Turkey and the Classical Aegean

David Pettitt

Much like its near neighbour Greece, Turkey is home to a wealth of archaeological sites and spectacular classical era remains. For anyone with even a passing interest in Europe’s ancient civilisations, a few days exploration of the Aegean coast south of capital Istanbul represents time well spent. Evocative landscapes bring to life the mythology of the past and little imagination is needed to hear the sounds of battle emanating over the Trojan plain or to imagine the stories of Croesus as told by Herodotus.

The Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey

Ephesus

The glorious city of Ephesus is a wonderfully preserved classical city and one of the most important and famous Greco-Roman sites of the eastern Mediterranean. Ancient Ephesus was one of the great trading cities, fell under the control of Croesus and, later, the Persians, was visited by Alexander the Great and re-established itself as the Roman capital of Asia Minor with a population pushing an incredible 250,000. The remains at Ephesus are extensive and fabulously well preserved.

Troy

A different site entirely to its southern neighbour Ephesus, Troy will forever be linked to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the heroic tales of the Trojan Wars. The ruins at Troy are not as spectacular as those elsewhere but by forming a link between Homeric legend and physical history, the site is unrivalled. Approached over the famous plain, Troy is a vast complex of intricate archaeological excavations that, to date, have uncovered nine ancient cities dating back to 3,000 BC.

Pergamum

Located on the outskirts of modern Bergama, ancient Pergamum was one of the region’s most powerful and wealthiest kingdoms. Although the town dates back to Trojan times, Pergamum flourished under the stewardship of Lysimachus – one of Alexander the Great’s generals – and held its position of importance through the Roman period. The Acropolis holds a vast array of treasures and highlights include the Altar of Zeus, Temple of Trajan and the stunning 10,000 seat theatre.

Assos

One of Turkey’s hidden gems, the tiny village of Assos was founded during the 8th century BC latterly falling under the jurisdiction of Pergamum. The setting at Assos is idyllic, with picturesque stone cottages, quaint harbour and turquoise sea overlooked by the ancient Temple of Athena. Still ringed by city walls, considered by many to be some of the finest classical fortifications in Turkey, there is also a 4th century theatre complex and interesting basilica.

Miletus, Didyma and Priene

Despite being little visited, the three ancient sites of Miletus, Didyma and Priene are some of the Aegean’s finest. These ancient settlements are close enough to each other to explore on the same day with each offering something different. The spectacular Great Theatre of Miletus and Didyma’s Temple of Apollo – once occupied by an oracle which rivalled Delphi – are staggeringly beautiful, as are the ruins of Priene which are sited beneath Mt Mykale.

Afrodisias

Located 160kms east of Ephesus, isolated Afrodisias is one of the country’s finest classical remains and a complex that rivals many of the Aegean’s better known sites. Beautifully preserved, Afrodisias saw prehistoric settlement and further occupation through to the Bronze Age. Around the 8th century BC, the famous Temple of Aphrodite was built and it was this, and the accompanying pilgrims, which allowed the city to flourish. After being sacked by Tamerlane, Afrodisias was never to recover.