The Well-preserved Roman Theatre at Aspendos

Looking down into the theatre

With a return to two of our favourite locations (Greece and Turkey) upcoming this summer, the following posts will be of places we did the first time in 2019 but won’t be visiting this time around. This summer, the plan is to do a few different Greek islands as well as focusing on the Turquoise Riviera on the western side of Turkey.

Located about 40km (25 miles) east of the Turkish city of Antalya, the Roman ruins of Aspendos is notable for a well preserved theatre that is considered to be the best still in existence.

The city was part of the region of Pamphylia, a Roman-administered part of Asia Minor, and was the economic rather than political centre of the region. Aspendos was one of the earliest cities to mint coins, and began issuing coinage around 500 BC. Conquered by both the Persians and Alexander the Great, the city eventually came under control of the Romans.

There are a number of impressive Roman ruins around the region, so we did day trips from Antalya in a rental car to see them. To get to Aspendos, most of our journey involved driving the D400 highway before exiting and driving a short distance to get to the entrance to the ruins.

The aqueduct at ground level

Before we went into the ruins of Aspendos, we drove around the area and found the ruins of the aqueduct first. Aside from its famous theatre, this is one of the most impressive features there. From above and around the ruins, we could see whole sections of the 15 kilometre (9.3 mi) Roman aqueduct still remaining,

We then drove over to the entrance of Aspendos. When arriving at the large parking lot, there is the option to enter the theatre directly or walk up a hill to the right of the theatre to see the ruins on top. Many tourists went directly to the theatre located close to the entrance with far fewer making the trek up to the other ruins.

While the theatre has been well preserved the ruins on the hill above it have been given less attention. While there is signage on some of the larger ruins as well as some directional arrows, it is clear that less attention has been paid to this section. On the one hand, it means less modern restoration and more of the original work; on the other hand you have to beware of some safety hazards.

Straddling a hole in the ground near the ornamental gate

Although most people stick to the main paved street and major ruins, there are a series of simple pathways on top of the hill. Following them allows for views of the surrounding countryside. Even with basic signage there is little chance of getting lost as it’s not a large area.

There was a series of pathways around the top of the hill, with ruins and rubble all around
Nice views of the surrounding region from the ruins on the hill

After checking out the views we made our way towards the largest collection of ruins on the hill.

The hilltop ruins from a distance
Parts of the Agora and Market Hall
The Nymphaeum
The Basilica

In 1909, the British archaeologist David George Hogarth wrote: “This is not like anything that I ever saw before. You may have seen the amphitheaters in Italy, France, Dalmatia and Africa; temples in Egypt and Greece; the palaces in Crete; you may be sated with antiquity or scornful of it. But you have not seen the theatre of Aspendos.”

It’s a great view from above, but you can only enter from below

After viewing the theatre from above, we made our way back down the hill and back around to the entrance. From there we made our way in.

From the Wikipedia entry: “With a diameter of 96 metres (315 ft), the theatre provided seating for 12,000. It was built in 155 by the Greek architect Zenon, a native of the city. It was periodically repaired by the Seljuqs, who used it as a caravanserai, and in the 13th century the stage building was converted into a palace by the Seljuqs of Rum.”

“In order to keep with Hellenistic traditions, a small part of the theatre was built so that it leaned against the hill where the Citadel (Acropolis) stood, while the remainder was built on vaulted arches. The high stage, whose supporting columns are still in place, served to seemingly isolate the audience from the rest of the world. The scaenae frons or backdrop, has remained intact. The 8.1 metre (27 ft) sloping reflective wooden ceiling over the stage has been lost over time. Post holes for 58 masts are found in the upper level of the theatre. These masts supported a velarium, or awning that could be pulled over the audience to provide shade.”

The original backdrop

The theatre is still used in spring and early summer for performances. The Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival is the main draw when the weather is good.

Seats were great! Too bad there were no performances on this day

Aspendos was one of many ancient locations we visited on our first trip to Turkey. I’ve already posted our visits to Perga, Phaeselis, Tripolis, Hierapolis, Termessos and Ephesus, and will post about the port of Side soon. Although there are similarities between them (we often joke about comparing the theatres we inevitably find) each location has something unique about it, and we never get bored. With so many places still to see in Turkey, we’re looking forward to doing more of them this summer.

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