Ancient theatre of Ankara

GPS coordinates: 39.941731, 32.860327
Ancient theatre of Ankara
Ancient theatre of Ankara

Description: 

The connoisseurs of ancient monuments that can be found in such abundance in Turkey may still be surprised by the fact that in the very centre of the historic district of Ankara stands a ruined ancient theatre. Just a few months ago, in the summer of 2018, this structure was almost completely forgotten and abandoned, even by the authorities of the Turkish capital. Only a few researchers of the ancient history of Ankara and a group of local drink enthusiasts remembered about this modest building. Fortunately, in autumn 2018, the first steps were taken to protect the monument, and this article may further contribute to the dissemination of information about it.

Architecture

The theatre was built on a semicircular plan, and the hillside of the citadel supported its audience. Two vaulted passages still lead to the orchestra, a semicircular space occupied by the choir during the performances. In the case of the theatre in Ankara, it has a diameter of about 13 meters and is surrounded by a thick wall. Unfortunately, it is not known what material was used for the floor of the orchestra.

A proskenion, i.e. the platform where the actors performed, has also been preserved. Only the northern part of skene, the structure at the back of a theatre stage housing changing rooms and warehouses of props, has survived in Ankara. The choir used the passages called parodoi, of which the eastern one survived to our times in its entirety, and the western one - only in fragments.

The seats in the theatre and radially ascending stairs were made of stones, debris, and plaster. The auditorium was divided into four horizontal sections. It is estimated that the theatre had from 20 to 22 rows of seats and it could accommodate between three and five thousand spectators. Therefore, it is a relatively small example of such a building in Asia Minor. The seats from the audience were later used to build the walls of the citadel, although archaeologists managed to excavate two of them in their original location. They were made of andesite, and their height was about 40 cm.

Ancient theatre of Ankara
Ancient theatre of Ankara

Because of the presence of traces of the water supply system and a thick layer of limestone covering the walls of the building, İnci Bayburtluoğlu suggested that the theatre served to display the so-called naumachia, i.e. naval battles. However, due to the very modest dimensions of the theatre, this idea seems very unlikely. Susan Cooke, on the other hand, proposed that these traces may indicate the transformation of the theatre into a fountain or a cistern in the Byzantine period.

Skene building, erected from andesite blocks, was modified many times, but initially, it was 31 meters long and 8 meters wide. It had five gates, and the central one is still partially visible. Fragments of sculptures found in the theatre suggest that the building was richly decorated. Among the discovered statues, it is worth mentioning a woman's head carved in coloured marble, a sitting speaker, and a satire's head, which, most probably, served as the keystone of the main entrance.

One of the fascinating finds in the theatre is the statue, or rather its fragments, of a cuirassed statue of Emperor Hadrian. In total, 26 of pieces were found, and on their basis, the original appearance of the statue was reconstructed. The emperor was identified on the basis of his distinctive hairstyle. Other fragments show decorative armour, including the so-called gorgoneion, i.e. the embossed head of one of the Gorgons, whose gaze turned people into stone. Fragments of legs and arms of the statue were also identified. Many of these finds are now in the collections of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, but, unfortunately, the section in which they are displayed is not currently available to visitors (as of 2018).

In the Byzantine period, the proskenion was added between skene and orchestra, which meant that the door height was reduced. It is even possible the orchestra had a circular shape, characteristic of the theaters from the Hellenistic period, before the addition of the proskenion.

Ancient theatre of Ankara
Ancient theatre of Ankara

Historical outline and archaeological excavations

Little can be said with certainty about the history of the theatre in Ankara because this building did not get even the slightest attention of the ancient authors. Therefore, the knowledge of researchers is based only on two sources: the appearance of the preserved fragments of the theatre and several inscriptions related to its activity. The best-known of these inscriptions is the base of the statue where the decree of the Dionysian Guild of Artists was carved. Because of the content it provided, the researchers associated this inscription with the theatre, although it was found in a different location, at Cumhuriyet Street. On the basis of the date given by the inscription, it can be concluded that the theatre already existed in 128 CE.

Additionally, fragments of ceramics found in the theatre area date back to the 1st century CE. The presence of the characteristic swallow-tail clamps from the same period come at the excavation site prompted some researchers such as Stephen Mitchell to conclude that the theatre was created as part of an intensive Julio-Claudian building program.

Ancient theatre of Ankara
Ancient theatre of Ankara

Another trail worth exploring is the relationship between the inscription mentioned above of the Dionysiac Artists Guild, Emperor Hadrian, and the theatre in Ankara. The full original text of this inscription and its translation into English can be found at Associations in the Greco-Roman World website. The inscription itself is currently displayed in the lapidarium in the area of the Roman Baths in Ankara.

According to the inscription, the helladarch, i.e. the leader of the Assembly of Hellenes, Ulpius Aelius Pompeianus, organised a grand festival in the city. Thus, he deserved to have a monument erected to himself. These events took place in the year 128 CE. Because festivals and artistic events were traditionally held in theatres, researchers assumed that the event organised by Pompeianus also took place in the theatre.

The same inscription also praises Hadrian as the greatest Emperor and the new Dionysus. During his reign, Emperor Hadrian granted special privileges to the Dionysiac Artists Guild, which consisted of musicians and actors. In exchange, the grateful artists made him their patron, equated with god Dionysus. It is known that the emperor travelled through Ankara in 117 CE, shortly after he was proclaimed Emperor following Emperor Trajan's death in Selinus. Perhaps it was at that time that his statue was erected in Ankyra.

Since the date of theatre construction remains unknown, it is also possible that the building was erected in the first century BCE, or even earlier. This possibility is indicated by the fact that the theatre was cut into the hillside, which was common practice in Greek theatres. However, it is equally possible that the theatre was built in the Roman period, and modelled on Hellenistic patterns, as was often done in the Roman Empire. During the reign of Hadrian, the theatre may have been rebuilt. Perhaps it was in the year 128, when the emperor once again visited Ankyra and gave special privileges to the guild of artists. Since Hadrian's philhellenism was widely known, it is also possible that the theatre in Ankyra was specially erected based on Greek patterns.

Ancient theatre of Ankara
Ancient theatre of Ankara

The present, relatively poor condition of the theatre results from the use of many of its architectural elements to erect a fortress towering over Ankara. The first archaeological surveys of the theatre were carried out only in 1982, and the excavations began a year later, under the direction of the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations continued this work until 1986.

Ancient theatre of Ankara
Ancient theatre of Ankara

Visitor tips: 

The theatre is located at the western foot of the citadel, in the fork created by the streets of Hisar Parkı and Kevgirli.

Currently (in the autumn of 2018), the admission to the theatre is not possible, and it is easiest to admire it from above, from the Hisar Parkı street.