The small photography gallery in Aphrodisias (Afrodisias) houses an extraordinary black-and-white image.
Two bearded middle-aged men in flat caps are sitting cross-legged on a bench beneath a plane tree enjoying a smoke and a chat in the quiet of their village. Look more closely, however, and you will see that this is no ordinary bench. Instead, it has armrests carved in the shape of dolphins and footrests in the shape of lions’ feet. It is, in other words, a Roman bench. Yet the men sitting on it on that sunny day were doing so in 1958, when the great photographer Ara Güler had come to visit the village of Geyre, then squatting amid the remains of ancient Aphrodisias.
It goes more or less without saying that those two men were among the last Turks permitted to live here. Second in extent only to those of Ephesus (Efes), the ruins of Aphrodisias were far too splendid to be left unexcavated. And so the villagers were moved to Yeni Geyre (New Geyre), leaving just a handful of the buildings of Eski Geyre (Old Geyre) to molder amid the ruins rather as they do at Stratonicea (Stratonikeia), out west near Yağatan. The amazing thing is that the marble bench still survives, still standing beneath that same plane tree, which means that you can plonk yourself down on it for a rest just as those two men did more than 50 years ago.
The gallery also displays other Güler photographs of the last days of Eski Geyre, revealing a world in which a Roman capital could be casually reused as the base for a wooden column, a piece of temple architrave as the bottom of an oil press. The romantics among us might wish that we could still see such sights, but of course that’s wishful thinking.
The excavated remains of Aphrodisias cover a wide area so make sure that you allow plenty of time to do them justice. Most tours set aside no more than three hours, which is barely enough time to get all the way around the site.
You start off on your explorations from what was once the main square of Eski Geyre and is now home not just to the photography gallery but also to Aphrodisias’ splendid museum, best visited at the end of your tour (but leave plenty of time for it). Most people head straight out from the square, heading for the reconstructed tetrapylon, a monumental gateway erected in the second century, probably at the junction of two main roads. From here a ceremonial walkway may have led to the Temple of Aphrodite, whose existence explains much of the ancient city’s wealth and importance.
Today the remains of the temple are far from the most impressive thing to see here. However, the original structure long predated Roman occupation of the site and seems to have started life as a place where a goddess combining the attributes of the ancient Semitic fertility deity, Ishtar and the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was worshipped, apparently with much unseemly behavior. Needless to say, the later Christian occupants of the city were less than happy with the temple’s reputation and hastily built a Byzantine basilican church over the site of the temple’s final incarnation under Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-38). Not content with that, they hacked the cult statue of Aphrodite to pieces and rammed the body into a wall as building material, an ignominious fate from which it has since been rescued.
More impressive to look at are the ruins of the 262-meter-long stadium, probably built in the first or second century and able to seat up to 30,000 spectators in tiers of seats 30 deep. Here the locals held an annual festival that must have been a little like a cut-down version of the Olympic Games and that was apparently modeled on the Pythian Games in Delphi (Greece), with lots of wrestling and racing.
The stadium is a little apart from the main site. Returning from it you pass behind the Temple of Aphrodite and come to the remains of the Bishop’s Palace with, right beside it, a dainty little bouleuterion (council house) where small theatrical performances probably took place when it wasn’t needed for government business.
Beyond the bouleuterion you will come to the ruins of the baths of Hadrian and then, over a hill, to the fine theater, originally paid for some time between 39 and 27 B.C. by a prominent local citizen called Julius Zoilos, whose statue can be seen in the museum. In the second century B.C. it was extensively altered to accommodate gladiatorial fights and it’s that later version that you look down on today.
But at Aphrodisias the very best is also best saved until last, and that is the splendid partially reconstructed Sebasteion, a huge temple complex that, while also paying homage to Aphrodite, was really a shrine to the deified Roman emperors. Most particularly it was a shrine to Augustus (r. 27 B.C.-A.D. 14) and his immediate descendants, Nero and Claudius, who appeared in the carvings adorning the two lofty porticoes that flanked the actual temple. Today those carvings are one of the greatest, yet least-sung glories of Aphrodisias.
Five years ago the doors of the Aphrodisias Museum reopened to show off one of the finest displays of ancient sculpture to be seen anywhere in the world. In antiquity, the town was well known for a school of sculpture that made use of locally quarried marble to produce exquisite carvings, sometimes entwining black and white marble to stunning effect. According to the Blue Guide travel guidebook, sculptures from Aphrodisias have been found as far afield as Leptis Magna in Libya and Tivoli in Italy. Of course the finest collection is on display here in the local museum.
There are many things to wow the visitor here, not least the battered remains of the statue of Aphrodite removed from the walls of the later church. But in the end everything pales into insignificance the minute you step across the threshold of the new gallery designed to house the original carvings from the Sebasteion. As an anonymous blogger wrote after a visit, “Aphrodisias (Museum) has more reliefs than the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum,” going on to note that only the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, home to the carvings from the Altar of Zeus, has more.
One could no doubt argue over whether the considerably older (fifth century B.C.) Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens are finer pieces of art. The one thing almost anyone who visits this gallery will probably agree on is that it makes the case for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece almost unanswerable. Here you can look at the Sebasteion, then wander into the museum to look at the carvings that once adorned it, then step outside again for another look. What could be more perfect? Why are the crowds not flocking here by the thousands?