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Miletus, the crime scene of early archaeology

by Silke Elzner

Our recent trip to Kusadasi also brought us to nearby Miletus. Now, I am struggling to find good things to say about Miletus. It’s probably not the biggest ancient site you could visit in the area. But I think it deserves more visitors than the 20,000 that are visiting each year. That’s a little bit more than would fit in the gorgeous Greek theatre that is the only big structure still standing here. But I can understand why many visitors like to give it the cold shoulder.

In contrast to popular Ephesus which we will cover in a later post, time hasn’t been kind to Miletus. Which is such a shame. Miletus used to be one of the thriving Hellenistic centres of the Ancient World. Its influence was so strong it even founded colonies up and down the Turkish coast and as far away as today’s Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia.

Panoramic view of the theatre

An important sea port and Hellenistic centre

People used to settle in this area for thousands of years. It is hard to believe today, as we are standing on top of the ancient theatre, but in its heyday Miletus was an thriving seaport. Trade played an important role in the economics of this city. Many people came through Miletus on their way to Didyma where they would ask the oracle for help in important matters. The Sacred Way which used to connect these two places can still be seen today. Philosophers lived here, and writers. It is said that the apostle Paulus stopped in Miletus on his way to Jerusalem.

But the sea is long gone. Where there used to be the deep blue of the Mediterranean there are now just fertile plains. Islands that were surrounded by water two thousand years ago are now mountains. The river that you can spot in the distance has brought sediment into the gulf. Over centuries the gulf filled up with soil. As a result, Miletus’ economy was breaking away, the city fell into disrepair, the population moved away. What was once a prosperous thriving city is today no more than a chequerboard of giant stone boulders and a big theatre.

A fragment from a building in Miletus

The great crime scene of archaeology

It is a huge disappointment to see how early archaeologists from Europe treated the site when they first laid hands on Miletus. From the top of the theatre you can make out the devastatingly bad work they have done. Like an impossible jigsaw puzzle the bits and pieces of the city lie scattered around. They are uncategorised, removed from their original site, exposed to the elements.

Like scavengers they managed to secure one big piece which they promptly removed from the site. The Market Gate of Miletus can now be seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Miletus has been robbed by the one thing that would have helped restore the site for future generations. It would have probably sparked more interest by the general public than it gets today.

To be fair, the removal of the market gate may have saved it from further damage. The curators in Berlin probably do everything humanly possible to keep the ancient structure safe.

The theatre is surrounded by fragments and ruins

The ancient theatre of Miletus

The theatre has a lot going for it. The dimensions are impressive and can easily compete with other Greek theatres around the ancient world. Some areas are in pretty good shape. For example there are the round arched walkway under the seats, and the seats themselves. You can easily see the groove in the rows that had been cleverly added to the seats to help with the acoustics of the theatre.

Four columns in the centre of the audience area probably held a baldachin at some point. Special seats that were protecting the elite of the city as they were watching the ancient plays of comedy and tragedy. The attendance at theatre plays was a democratic right and at the same time a religious duty that was expected in particular from the free male population. But women did find their place in the upper ranks of the theatre as well.

You need to keep in mind that the theatre is almost 2,000 years old, a fantastic age for any structure.

Inside the theatre

The Museum of Miletus

Just a couple of metres up the road you will find the museum that goes with the site. It contains all the bits and pieces, statues, shards and glass objects that were found in the area. There are also maps and explanations to the history and the significance of Miletus.

Visiting the museum helps if you want to get a better picture of the site. We were particularly smitten by the torso that had been tucked away behind barrier tape – maybe too many people couldn’t resist the temptation to touch the statue’s private parts?

Be it as it may, Miletus is an interesting stop if you are on your way to the Tempel of Apollo in Didyma or as a part of a bigger tour of cultural sites around the beach resort of Kusadasi. Maybe not a worthy standalone destination but an interesting part of the Ionian settlements that were found in the region.

It’s unfortunate that archaeology has failed so dramatically in restoring and respecting the site. One can only hope that in the future there will be more funds available to put together the puzzle pieces that had once made up this flourishing Greek centre of trade, commerce and the arts.

Pottery that can be see at the Museum in Miletus Glass containersPenis statueWinged creatures from MiletusLying statuePieces found at MiletusGrass growing at the siteDetailGroove in the seatsViews from the theatreRuins of MiletusCarved foot - detailColumns in the theatre holding a baldachinInscriptions


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