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Land of Aphrodite
2002 / November

‘In all of Asia I chose this one single city to be mine.’ This marble city in the valley of the Menderes River in western Turkey was beautiful, privileged, inviolate and celebrated. Aphrodisias was beloved of the Roman emperors and protected by a goddess from whom they claimed divine nobility, who as the earth mother of fertility embraced the earth, seas and skies, and was the symbol of love. Under her guardianship Aphrodisias was happy indeed. The city that had won such fame in the ancient world for the cult of Aphrodite was also the chosen city of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
For Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) Aphrodisias was of special significance among all the cities of Asia. This was the city of the patron goddess of the Rome of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), whose legacy Augustus inherited. The Roman emperors believed that they were descended from Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) and founder of Rome.

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Land of Aphrodite
2002 / November

Therefore they naturally added their own names to the pantheon of gods on Olympus.
During archaeological excavations in 1979-1981, a group of buildings known as the Sebasteion were uncovered at Aphrodisias in the village of Geyre near Karacasu in the province of Aydin. Their dazzling splendour shows clearly what it meant to be a ‘chosen’ city of the Romans. The magnificent reliefs adorning these buildings make the Sebasteion one of the most outstanding buildings of the ancient world. The complex consists of a temple, a monumental gate and a pair of buildings rather like colonnaded porticos 90 metres in length. Carved reliefs the height of a man extend the full length of these long narrow buildings, depicting the imperial world of Augustus, each conquered land and nation symbolised by a female figure, together with mythological figures, Greek gods, and emperors crowned with victory and divine authority. The two hundred reliefs are remarkable both as works of art and for their subject matter.

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Land of Aphrodite
2002 / November

The Aphrodite who is depicted on the monumental gate of the Sebasteion in her role as ancestral mother is not so much the licentious goddess of love and beauty worshipped by the ancient Greeks as a Cybele or Ephesian Artemis, the mother goddesses of ancient Anatolia. The famous statue of Aphrodite found at Aphrodisias on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite at the heart of the city has close affinities with the Ephesian Artemis who symbolised fertility and governed the earth, seas, skies and underworld. On her heavy robe decorated with reliefs are depicted Zeus (the sky), Selene (the moon), Helios (the sun), Eros and other mythological figures representing all the powers of nature. She herself is also there, accompanied according to the Hellenistic tradition by a dolphin and a Triton, and riding half naked upon a goat with a fish’s tail. All the many symbolic meanings with which she is attributed suggest that the origins of Aphrodite, her cult and the city of Aphrodisias go far back in time.

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Land of Aphrodite
2002 / November

According to the Byzantine historian Stephanos (6th century) the city’s name was Ninoe, deriving from the mythical King Ninos, founder of the Assyrian-Babylonian Empire, conqueror of western Asia and husband of the famous Semiramis. He is associated with Near Eastern goddesses of fertility, war and love like Astarte and Ishtar (also known as Nin, Nino or Nina). Although the arrival of Greek culture changed many things, including the city’s name that now became Aphrodisias, devotion to the cult did not alter in any significant respects. Some figures in the reliefs discovered in the Roman basilica, where legislative and other public functions were carried out, throw light on the little-known early period of the city’s history prior to Greek and Roman domination. Among these figures are Ninos and the clever and accomplished Semiramis, who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, revealing them to be the mythical founders of the city.

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Land of Aphrodite
2002 / November

Yet archaeological finds in recent years have revealed that the city is even more ancient than Ninos, stretching back into prehistoric times.
Inscriptions in the theatre are valuable documents providing information about the Hellenistic and Roman periods at Aphrodisias. They tell of the honours bestowed upon the city and the cult of Aphrodite by the emperors, of oaths of allegiance, of administrative and political ranks, and of privileges like exemption from tax and inviolability for the sanctuary of the goddess.

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Land of Aphrodite
2002 / November

With the protection and support of the Roman Empire, Aphrodisias became one of the most celebrated cities of the ancient world and a work of art in its own right. In this rise to glory which began in the 1st century BC the city won fame in another sphere other than the cult of Aphrodite. This was the school of sculpture. Magnificent statues adorned the monumental gates of the city, the agora, public baths, the school of philosophy or house of philosophers, and the council hall, in a flamboyant demonstration of the cultural and economic wealth of Aphrodisias.

Nermin Bayçin is an archaeologist.


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