Everyone knows Ephesus and its iconic library. Maybe you even know Troy or Alexander the Great’s Pergamon. These are wonderful archaeological sites, but if you are in Turkey and love classical ruins, you absolutely have to visit Aphrodisias. A mere side-note in most guidebooks, I found that Aphrodisias had some of the most impressive architectural and sculptural pieces in Turkey and was completely devoid of tourists when we visited.
Major archaeological sites in central western Turkey: Aphrodisias (A), Pamukkale/Hierapolis (P) and Ephesus (E) (Adapted from Google)
Located near a marble quarry, Aphrodisias became a center for sculpture production in the Hellenic Greek and Roman Empires. As the name suggest, it had a massive temple to Aphrodite which was subsequently converted to a basilica by the Byzantines. The city declined until it was finally abandoned in the 14th century. The site remained untouched until the late 1950′s when photographs of the ruins made their way to Professor Kenan Erim of New York University. He subsequently spent almost 30 years excavating Aphrodisias and, as a tribute, is buried there. (NYU continues to excavate and restore the site today.)
An overgrown portion of the Agora viewed from a hill reminds us what Aphrodisias may have looked like in 1958 AD
Aphrodisias is located near the village of Geyre about 3 hours southwest of Izmir. We took a day trip there from Pamukkale which was still about an 1 hour and 4o minutes drive each way. The brown archaeological road signage along the way is fair; you’ll think you missed a turn but just keep driving! Considering the crowds at other archaeological sites in Western Turkey, there was no one at Aphrodisias. We only saw one dolmus of travelers, an independent French family and a bus of 10 year-old Turkish school kids. The kids were very sweet; we chatted with them as they asked cute questions in basic English (where are you from? etc.) with the occasional help from their teacher. For the most part though, we were alone.
Map of Aphrodisias, Turkey (Adapted from NYU)
The first structure you’ll see is the dramatic Tetrapylon rising up over a green field. This ceremonial gate led to the Temple of Aphrodite and is finely carved with leaves, animals and minor Gods.
School kids playing at the Tetrapylon in Aphrodisias, Turkey
The outline of the Temple of Aphrodite is still visible but is intermixed with carvings and elements from the Christian Basilica. Statuary from the Temple are displayed in the on-site Museum.
Byzantine church ruins in the Temple of Aphrodite – Aphrodisias, Turkey
Cult image of Aphrodite in the Aphrodisias Museum
The Hadrian Bath complex are undergoing extensive restorations but you can still see the black and white tiled floors, luxurious pools, and even game boards used by the bathers. If that weren’t enough for an ancient Roman to do, there is also a large Theater and another bath complex on the south side of the site.
Pool in Hadrian’s Bath Complex
Theater and a second Bath Complex in the distance
There are remnants of administrative buildings which contain a network of rooms and a Bouleuterion, or Council Hall. The workshops where Aphrodisias’ famous sculptors worked in ancient times are scarce ruins today.
Bouleuterion (Council House)
Flooded remains of the Sculptors’ Workshops
The two massive Agoras (or markets) are mostly overgrown but you can make out their colonnaded outline. The entire South Agora was decorated with a beautiful frieze of fruits, garlands and the faces of Deities, heroes and theatrical masks. These blocks have been stacked at the entrance to the site awaiting further restoration. Each one is finely detailed and completely unique; I thought they were gorgeous. (I previously posted a detail of the wall of masks when I first returned from Turkey.)
A wall of Agora frieze blocks at Aphrodisias
Another stack of Agora blocks – Aphrodisias, Turkey
The Sebasteion is an elaborate structure with no real equivalent in the ancient world. It is essentially a shrine to the divine Roman Emperor and celebrates the four responsible for its construction: Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius and Nero. The building consisted of a “U”-shaped colonnaded plaza around a 14 meter wide courtyard. Above the arcade were three stories of lavish rooms. The exterior of this living space was decorated with images from mythology and those heralding the glory of Rome and its Emperors.
Looking into the “U”-shaped Sebasteion
Detail of the restored North end of the Sebasteion and its sculptures. The third level was not reconstructed.
The Aphrodisias Museum is modern, presents its pieces very well and has lots of helpful signage. I actually gasped when I entered into the Sebasteion sculpture hall. It was so impressive to see such a complete and beautiful collection of 1st century AD Roman reliefs. I also liked the small hall of discarded marble sculptures from the artists’ workshops. My only regret is not spending more time in the Museum. We only went inside after a security guard told us it was closing in half an hour. After some polite begging, they kept the museum open an extra half hour but I still felt like I was running through it all.
Sebasteion sculpture hall in the Aphrodisias Museum
Emperor Claudius depicted as Lord of Land and Sea
Hall of Emperors, Aphrodisias Museum
One of many tombs displayed around the Aphrodisias Museum
Maybe I’m a nerd (maybe?), but that’s was one of the best ways to spend 4 hours. I will recommend Aphrodisias wholeheartedly to anyone who asks, “So what should I see in Turkey?”
All photos (unless otherwise noted) by Daydream Tourist.