Once upon a time, there was a village called Eskihisar tucked quietly away in the southwest corner of Turkey near Milas.
It stood over the ancient site of Stratonikeia, the ruins of which formed an integral part of a village whose houses were uniformly made from stone and roofed with tile and whose mosque was faced with wood. Here, as late summer segued into autumn, the village women would sit outside to soak up the last rays of the sun. Each would be perched on a piece of marble “borrowed” from the ruins of Stratonikeia.
Today, those villagers are gone, relocated to a modern village as a lignite quarry crept up on their homes. Only the pieces of marble outside the doors of the stone cottages linger as a potent reminder of their lives.
Stratonikeia is one of those acute Turkish mystery stories. Here is a village that boasts not just the spectacular ruins of a Greco-Roman town but also the remains of a handsome late-Ottoman settlement with cobbled streets and a plane-tree-shaded main square. It’s in day-trip reach of Bodrum, but somehow the tourists never find it.
If the Roman historian Plutarch is to be believed, Stratonikeia was a Hellenistic foundation that owed its existence to a man’s love for his stepmother. As the story would have it, Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, was pining away for love of his father’s new young wife. Once the problem had been diagnosed, the elderly Seleucus was persuaded to stand aside in favor of his son, whereupon Antiochus founded Stratonikeia to celebrate their union.
Be that as it may, much of what can be seen at the site today dates from later Roman rebuilding. One of the main attractions, for example, is a stadium with an unusually curvaceous back wall that dates back to the second century B.C. but appears to have been rebuilt in the first century A.D. The same also applies to the fine theater, recently uncovered right beside the main Yatağan-Milas road. Ditto with the impressive bouleuterion (council chamber), the walls of which are decorated with inscriptions in both the Greek of the Hellenistic rulers and the Latin of the Romans.
To wander the silent streets of Stratonikeia as the leaves on the trees turn to yellow is to wonder also at the beauty that was old Eskihisar, exemplified in particular by the newly restored Saban Ağa Cami, rebuilt in 1876 with a lovely wooden portico and an unusual room above the entrance. Right beside it are the ruins of a medieval hamam, a reminder of the in-between period when Stratonikeia fell within the ambit of the Menteşe rulers based in Milas.
“No other ancient city like Stratonikeia exists where one can see the ancient ruins by walking on stone-paved Ottoman streets and sidewalks,” says the sign at the site. So why aren’t people flocking here?
Over the last few years, excavations in Stratonikeia have concentrated on what was once a fine colonnaded street leading to the northern gate. Just outside this gate is a small necropolis where underground tombs can be accessed via short flights of steps.
The monumental fountain uncovered just inside the gate tells a more important story, however, and that is of a Sacred Way very like the one that used to link the Ionian city of Miletus to the shrine for Apollo at Didyma. This particular Sacred Way ran 10 kilometers to Lagina, the site of the only known temple in Anatolia to the ancient Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hecate. It was at the fountain that citizens returning from the temple would refresh themselves.
Osman Hamdi Bey’s cottage, Lagina
Lagina will be forever associated with Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910). For most people, Hamdi is the man behind the painting that is the star exhibit of the Pera Museum in İstanbul: the magnificent “Tortoise Trainer.” Far bigger than most visitors anticipate, and still as vividly colorful as the day it left his easel, “The Tortoise Trainer” depicts a dervish in a vibrant robe and with a flute clasped behind his back gazing pensively down at a group of tortoises munching on lettuce. Often said to represent the method by which tortoises were trained to amble around the grounds of Topkapı Palace with candles strapped to their backs, the image is now believed to have been inspired by an article in a Korean newspaper
Osman Hamdi Bey was one of those multi-talented individuals who come along perhaps once in a generation. Not only was he a gifted artist but he was also the brains behind the foundation of the İstanbul Archeological Museum. What’s more he was himself an enthusiastic archeologist who was responsible for the excavation of Nemrut Dağı, the site of the enormous and mysterious monument to the Commagene ruler Antiochus I Epiphanes and the giant heads that launched a thousand tourism posters.
Less well known was his work at Lagina, a site that is today as overlooked as Stratonikeia, despite being home not just to the ruins of the temple but also to the small cottage in a shady grove where Hamdi stayed while excavations were in progress.
As at Didyma, the ruins at Lagina are not extensive since it was the site only of a temple and its associated buildings rather than of a whole town. So it can easily be visited on the same day as a trip to Stratonikeia. The focal point of the site is what remains of the temple, unusual not just for being the only one of its kind in Anatolia but also because temples to Hecate were rare in general, her cult being associated more with rituals that took place under cover of darkness mainly at crossroad locations.
Lagina seems to have been overlooked not just by visitors but also by the sign-writers, since there’s virtually no information available at the site. But to judge from the crunched and cracked state of the marble floors in and around the temple, it must have been brought down ultimately by an earthquake.
This is a lovely, peaceful site with a stream rippling along behind the remains of a porticoed stoa to provide a pleasing musical backdrop. It will be at its finest now as the leaves on the trees take on their autumnal hues.
While most visitors to Stratonikeia are likely to be staying in Bodrum or perhaps in Milas the nearest town to both sets of ruins is actually Yatağan, a place that doesn’t look very promising as you whisk through on the highway, but which turns out to have an inviting old quarter hidden away behind it.
Here, authorities recently restored and opened to the public the Haci Ömerler Evi, the early 20th-century home of a wealthy camel drover that boasts many of the features of Muğla and Milas architecture, including a fine pair of “kuzu kapıları” (lamb gates) and an open-fronted wooden veranda running along the top floor. The upstairs rooms have been redecorated in Ottoman style, while the downstairs storerooms now house meeting rooms. The stable for the camels has been converted into a conference room.