The ruins of ancient Aphrodisias, located in the vicinity of the modern village of Geyre, meet almost all the conditions necessary for a given place to become a tourist hit. There are wonderfully preserved remains of ancient buildings, a modern museum with interesting exhibits, and infrastructure necessary for visitors in the form of restaurants and shops. This valuable archaeological site was also included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2017.
To achieve popularity equal to Ephesus, Aphrodisias would only need a suitable location, preferably on the coast, near a large resort, on a mandatory route for sightseeing tours and it does not meet these conditions. As a result, Aphrodisias does not have the crowds found in more advertised places, so it is ideal for independent travellers who wish to avoid crowds and excessive commercialization.
The earliest times
The oldest discovered traces of human presence in Aphrodisias date back to the Neolithic period, around 5800 BCE. Objects from the Late Copper Age (Chalcolithic) and the Early Bronze Age were also found. The oldest settlements were located in the areas where there are currently two mounds, which were created by the accumulation of subsequent layers of settlement. The first of these is called Pekmez Hüyük and is situated on the eastern side of the modern village of Geyre. The second is the acropolis hill, on the slope of which an ancient theatre was built.
The Greco-Roman period and the cult of the goddess of love
The earliest known names for Aphrodisias, mentioned in Byzantine sources, are: Lelégōn Pólis (City of Lelegs), Megálē Pólis (Great City), and Ninóē. The origin of the latter name is explained in two ways. The first explanation comes from Stefanos of Byzantium, the author of the huge work Ethnika, which is an encyclopedic compilation of information about ancient cities, their history, and the people inhabiting them. Stefanos claimed that the name Ninóē came from the legendary Babylonian king Ninus. John Freely argues that a more likely explanation is the connection of this name with the Akkadian name of the fertility goddess Ishtar in the form Nina. This goddess became one of the inspirations for the figure of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and her Roman counterpart - Venus.
The connections of the city of Aphrodisias with the cult of Ishtar-Aphrodite-Venus have never been questioned. The oldest traces of a sanctuary dedicated to this goddess comes from the 6th century BCE, but only in the 2nd century BCE the settlement grew to the size of a city, and soon a massive temple to Aphrodite was built. This was a turning point in the history of Aphrodisias, as it marked a break with the old tradition of the local Anatolian cult of the goddess of fertility. The Greek Aphrodite was rather associated with love and sensuality than with fertility and nature.
Moreover, the local cult of Aphrodite helped the city greatly when the Romans took control of Asia Minor. They identified the Greek Aphrodite with the goddess Venus, who was especially important to them as the mother of Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. The dictator Sulla, in accordance with the orders of the Delphic oracle, paid tribute and gifts to the temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias, offering it a golden crown and a Carian axe. Julius Caesar, whose family traced its origins to Aeneas, also brought gifts here in the form of a golden statuette of Eros.
Octavian, the future first Roman emperor, already in 39 BCE described Aphrodisias as his favourite city in Asia. His preference proved lasting, as the ruler of the Roman Empire continued to favour Aphrodisias, as did his successors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. At that time, the temple of Aphrodite became an important destination for pilgrimages from all over the Greco-Roman world. The city had 15,000 inhabitants at that time.
Due to its enormous popularity, the city was embellished with monumental buildings decorated with wonderful sculptures made by local artists. The sculptors of Aphrodisias were renowned for their skill and exported their works to Rome and as well as many cities in the eastern Mediterranean. They owed their success to two factors. Firstly: their skills resulted from the influx of masters from Pergamon after 133 BCE. Secondly, near the city there were rich resources of marble, mined from the slopes of Baba Dağ Mountain.
The most famous Aphrodisias thinker was Alexander, a representative of Peripatetic who lived in the 2nd century CE. Although he was the author of several original works on philosophy, he is remembered in history mainly as a commentator on the works of Aristotle.
Christian and Muslim periods
After Emperor Constantine the Great adopted Christianity in the 4th century CE, Aphrodisias gained the rank of archbishopric. At the same time, the cult of Aphrodite continued to flourish there, and was only destroyed by the anti-pagan edicts issued by Emperor Theodosius I. In 391 CE, he banned making sacrifices, visiting pagan temples, and worshipping the statues of deities, and a year later he banned all religions except Christianity.
In addition to the ban on pagan cults, repeated earthquakes, especially in the 4th and 7th centuries CE, dealt a great blow to the splendour of Aphrodisias. In addition to destroying many buildings, they caused the water table to rise, making parts of the city particularly vulnerable to flooding.
In the 6th century, in order to erase all memory of Aphrodisias' pagan past, its name was changed to Stavropolis (City of the Cross). However, this name did not stick in the long run and the city began to be called Caria. In Byzantine times, the city was the seat of a fiscal administrative unit (dioikesis).
In the 12th century, Aphrodisias was finally abandoned after the sack by the rebel Theodore Mankaphas in 1188, and then by the Seljuk Turks in 1197. It finally fell under Turkish control at the end of the 13th century.
After the arrival of the Turks in these areas (from the 13th century CE onwards), the name of the former city was distorted and Caria was transformed into Geyre - a village standing among the ruins of the ancient Aphrodisias. After Professor Kenan T. Erim began archaeological work in the area of Aphrodisias, the village was moved to its current location, about 1 kilometre to the west. The occasion for this move was another earthquake, which significantly damaged the buildings of Geyre. One of the old names of the city - Stavropolis - is still listed (as Stauropoli) as a Roman Catholic titular metropolitan see.
The first excavations in the area of Aphrodisias took place in 1904-1905 under the leadership of Paul Gaudin, a French railway engineer. Subsequent archaeological works were carried out here by the Frenchman André Boulanger in 1913 and the Italian scientist Giulio Jacopi in 1937.
After that, the existence of the ruins of Aphrodisias was forgotten and only a lucky incident rediscovered it for scholars and travellers alike. In 1958, a photojournalist named Ara Güler, who was later to become one of Turkey's few internationally known photographers, was delegated to document the opening of the Kemer Dam in Aydin Province.
During the return journey, his driver lost the way, and they decided to spend the night in a remote village of Geyre. While Güler was asking around in a local café about a place to stay, he saw a group of men playing cards and using an ancient column capital as a makeshift table. Güler realised that the village was built on top of ancient ruins, he decided to explore the surrounding area the next day. His photographs of a stadium, the temple of Aphrodite and many other monuments created a sensation in Istanbul.
Güler was tasked with the creation of an article with colourful photos of the place. He invited Professor Kenan T. Erim from the New York University to write this text, and the American scholar of Turkish origin accepted the challenge. Thus, systematic work on discovering Aphrodisia's past was initiated in 1961. From then on, he devoted his entire life to research in the area of Aphrodisias, until his death in 1990. His grave is located near the Tetrapylon, a monumental gate in the area of Aphrodisias.
The area of Aphrodisias is surrounded by walls approximately 3.5 km long, defining the area of the ancient city (approximately 5 square km). These fortifications were built in the Roman period and then repaired many times using fragments of buildings destroyed by earthquakes.
Aphrodisias was rebuilt at the turn of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, according to the rules of the so-called the Hippodamean system, also used in Miletus and Priene. The construction of the most important public buildings in the city centre began in the 1st century BCE. The redevelopment program, sponsored by a wealthy man from Aphrodisias named Zoilos, who was a slave of Julius Caesar, and was set free by Octavian. His building programme focused on the temple of Aphrodite, the northern agora, and the theatre.
In the first half of the 1st century CE, the city centre was enlarged by the construction of the southern agora and Sebasteion, a building associated with the cult of Roman emperors. Later, many buildings were added, including Hadrian's baths, bouleuterion, and a monumental gate (the so-called Tetrapylon).
In the period from the 3rd to the 6th century CE, no new public buildings were erected, but those constructed earlier were still used and renovated as necessary. A major architectural project of the late Roman period was the transformation of the temple of Aphrodite into a Christian church around 500 CE.
This name Tetrapylon refers to a monumental gate that was once part of the road leading to the temple of Aphrodite. The gate consists of four rows containing four columns and a beautifully carved pediment.
Built around 200 CE, the Tetrapylon was reconstructed in 1991 using 85% of the original marble fragments. During the reconstruction, the preserved fragments of the gate were first demolished, then new foundations were poured, and then the entire structure was rebuilt. The columns are currently reinforced from the inside with steel rods, and the missing elements have been recreated in concrete.
Temple of Aphrodite
The Temple of Aphrodite was a focal point of the whole city. The temple building was peripteral, which means it was surrounded by a single row of columns. It was built in the Hellenistic period. In early Christian times, around 500 CE, the temple was transformed into a church, which resulted in significant modifications to the building, including moving some of the columns to form the main nave. 14 standing columns have survived to this day.
The temple of Aphrodite was surrounded by a sacred district, i.e. the temenos, built during the rule of Emperor Hadrian (the first half of the 2nd century CE). During archaeological works, traces of earlier buildings dating back to the 7th century BCE were discovered here.
Located next to the temple of Aphrodite, the building most likely initially served as the seat of the Roman administrator, and then was adapted into a house for the local bishop.
The bouleuterion in Aphrodisias is well-preserved thanks to the fact that it was under a thick layer of mud for a thousand years. It is known to be lower today than in ancient times because the upper rows of seats collapsed.
Originally, the bouleuterion was roofed and could seat approximately 1,750 people. The city council met there, and most likely the building also served as an odeon, i.e. a small theatre intended for musical performances.
Beautiful floor mosaics and statues depicting significant city inhabitants and gods were discovered in the bouleuterion. They stood between the columns of the marble façade opposite the auditorium. The statues are currently on display in a local museum.
Theatre and theatre baths
The theatre at Aphrodisias was used both for the performance of dramas and for public gatherings. Its capacity is estimated at 7,000 people. The theatre auditorium was built on the slope of a hill, which was created by the accumulation of prehistoric layers of settlement. To the south of the theatre there was a complex of theatre baths.
The stage building of the theatre, located opposite the audience, has been partially reconstructed. It contains an inscription giving the name of the patron of the theatre's construction: Gaius Julius Zoilus and identifying him as a freed slave of Emperor Octavian Augustus. Zoilus most likely came from Aphrodisias but was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery - thus becoming the property first of Julius Caesar and then Augustus, who liberated him. As a free and wealthy man with powerful connections, Zoilus returned to Aphrodisias and became the sponsor of many public buildings.
Many of the statues exhibited in the local museum come from the theatre grounds. They depict, among others, Apollo, the Muses, boxers, and one athlete.
The Sebasteion is a religious sanctuary dedicated to the cult of Roman emperors, worshipped as gods. This practice was widespread in the Greek areas of the Roman Empire. The inscription from the Sebasteion of Aphrodisias, dating back to the 1st century CE, proudly dedicates it "to Aphrodite, the Divine Augusti and the People". Emphasising the connection between the goddess worshipped in Aphrodisias and the imperial house was also a clever political ploy, as the Gens Julia – the family of Julius Caesar, Octavian Augustus, and their successors – claimed divine descent from Venus/Aphrodite.
The sanctuary consisted of a temple and a long courtyard flanked by three-story colonnades. The spaces between the columns on the second and third floors were decorated with bas-reliefs. During excavations in the late 1970s, over 70 of the original 190 reliefs were found. They are currently exhibited in a special room of the local museum.
Little has survived of the northern agora, once the main square of the city. Currently, it looks more like a meadow, but in the past it was surrounded by Ionic-style porticoes.
Southern agora and the so-called portico of Tiberius
The southern agora was built between the theatre and the northern agora as the second public square in Aphrodisias. The oldest part of this agora is its northern portico, dedicated to the Roman emperor Tiberius.
The friezes of this portico were decorated with carved garlands hanging from masks depicting characters from Greek plays. Parts of the frieze are exhibited near the local museum.
The western and southern sides were also limited by colonnades. The most interesting object of this agora was a long decorative pool located in its centre. So far, fragments of it have been excavated on the eastern and western sides. From the agora you could get directly to the theatre through a covered passage.
These are the largest public baths in Aphrodisias, built during the times of Emperor Hadrian, i.e. in the 2nd century CE. Their design follows Roman patterns: the baths consisted of a series of parallel rooms with arched vaults. These rooms served various functions: changing rooms (apodyterium), cold water pools (frigidarium), warm water pools (tepidarium), hot water pools (caldarium).
The lower fragments of the walls, built of large limestone blocks, have survived to this day. They were once lined with marble slabs. The arched vaults, unfortunately not preserved, were built of rubble connected with mortar.
In front of the baths, there was a colonnaded courtyard with a richly decorated fountain. The sculptures that once decorated the baths, their courtyard and fountain are now in the local museum.
The stadium in Aphrodisias is a unique building: it is one of the best-preserved stadiums from ancient times in the entire Mediterranean basin, and at the same time one of the largest structures of this type. The dimensions of the stadium are 262 by 59 meters, and its shape is slightly egg-shaped, which was supposed to improve visibility for the 30,000 spectators who could sit there at the same time.
Inscriptions were carved on the stadium seats indicating the reservation of seats for various associations and professional groups, for specific citizens of Aphrodisias, both women and men, and for guests from neighbouring cities, including Antioch on the Meander.
The stadium hosted sports competitions in traditional Greek disciplines, such as running, long jump, wrestling, and discus and javelin throwing. The eastern part of the stadium was transformed into a gladiatorial arena in Roman times. Tunnels have been preserved here, through which gladiators entered and exited the arena.
The ruins of a Byzantine basilica located in the southwestern part of the city most likely served as the so-called martyrion, i.e. a building dedicated to a martyr. It was surrounded by a large cemetery, also from Byzantine times.
House on the Northern Temenos
Archaeological excavations in Aphrodisias have so far focused mainly on public buildings located in the city centre. However, it is worth remembering that Aphrodisias was primarily a city inhabited by as many as 15,000 people at its peak.
Their houses stood in residential areas located north, south and west of the centre. Although these areas have not been excavated, geophysical measurements carried out indicate that the average-sized residential plot with a house and its courtyard had the shape of a square with a side length of 15 meters.
The excavations included several much larger houses located near the centre. These houses were inhabited for many centuries and are preserved in their late Roman condition. They resemble other Roman estates known from the eastern Mediterranean. The size of the space devoted to public affairs is astonishing, especially in the form of large rooms used to receive guests and hold official receptions.
The North Temenos house belongs to this category and is situated in an excellent location, right next to the temple of Aphrodite. Many fragments of marble slabs and pilaster capitals with carved figures of Aphrodite and Eros were found there.
Admission to the Aphrodisias area and the museum located there is possible every day, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The entrance ticket price in 2023 was 280 TL.
Near the entrance to the ruins is the main square of the village of Geyre from before it moved to its current location. Around the square there are: a museum, shops, a restaurant, toilets, and a building with an exhibition showing photos of the old Geyre made by Ara Güler. Admission to the museum and exhibition is included in the ticket price to Aphrodisias. In addition to souvenirs, the store also has a large selection of interesting literature.
The ruins of Aphrodisias are located on a large area, largely uncovered from the sun, so it is worth stocking up on drinking water and sun protection before setting out to explore.
You need to allocate at least 2 hours to visit Aphrodisias, but it is worth spending much more time there. Most of the tourists are to be found in the museum and the theatre, there are much fewer of them in further places, and hardly anyone goes to the stadium, located furthest from the entrance - but it is definitely worth going there! It is best to leave the visit to the museum as a summary of the trip, and under no circumstances should this point of the program be omitted.
By car: from Denizli, the D585 road leads to Aphrodisias around the mountain range (80 km). From the west, access to Aphrodisias is possible from the E87 route leading from Aydın to Denizli. Coming from this direction, turn south (right) 15 km after the town of Nazilli. The further section of the road (36 km) leads through Karacasu to Geyre.
By public transport: from Denizli to Nazilli by coach, then change to a coach to Karacasu and from there take the minibus to Geyre.