Ionian Odyssey

Priene: Hellenistic Perfection
  |  Gorp.com
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Priene sits on a cliff along the slopes of Mt. Mycale, perched high above the plains of the legendary Meander River.

This spectacularly situated city was never large or particularly important to its subsequent Roman and Byzantine masters, who left it more or less intact.

As a result, Priene remains far and away the best-preserved Hellenistic city on earth, and retains an uncanny ability to transport you back more than two millennia ago when 5,000 or so Ionians lived, worked, worshiped and played here.

Priene lies far from any modern "civilization." There's no noise from traffic, telephones or tourist traps to yank you rudely back to the present. The loudest sound you'll hear is the mountain breeze whistling through the cedars.

Amazons to Byzantines
Priene, one of the oldest Ionian settlements, was originally founded sometime in the 2nd millennium B.C. at an unknown location—legends say by an Amazon queen—and thrived for centuries as a port city after the arrival of the Ionians in the 11th century.

After successive attacks, rule and destruction by the Cimmerians, Lydians and Persians, the citizens rebuilt the city in the mid-4th century at its present location. The city adopted the grid system devised by Hippodamus of Miletus, with all the streets intersecting at 90-degree angles.

Priene flourished during the Hellenistic era ushered in by Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C., and well into the Roman era. But by the 1st century B.C., the northern arm of the Meander River (whose slow, winding course gave us the expression "meander") began silting up.

As the Meander's delta slowly expanded, it pushed the sea—the source of Priene's prosperity—farther and farther away, eventually cutting the city off from its port. Priene dwindled in importance and population, but wasn't completely abandoned until the last years of Byzantine rule in the early 14th century.

A Well-Appointed City
Hellenistic Priene boasted a marketplace, a theater, a stadium, a council house, temples, elementary and secondary schools (their walls still covered by the names of pupils scratched there more than 2,000 years ago) and hundreds of homes complete with kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, salons and courtyards.

Although much of the city lies in ruin, several of Priene's most important buildings are easily distinguished. The 640-seat Boulerterion, where the city council took care of municipal business, is the best preserved in all Anatolia.

One of Priene's prime attractions was and still is the 5,000-seat theatre carved into the side of Mt. Mycale. It's one of the finest Hellenistic theaters left standing, despite modifications by the Romans.

Take time to sit in the theatre and imagine a rapt audience of ancient Greeks taking in a comedy by Aristophanes. Make sure to try one of the five armchairs of honor ringing the orchestra pit on for size. These carved marble seats, with ornate lion's paw arms and footrests, were reserved for priests and other dignitaries.

The State of the Art
As you stroll along the street from the theater, you'll catch a glimpse in the distance of Priene's greatest treasure—the astonishing Temple of Athena.

With the tree-lined slopes of Mt. Mycale and the azure Aegean skies in the background, the effect of the five Ionic columns standing a silent vigil over the ruined temple is awe-inspiring.

The Greeks stopped worshipping the Olympian gods thousands of years ago, but there's still something spiritual about this place.

The temple's gorgeous marble columns, topped by elegant scrolls, embody Ionic architecture at its finest. Small wonder the 4th century B.C. temple was designed by the renowned architect Pythius, who created the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Alexander the Great himself financed a portion of the Athena temple after taking Priene from the Persians. Alexander lived here while besieging Miletus in 334 B.C., and you can see the modest home where the Macedonian King lived. And if Priene was good enough for a man worshipped as god during his own lifetime, then it was surely good enough for the ordinary mortals fortunate enough to dwell in this sublime city.


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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