Aphrodisias is not the most visited archaeological site in Turkiye because it lies a three-hour drive from cruise port Kusadasi or tourist-centric Ephesus. Luckily, my friend and fellow travel writer, Judy Wells clued me in and encouraged a visit to Aphrodisias. To get there, my travel buddy, Judy Shulman and I hired Barefoot Plus Travel to organize a day trip with a car, driver and guide. We also requested a stop at the picturesque white mountain/thermal waters at Pamukkale.
What is Aphrodisias?
Aphrodisias is one of the oldest sacred sites in Turkiye. It was dedicated to the ancient Mother Goddess and the the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of nature, beauty and love. A magnificent Temple of Aphrodite was constructed to honor her. Later, it was transformed into a Christian basilica by moving some of the columns. Aphrodisias is also known for its renowned school of marble sculpture, at its prominence between the years 1 BC and 6 AD.
Today, a visitor finds ancient ruins similar to those at popular Ephesus, but Aphrodisias enchants with a more beautiful and spread out town plan. Plus, the UNESCO World Heritage site includes an on-site museum making a complete one-stop tour. Best of all, there are far fewer guests along the pathways. You’ll find the partially restored Temple of Aphrodite along with the remains of a large theater, a stadium, baths, agora and impressive, but restored gateway.
The Rediscoery of Aphrodisias
For me, the most fascinating and memorable details about Aphrodisias came from the story of its rediscovery. Aphrodisias owed much of its fame to its school of sculpture, and although artful works were sent by ship to Italy, the sculptors still reserved their finest products for their own city.
Earthquakes destroyed the city walls in the 7th century, and they were never repaired. Over time, the theater filled with earth, acquiring the look of a natural, untouched mound. Some marble columns stuck out of the ground, but when viewed from a distance, they merged with the tree trunks surrounding them.
Paraphrased from Turizm.net:
A remote village by the name of Geyre grew up over and around the ruins. In 1956, the region was again shaken by an earthquake that destroyed more than half of the village. When digging a new water trench, the residents turned up some exquisite marble carvings and reliefs. These finds led to an onslaught of archaeologists who succeeded in persuading the villagers to choose a different water route but, in spite of the archaeological interest, they merely erected a wire fence around the ruins and departed.
Aphrodisias entered a sleepy rest period, known mostly by the locals.
Two years later, the famous photographer and traveler Ara Güler arrived in the nearby town. “Chance took me to Geyre,” he says, “I had never heard of the place in my life and when I saw it, I really couldn’t believe my eyes. Exquisite columns standing there, Statues of breathtaking beauty. Columns lying around on the ground – some of them used to prop up the precarious walls of village houses that seemed ready to collapse at any moment. One beautifully carved sarcophagus lid was being used as the trough of a village fountain. On another villagers were playing cards. I had never seen such an interesting place. I rushed off to get my camera and took a whole pile of photographs.”
The story continues saying Güler later sent the pictures to his agent in Paris, who sent them to Horizon. The magazine requested more, and Güler went back to Geyre.
He asked for assistance from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, and they recommended Kenan Erim, an American of Turkish origin who was then Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of New York. Kenan Erim had never visited Aphrodisias, but he knew about it. Ever since his student days in Princeton he had dreamed of Aphrodisias. After an initial visit in 1959, he returned in 1961 to begin excavation work with financial assistance from the National Geographic. This excavation work occupied the rest of his life, further assisted by various institutions such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Vincent Astor Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.
Here’s the best part: Fortune shone on Kenan Erim from the very first days. The trench dug by the peasants five years previously revealed remains of the city defense walls and towers as well as the head of a goddess. With this head in his hand, Kenan Erim went straight to the hut containing the statues unearthed by the few archaeologists who had dug there fifty years before, and here he succeeded in finding the torso to which the head belonged– an exact fit. Wondrously, it was as if this statue, created 1,700 years ago, had come back to life.
Our guide Burcu peeked my interest when she us told the story during our drive. Once onsite, she led us a more extensive tour than the typical groups receive. We were fascinated by the sculpture workshop area. Excavations here in the 1960s uncovered 25 half-finished statues and practice pieces carved by apprentices. We delighted in the sculptured “people scrolls” displayed on a wall, and it was fun to compare the faces and various styles of carving.
The landscape was dotted with yellow flowers that added to the beauty of the ruins. We walked a large circular route around the grounds and into the huge sports amphitheater. We saw the Tetrapylon near the end of our tour. The Tetrapylon is a gateway that greeted pilgrims when they approached the Temple of Aphrodite. It’s a lovely 2nd-century gateway with four groups of four Corinthian columns (from which it gets its name). It was extensively repaired and re-erected in 1990.
I especially enjoyed seeing copies of the Guler photographs and wished I’d had more time for the exquisite statuary in the museum. Definitely two-thumbs up for Aphrodisias.
After a lunch break, we took off for Pamukkale known for the mineral-rich thermal waters that flow down white travertine terraces on a hillside. I hadn’t expected Pamukkale to abut Hierapolis; an ancient Roman spa city founded around 190 B.C. The joint site of Hierapolis-Pamukkale was made a World Heritage Site in 1988.
Pamukkale’s gleaming white calcite shelves overrun with warm, mineral-rich waters to form the so-called ‘Cotton Castle’ (Pamuk means ‘cotton’ in Turkish). The solution of calcium carbonate in the spring water decomposes into carbon dioxide, calcium carbonate, and water. The carbon dioxide is released into the air while the calcium carbonate separates off from the water to form grayish-white limestone sediment.
I photographed some of the roped off areas but was disappointed that I couldn’t get closer. Then, Judy and I took off our shoes and waded in the soft, warm creamy water. My skin felt soft when we got out.
Like all tourist havens, Pamukkale attracts busload after busload of tourists by day, but becomes much less crowded by late afternoon. Visitors can swim in a spa pool with thermal waters and fragments of columns, but it is costly. Others take boat rides in the lake below.
Our day was already too long for such an option. Thankfully we had a driver to make the three- hour return trip to our hotel in Sirince, near Kusadasi.