Ionian Odyssey

Miletus: Cradle of Philosophy
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Bafa Lake
Once a harbor, now a lake

Miletus reigned as the cultural, commercial and intellectual center of Ionia, but this storied maritime metropolis ended its days as a forgotten backwater 3,000 years after its founding.

At its height, some 100,000 people lived and prospered on this 1.5-mile peninsula. Miletus earned a fortune from its mercantile empire, but also led Ionia intellectually.

Some of the greatest minds in Greek history called Miletus home, including Anaximander, Anaximenes and Thales, whom Aristotle called the first philosopher. This renaissance man, a mathematician, astronomer and physicist, became the first person in history to predict a natural event when he foresaw an eclipse in 585 B.C.

Miletus endured under a number of rulers, including the Ionians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines and Turks. The resulting ruins are a hodgepodge reflecting the city's various masters and the ravages of wars, earthquakes and time. But it's the Roman ruins that impress the most.

Sea Changes
Ionian settlers first arrived in Miletus, already many centuries old, during the 11th century B.C. By the 7th century, this seafaring city entered its golden era, establishing scores of colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

When the Persians invaded Ionia in the mid-6th century B.C., Miletus used diplomacy to avoid destruction and occupation. But Persian taxes squeezed Miletus hard, so the city led an Ionian revolt against the Persians in 499 B.C. The rebels were crushed five years later in the naval battle of Lade, an island just west of the city. The vengeful Persians demolished Miletus and sold its survivors into slavery.

When Miletus began rebuilding after the Battle of Lade in 494 B.C., the city turned to architect and town planner Hippodamus. This native son of Miletus introduced the grid system, an innovation adopted around the world and still evident in cities like New York.

Once liberated from the Persians by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C., Miletus' recovery began in earnest. The city prospered during the Hellenistic era and reached another peak under Roman rule.

Seaport to Swamp
But by the 3rd century, silt from Meander River began turning the city's harbors into malarial swamps, and the city was gradually abandoned like Priene to the north, which fell victim to the same river.

Attempts to revive Miletus during the Byzantine period achieved little, and this glorious Ionian city was reduced to a village under the Ottomans before being completely deserted in the 17th century.

Three centuries later, you need an imagination when visiting Miletus. When the city was founded some 3,000 years ago, it lay on a peninsula jutting into a bay. The sea now lies several kilometers to the west and the bay has been reduced to a shallow lake. The island of Lade is now a hill.

Upon arriving in Miletus, you're immediately confronted by the city's most impressive ruin, the theater. It held 5,300 spectators during the Greek era, but the Romans enlarged the seating capacity to 15,000.

As you wander along the galleries ringing the bleachers, you can almost picture latecomers scrambling to take their seats or revelers frantically searching for the bathroom. Down in the front row, you can still see the names of the rich and powerful scratched into their reserved seats.

Creature Comforts
The Byzantines marred the theater in the 7th century A.D. by building a fortress smack on top of it. They also removed chunks for building material. But this Byzantine blemish does provide an excellent vantage point to survey what's left of the city.

Off in the distance, you can see remains of the harbor monuments, including lions that once guarded the entrance to the harbor. Some 2,500 years ago, the powerful merchant fleet of Miletus lay here at anchor. Today, horses wander among the ruins.

Another must-see in Miletus are the Faustina Baths, built by (and named for) the wife of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D. This enormous complex boasted everything a modern gym-goer could desire, including a dressing room, cold room, warm room, hot room, steam room and exercise room.

People came here to bathe, exercise, sweat, gossip and be massaged, and they did so in style.

Only the frigidarium—the cold bath room—still holds water. A statue of the river god Maindros and a crouching lion keep silent watch over a pool where Romans splashed about 1,800 years ago. Despite the weedy water, it's almost tempting to take a dip.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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