The city of Aphrodite, goddess of love, is one of the largest and best-preserved archaeological sites in Turkey. Though most of what you see today dates from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, archaeological evidence indicates that the local dedication to Aphrodite follows a long history of veneration of pre-Hellenic goddesses, such as the Anatolian mother goddess and the Babylonian god Ishtar. Only about half of the site has been excavated. It's much less crowded than Ephesus,
and enough remains to conjure the ancient city.
Granted autonomy by the Roman Empire in the late 1st century BC, the city prospered as a significant center for religion, literature, and arts (especially sculpture) in the early 1st century AD. Imposing Christianity on the citizens later proved difficult, however, because of Aphrodite's large following. One method used to eradicate remnants of polytheism was ro rename the city, first Stavropolis (City of the Cross), then simply Caria—archaeologists believe this is the origin of the name of the present-day village of Geyre, which contains Aphrodisias in its borders.
The excavations here have led archaeologists to surmise that Aphrodisias was a thriving sculpture center, with patrons beyond the borders of the city—statues and fragments with signatures of Aphrodisian artists have shown up as far away as Greece and Italy. The towering Babadağ range of mountains, east of the city, offered ancient sculptors a copious supply of white and delicately veined blue-gray marble, which has been used to stunning effect in statuary, in spiral and fluted columns, and in the delicate reliefs of gods and men, vines, and acanthus leaves on decorative friezes.
You'll take a short, bumpy ride on an open-air shuttle from the parking area to the main gate. Past the site museum, follow the footpath to the right, which makes a circuit around the site and ends up back at the museum. The lovely Tetrapylon is a monumental gateway with four rows of columns and some of the better remaining friezes. Notice the touching memorial to an archaeologist who devoted his life to Aphrodisias. Behind it, the vast Temple of Aphrodite was built in the 1st century BC on the model of the great temples at Ephesus, and later transformed into a basilica church. Its gate and many of its columns are still standing; some bear inscriptions naming the donor of the column. Follow the footpath across a field to the stadium, which once was the scene of foot races, boxing and wrestling matches, and other competitions. One of the best preserved of its kind anywhere, the stadium could seat up to 30,000 spectators. Back near the Temple of Aphrodite cluster a magnificent ruined residence, the fine Odeon, an intimate, semicircular concert hall and public meeting room, towering public baths (currently under excavation), and the sprawling agora, which once included a wide pool. The 5,000 white-marble seats of the city's theater, built into the side of a small hill, are simply dazzling on a bright day. The adjacent School of Philosophy has a colonnaded courtyard with chambers lining both sides, where teachers worked with small groups of students.
After a ramble around the ruins, head back to the beauties of the site museum, just before the ticket booth, where Aphrodisias bursts back into life in vivid freizes and sculptures that seem almost about to draw breath. The museum's collection includes several impressive statues from the site, including Aphrodite herself.
Pick up an audioguide (10 TL) and a map—you'll need them, as the signage is poor.
Aphrodisias may make you feel like Indiana Jones, but don't venture beyond marked areas; ancient walls have been known to cave in beneath the feet of unwary tourists.