It’s all about love, isn’t it? And at the ancient temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the love goddess, you can feel it all around you. Not just in the ethereal sense, but in the practical. For it was the love of history that saw Turkish archaeologist Kenan Erim dedicate his life to uncovering the story of Aphrodisias. It became his second home for 30 years and, now buried there, his eternal resting place. It is because of his work that we are now able to experience one of the greatest sites in Turkey.
It’s the ruins at Ephesus that generally get most of attention when it comes to the ancient sites of Turkey. But, in many ways, Aphrodisias is far superior. The site stretches out over a large area, it’s been extremely well preserved or restored, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the moment because it doesn’t have the large tourist crowds it probably deserves. Imagining life in the Aphrodisias of old is not difficult.
Once it was a thriving city but most of the houses of the average people haven’t been uncovered. It’s the main landmarks which take centre stage, all revolving around the temple to Aphrodite. Some of the larger houses nearby, often taking up a whole city block, have been unearthed and reveal a wealthy and prosperous community.
A robust civic society with an emphasis on social interaction and public spaces is how I imagine it would once have been. A long open stretch of pool with fountains at each end form the boundary of one side; the traditional-style baths take a prominent place in the city’s layout and would have been the epicentre of the gossip trade; a beautiful ampitheatre must have been the setting for great performances of culture and arts; and then there’s the stadium… oh, the stadium.
It truly is a sight to behold. The description on the site’s information plaque describes it as “the largest ancient stadium in the world and one of the best preserved”. That may be true but the superlatives don’t do it justice. Standing at one end, the other seems so far away. It is 270 metres long and every one of those metres seems to stretch out longer than in should under the midday sun with the empty seats staring down. There would have been times when thirty thousand people would have filled those spots, shouting and cheering at the sports taking place below. The crowd would have come from not just the city, but from the whole region, for these contests.
Aphrodisias on World Heritage List?
There’s a lot to love here. What I don’t understand, though, is why it has not been recognised more widely for its value. Having been to some of Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I believe this is a much better candidate for inclusion than Xanthos-Letoon, for example. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Turkey even suggested it be considered (it is still on the tentative list along with 36 other Turkish properties). These things do move slowly and decisions are not always made simply on merit, but hopefully its time will come.
Regardless, you can understand why it became almost an obsession for Kenan Erim to reveal as much as possible of Aphrodisias to the world. He would be pleased to know that the archaeological work is continuing and that there are visitors who are very grateful for his dedication.
* You can find out more about the archaeological work at Aphrodisias here.
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