History of Aspendos

Aspendos is an ancient Greco-Roman city located 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) north of Serik, about an hour's drive from Antalya city. According to Greek legend, the city was founded by Argive colonists who, under the leadership of the hero Mopsos, came to Pamphylia after the Trojan War. 

Aspendos was one of the first cities in the region to strike coinage. On these coins from the fourth and fifth century B.C. the name of the city is written as Estwediiys in. A late eighth century B.C.  inscription carved in both Hittite hieroglyphs and the Phoenician alphabet states that Asitawada, the king of Danunum (Adana), founded a city called Azitawadda, and that he was a member of the Muksas, or Mopsus, dynasty. 

The similarity between "Estwediiys" and "azitawaddi" suggests that Aspendos was the city this king founded. Aspendos' political history during the colonization period corresponded to the currents of the Pamphylian region. After the colonial period it remained for a time under Lycian hegemony. In 546 B.C. it came under Persian domination. 

The city continued to mint coins in its name, indicating it had a great deal of freedom under the Persians. In 467 B.C. the military commander Cimon destroyed the Persian navy at the mouth of the river Eurymedon. To crush the land forces, he tricked them by sending his fighters to shore wearing the garments of the hostages he'd captured. After Cimon defeated the Persians Aspendos became a member of the Attic-Delos Maritime league. The Persians retook the city in 411 B.C.  

In 389 B.C. the commander of Athens, fresh off the loss of the Peloponnesian Wars, attempted to conquer Aspendos. Hoping to avoid war, the people of Aspendos paid the commander to leave them in peace. He took the money but destroyed the city's fields, and the Aspendians responded by killing him in his tent. 

When Alexander the Great marched into Aspendos in 333 B.C, envoys asked him not tax the people and take their horses as the Persian king had. Alexander agreed, and went on to Side, leaving a garrison in Aspendos.  

Going back through Sillyon, he learned that the Aspendians had failed to ratify the agreement of their envoys and were going to fight for the city. Alexander marched in, and this time surrender was on his terms: 100 gold talents and 4,000 horses annually.  

After Alexander's death the city came alternately under the control of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and later to  Pergamum, to which it remained bound until 133 B.C.  Cicero tells us that in 79 B.C. Gaius Verres of Cilicia pillaged Aspendos. Verres took statues from the temples and squares, and had Aspendos' famous statue of a harpist set up in his own home.  

Aspendos reached its height in the second and third centuries. Most of the architecture still visible today dates to this golden age. Although the city was not on the coast, the Eurymedon river made it accessible. Gold and silver embroidered tapestries woven in the city, furniture and figurines made from the wood of lemon trees, salt obtained from nearby Lake Capria, wine, and especially the famous horses were its  main exports. 

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Aspendos began to bear the imprint of settlement by the Seljuk Turks, especially during the reign of Alaeddin Keykubat I, when the theatre was thoroughly restored, embellished in Seljuk style with elegant tiles, and used as a palace.  


Aspendos has the best-preserved theater of antiquity. With a diameter of 96 meters (315 ft), the theater provided seating for 7,000. The theater was built in 155 by the Greek architect Zenon, a native of the city, during the rule of Marcus Aurelius. It was periodically repaired by the Seljuks who used it as a caravanserai. In keeping with Hellenistic traditions, a small part of the theater was built leaning against the hill where the Citadel (Acropolis) stood, while the remainder was built on vaulted arches. 

The high stage served to seemingly isolate the audience from the rest of the world. The backdrop has remained intact. The 8.1 meter (27 ft) sloping reflective wooden ceiling over the stage has been lost. Post holes for 58 masts are found in the upper level of the theater. These masts supported a velarium or awning that could be pulled over the audience to provide shade.  

Today visitors enter the stage building via a door opened in the facade during a much later period. The original entrances, however, are the vaulted paradoses at both ends of the stage building. There are 21 tiers of seats above and 20 below. 

A wide gallery consisting of 59 arches goes from one end of the upper cavea to the other. From an architectural point of view, the diazoma's vaulted gallery acts as a substructure supporting the upper cavea. As a general rule of protocol, the private boxes above the entrances on both sides of the cavea were reserved for the Imperia l family and the vestal virgins. Beginning from the orchestra and going up, the first row of seats belonged to senators, judges, and ambassadors, while the second was reserved for other notables of the city. The remaining sections were open to all the citizens. 

The women usually sat on the upper rows under the gallery. From the names carved on certain seats in the upper cavea, it is clear that these too were reserved. Seating capacity was between 10,000 and 12,000 people. In recent years, concerts given in the theatre as part of the Antalya Film and Art Festival, have shown that as many as 20,000 spectators can be crowded into the theater. The stage building is a two-storey structure, built of conglomerate rock/  Five doors provided the actors entrance to the stage. 

The large door at the centre was known as the porta regia, and the two smaller ones on either side as the porta hospitales. The small doors at orchestra level belong to long corridors leading to the areas where the wild animals were kept. From surviving fragments it appears that sculptural works were placed in niches and aedicula under triangular and semicircular pediments. In the pediment at the centre of the colonnaded upper floor is a relief of Dionysos, the god of wine and the founder and patron of theatres. Red zigzag motifs against white plaster, visible on some portions of the stage building, date to the Seljuk period. The top of the stage building is covered with a highly ornamented wooden roof.

The theatre at Aspendos is famous for its accoustics. Even the sligtest sound made at the centre of the orchestra can be easily hear as far as the uppermost galleries.  

We know from an inscription in the southern parados that the theatre was constructed during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) by the architect Zeno, the son of an Aspendian named Theodoros. According to the inscription, the people of Aspendos, out of admiration for Zeno, awarded him a large garden beside the stadium. Greek and Latin inscriptions above the entrances on both sides of the stage building tell us that, two brothers named Curtius Crispinus and Curtius Auspicatus commissioned the building and dedicated it to the gods and the Imperial family.

No fee was charged for putting on a performance in the theatre. A portion of the necessary production costs were covered by civic institutions, but after the performance, part of the profits was turned over to these organizations. Generally one had to pay a fee or buy tickets to gain entry to plays or competitions. Tickets were made of metal, ivory, bone, or in most cases, fired clay, with a picture on one side and a row and seat number on the other. 

Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival

The theatre today hosts the annual Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival organized by Turkish State Opera and Ballet since 1994, with international participation of opera and ballet companies and an audience of about 10,000.

Other Roman structures

Aspendos' other principal remains are above the acropolis, behind the theatre. The first building one comes to on the acropolis, which is reached via a footpath starting alongside the theatre, is a basilica measuring 27x105 metres. The basilica is an architectural from invented by the Romans. Roman basilicas were used for a wide wariety of purposes, but these were all concerned with public affairs. Markets and law courts were set up in buildings. The basilica plan consists of a large central hall surrounded by smaller chambers.

The central hall is separated from those at the sides by columns and its roof is higher. Inside the basilica is a tribunal. During the Byzantine era the building underwent major alterations and lost much of its original character. South of the basilica and bounded on three sides by houses, is the agora, the centre of the city's commercial, social, and political activities.

A little further to the west are twelve shops of equal size all in a line at the rear of a stoa. North of the agora is a nymphaeum of which only the front wall remains standing. Measuring 32.5 m. in width by 15 m. in height, this two-level facade has five niches at each level. The middle niche in the lower level is larger than the others and is thought have been used as a door.

It is clear from the marble bases at the foot of the wall that the building originally had a colonnaded facade. Behind the nymphaeum is a building of unusual plan, either an odeon or a bouleuterion where council members met. Another of Aspendos' remains that should not be missed is its aqueduct. This one kilometre-long series of arches which brought water to the city from the mountains at the north, represents an extraordinary feat of engineering and is one of the rare examples surviving antiquity.

The water was brought from ist source in a channel formed by hollowed stone blocks on top of 15 metre-high arches. Near both ends of the aqueduct the water was collected in towers some 30 metres high, which was distributed to the city. An inscription found in Aspendos tells us that a certain Tiberius Claudius Italicus had the aqueduct built, and presented it to the city. Its architectural features and construction techniques date it to the middle of the second century A.D.