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Aristotle’s school of philosophy Assos
Secluded among olive trees, the ancient city of Assos, aka Behramkale, has hosted a number of civilizations in its millennia-old history, most notably that of the ancient Greeks. Socrates and Plato are said to have lived and taught here where Aristotle also founded his School of Philosophy.
Our guide points out the statues of saints that gaze at us from one of the three entrances to the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in the heart of Paris, the setting for Victor Hugo’s immortal work: “Let’s see if you know which one of them strove to spread Christianity through the region which is Turkey today?” One of our group, a gentleman who has been to Antioch, replies: “Saint Paul.” “Bravo!” continues the guide. “And did you know that the town of Assos in Çanakkale is another place he went?”
No, I didn’t know that.
Assos greeted us with first azure, then grey, then almost pitch black clouds followed by a torrential downpour on an otherwise sunny, lemonade-scented spring day. What all does this small, unassuming village of fewer than a thousand inhabitants harbor in its bosom. What a plethora of stories it has to tell.
Records of the first settlement at Assos date back to the second millennium B.C. The Greek city meanwhile was founded by colonists from the island of Lesbos in the 7th century B.C. Aristotle, the father of Greek philosophy, is said to have lived in the area and Socrates and Plato to have taught here in this region which later came under occupation by the Persians and the Lydians and then was incorporated into the Athenian League in the 5th century B.C. Coming first under the rule of the Kingdom of Pergamum and then under Roman rule, Assos in 1330 did not escape the notice of the emir of Karasi or, immediately afterwards, of Orhan Bey, one of the founders of the newly emergent Ottoman dynasty.
Who could resist?
How is it possible to resist the appeal of this tiny village perched 235 meters high on a volcanic hill with a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf of Edremit and the Aegean beyond, as far as the eye can see? Like artifacts in a virtual open air museum today, the stone houses, the Temple of Athena, the theater, the necropolis, and then, from a much more recent past, our own, a 14th-century bridge, the mosque of Murad Hüdavendigar and so much more are positively dizzying in their attractiveness and appeal.
The first archaeological excavations got under way in Assos in 1881, conducted by an American team. They are the ones who discovered the temple, the ancient theater and some of the graves on the necropolis. Unfortunately, that monuments can be seen today in the Paris Louvre and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where relief-carved blocks of stone from the Temple of Athena, said to have been ‘gifted’ by Sultan Mahmut II, are on exhibit. The majority of the stones are believed to have been loaded onto ships and brought to Istanbul where they were used in the construction of the quay at Tophane. Some of the stones
are also known to have been used in the Mosque of Murat Hüdavendigar in 1359. The wall decorations in particular are noteworthy in this mosque, which was built at a rather elevated spot among the ruins of Assos during the reign of Murat I. The surfaces of the leaves that adorn the mosque’s plaster mihrab are decorated with Rumi motifs in relief. This structure, which has no minaret, is still used as a mosque when necessary. Meanwhile we should point out that the artifacts found at Assos during the excavations and not taken abroad are on display today at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
We cannot speak of archaeological excavation and restoration without remembering Prof. Dr. Ümit Serdaroğlu, who died four years ago. During his nearly twenty-year tenure on the Assos Ruins Excavation Board, Serdaroğlu worked in particular on the necropolis and in the area where the Temple of Athena is located. Extending his work from there to the north section of the defense walls that encircle the city and to the areas where the dwellings are located and the south terrace, Serdaroğlu placed special importance on restoration as well as excavation, using modern technology to reinforce the toppled columns of the temple as he re-erected them in situ. Besides his archaeological work at Assos, Serdaroğlu also concentrated on preserving and restoring the original stone architecture at Behramkale, In keeping with his will, he is buried today in the village cemetery.
Another key feature we are not accustomed to seeing in many other parts of Turkey today is the special care taken in urban planning. New construction is prohibited inside the village and the building of houses to the north of the village permitted only in areas not suitable for farming. The new and old structures thus stand next to each other in close proximity but separate and not interspersed.
A little practical information: At 92 km from Çanakkale and 15 km from Ayvacık, Assos is also know as ‘Behramkale’, a name that is thought to derive from ‘Makhram’, a governor of the region in the Byzantine period. Tourism, farming and livestock raising are the main sources of livelihood of the villagers, who greet tourists at the entrance
to their village with delicate handmade lace, tablecloths, carpets and kilims.
An abundance of olive trees also makes the village a major olive producer, and the production of olive oil as well as olives for eating is widespread. Assos today is a touristic area with a capacity to accommodate some 2,500 persons in the village itself as well as at the landing down on the shore, Kadırga Plage and the bay and surrounding area. The resumption of archaeological excavation has sparked new activity in the village and its immediate vicinity. The structures down at the harbor have been restored in keeping with their original architecture and converted into hotels and motels. In addition, homes in the village and neighboring villages have gone into the bed & breakfast business, and little restaurants have sprung up serving home-cooked food.
CITY WHERE ARISTOTLE FOUND LOVE
Wouldn’t a Greek city like Assos dating back thousands of years have some interesting stories to tell? Well, here’s one: The Assos King Hermias had a sister of legendary beauty by the name of Pythias. Whoever set eyes on her could never get her out of his mind. The philosopher Aristotle was an old school friend of Hermias, who invited him to Assos. Accepting the invitation, Aristotle saw Pythias at dinner and fell in love with her at first sight, to the point that he could no longer eat or drink. Realizing the situation, Hermias promised Aristotle he would give him his sister if Aristotle would open a school at Assos. Naturally the story has a happy ending. Aristotle married Pythias and in the meantime founded his famous school of philosophy. It was here that he composed his famous work, In Praise of Virtue, between the years 348 and 345 B.C.