by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Miletus, once one of the greatest cities the world had ever seen, now lies as a ruin on the East Coast of Turkey.
The scale of the remains of Miletus is impressive. and sits as a testament to the power and glory of the ancient Greeks who built this wondrous city.
The Amphitheater is the main attraction of the site, bringing in thousands of visitors per year. It houses around 5300 spectators at a time, and was once the home of legendary Greek plays and concerts.
Behind the Amphitheater is where the city lies. The foundations of the Baths of Faustina, the Mausoleum of Heron III, the storehouse, and the agora can all still be seen among other impressive buildings that are still being excavated.
Home to the famous mathematician Thales of Miletus, the city still shines as a jewel of Western Anatolia.
A Brief History of Miletus
The area which Miletus now stands has been inhabited by humans since the Neolithic period. The first settlements in the province are now inaccessible due to a rise in sea level, and the Meander River, next to which the city stands.
The region came under Minoan rule sometime before 1400 BC. These Cretan migrants pushed out the native population who were known only as the Leleges, a pre-literate people of which not much is known. All that is known about the mysterious Leleges people is handed to us via Greek sources that cannot be verified.
It is believed that the Minoans gave Miletus its name. The first written reference to Miletus is a Hittite source who referred to the city as Millawanda or Milawata. After the fall of the Hittite Empire, the Ionian Greeks resettled Miletus in 1000 BC, allegedly by a founder named Neleus of Peloponnesus.
By the Byzantine period, Miletus was raised to an archbishopric, and the Castle Palaton was built on a hillside close to the city.
During the reign of Justinian I (527-565 AD), Miletus was treated to a full-scale renovation. The baths were restored, drainage to the harbor was installed, and old Hellenistic buildings were used in the new construction, making Miletus a puzzle of a site with buildings built from stones across a variety of different periods.
When the Ottomans arrived in the 15th Century, they used Miletus’ harbor to trade with Venice. Venice was one of Turkey’s most important trade partners, and many Ottoman traders settled there permanently, leading to the construction of the Ilyas Bey complex in 1403. The Ilyas Bey Mosque, known as Europe Nostra still stands and has been officially recognized as an important cultural site with special protection.
Miletus was finally abandoned at the end of the 15th Century when the harbor began to silt up and trading overseas was no longer possible. Now, only the ghostly remains of a once-great city still stand, which sits silently with open arms to welcome visitors from all over the world.
The Importance of Miletus
In its prime, Miletus was one of the most important centers of the Greek-speaking world. At the time, Greece was divided into city-states rather than the nation of Greece as we know it today.
Although the Greeks that resided in Miletus were of Ionian descent, Homer refers to the Greeks of Miletus as Carians, described by Herodotus as a population that retained its original Minoan identity, and were akin to the ancient Lydians who had settled the area hundreds of years before.
In 499 BC, Miletus instigated the Ionian Revolt, and played a key defensive role in the Greco-Persian Wars. Despite being attacked by the Persians in 494 BC, the city survived the ransacking, and achieved a place and status within the Athenian Delian League for its contributions to the Greek victory over the Persians.
It was at this point where Miletus really became Greek, as we understand the ancient Greeks today. It retained a special status within the Greek-speaking world that continued into the Roman period.
Miletus had an impressive harbor that made it a commercial center of trade and a great maritime power, placing the city second only to Ephesus as the most important and influential city in Asia Minor.
The Milesian school attracted great thinkers from all over the world. Thales of Miletus is perhaps the most notable figure, considered as one of the legendary Seven Wise Men. Thales is responsible for the acknowledgment of water as a basic element for life, and the famous saying ‘Know Thyself’.
He was most known at the time for his deep knowledge of cosmology, and he advised Milesian seafarers how to navigate the sea using the stars – knowledge that is still used to this day.
He is also said to have been the first to measure the Pyramids at Giza, and predict eclipses – however, these last two references most likely illustrate Thales’ reputation as a wise man rather than historical fact.
As well as the aforementioned Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, the grandfathers of natural philosophy and science were said to have attended the School of Miletus.
To contemporary citizens during the height of its power, Miletus was perhaps best known as a center of worship.
The starting point of the Sacred Way, Miletus was home to the Sacred Gate. Sacred Gates were common across ancient Greece, all named after the famous Sacred Gate that lead from Athens to Eleusis.
Miletus’ Sacred Gate opened the way to the Sacred Road that ran southwards to Panormos Harbor (Now modern-day Akkoy) and turned southeast towards the city of Didyma and the Didymaion, known also as the Temple of Apollo.
The road was lined with statues of the Branchids (priests and priestesses associated with the temple). Lions and sphinxes that also once adorned the sacred way were excavated and on display at the Miletus Museum.
The road was approximately 16.6kn long, and 5 – 7 m wide. The Sacred Way was built for the worshippers of the cult of Artemis and Apollo, who would walk the Sacred Way in honor of the gods and goddesses, and partake in annual celebrations and festivals.
Host only to a smattering tourists and a handful of tea and trinket sellers, Miletus is among many of the lost gems of the Aegean. This underrated site has many stories to tell, and archaeologists continue to uncover its secrets.