on the Temple of Aphrodite after which the city was named and a complex which turned out to be the Baths of Hadrian. Gaudin then left for another assignment in the Middle East and an attempt was made t continue the works in 1913 by Andre Boulanger under the aegis of the French School of Athens. Due to the political upheavals at that time the work came to a standstill once again. It resumed in 1937, this time through an Italian mission, and was again cut short with the outbreak of WWII. With each excavation an unusual amount of sculptural fragments were unearthed. The Italian mission in particular, analysed the many signatures of sculptors who had worked there. Prior to this, it was thought that Aphrodisian sculptors were mere copyists of earlier Greek and Hellenistic statuary, now this line of thought began to change.

Agrippa crowning Nero

Agrippina crowning Nero

Ara gula 2

Ara Gula at Geyre

Ara Gular village 1Ara Gular 3Excavations did not really commence again until 1960’s and with each passing year more priceless treasures were unearthed. Until quite recently, the rural village of Geyre encroached onto the site and the locals were using all sorts of majestic sculptures to either support their stables, barns and homes, or wash their laundry in intricately carved sarcophagi. In 1958, the great Turkish photographer, Ara Guler, went to Geyre to photograph the village life. His photographs, which made their way into architectural magazines, prompted the government to do something about what was clearly an important ancient city and work began again under the aegis of New York University. The late Professor Kenan Erim who worked there for twenty-nine successive years before his death, said that Aphrodisias yielded more priceless treasures than any other site in the classical world. Bit by bit the village was relocated to ensure no more damage to the site, yet even today many of the wonderful works of art are still being utilized by the villagers.

Kenan_Erim with bust.

Kenan Erim

But what was it that made Aphrodisias so special? It is certainly in a hauntingly beautiful spot. Here was a city which rivalled any in this region. As far as opulence went, Aphrodisias was up there with the best of them; the sumptuousness of its public and private buildings and the immensity of its 30,000-seat stadium. The citizen’s unswerving loyalty to Augustus and his successors meant that they were immune from imperial taxation and they took advantage of this to pour money back into cultural and intellectual activities for which the city was now famous for. Aphrodisias, with its temple dedicated to the cult of the goddess Aphrodite was already established as a place of pilgrimage by the time the Romans got there. Aphrodite’s Roman equivalent is the goddess Venus, and the Romans welcomed the growing reputation of the two goddesses. Aphrodisias also fostered literary, scientific, and literary pursuits. Xenocrates wrote medical treatises in the first century and in the second century, Chariton (man of Graces) was the author of one of the early romances of antiquity, Callirhoe.

Aphrodisias Nymphs with the infant Dionysos

Nymphs with the infant Dionysos

Aphrodisias-ancient-city-in-Turkey Sculptures 1 in rows

The huge amount of sculptures lined up in the museum

One of the most important aspects of Aphrodisias is that it lay at the foot of a mountain which possessed an almost inexhaustible amount of supremely fine marble – rich and creamy white in colour sparkling with tiny crystals. Whilst the quality of marble from the quarries along the Anatolian coast varied, the marble at Aphrodisias could be worked with and against the grain and polished until it dazzled. Sculptors and stonemasons working in the quarry today studied the techniques of the Roman sculptors. The principal workplace was always to the west of the mountain so that the men could work in the shade throughout the morning. They would then roll the hewn out blocks to the eastern side and shape them, still in the shade, in the afternoon. The removal of unwanted marble was vital before the block could be removed by the only available means of transport – oxcart. Therefore, if a sculptor was working on a sarcophagus, the interior had to be hewn out and the outline of the relief-work worked on before it could be removed. Near the work-face are huge mounds of chippings, all – since the Romans did not have wheelbarrows – carried away in sacks by slaves. So much of this Roman waste dump still remains to be unearthed.

The three graces

Aphrodisias close up image




The Sebasteion

Aphrodisias remained a centre for sculpture for almost 600 years until the city embraced Christianity. Its sculptors were renowned throughout the Roman world and several sculptures from Aphrodisias ended up in Hadrian’s Villa at Tripoli. Two famous masters such as Koronos and Zenon were particularly known for their trademark signature work.Some of the most impressive statues come from the Sebasteion, the building devoted to the cult of the deified Emperor Augustus and his successors. It consisted of two parallel colonnades, each one nearly a hundred yards long, rising three storeys in the established order of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. At the end was an impressive ceremonial gateway leading to a nymphaeum, or ornamental pool, which today is inhabited by frogs. Aphrodisias broke with convention and placed gods and emperors on the same story. Many of the finds from the Sebasteion are in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum but finds from other buildings are either in the local museum or Aydin. After his death, Professor, Kenan Kerim was so revered by the Turkish government, they allowed him to be buried on the site of Aphrodisias next to the Tetrapylon – the impressive and highly decorative monumental gateway.  His work was carried on by his long time friend, Professor RRR Smith, Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology at Oxford University.



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The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.