This article has been previously published as a part of book Around Ephesus and Kusadasi: TAN Travel Guide by Izabela Miszczak
Miletus, founded by the Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor, will be remembered in the annals of history as the birthplace of mathematician Thales and the two famous philosophers, Anaxagoras and Anaximander. Miletus was also one of the oldest and the most important Greek cities of Ionia, boasting not one, but four harbors. The visit in Miletus should be combined with a stop at the local museum, which is open again after a few-year break.
According to a legend, Miletus was founded by a hero named Miletos. There are three versions of this story regarding, his origins and adventures. According to Ovid, Miletos was the son of Apollo and Deione, exiled from Crete by King Minos. He settled in Asia Minor, where he founded the city of Miletus. There, he married the daughter of the river god Meander - Kyana - and had with her two children.
The second version says that Miletos was the grandson of Minos and the son of Apollo. His mother abandoned him at birth in the forest, fearing the wrath of Minos. Miletos was nursed by a she-wolf and later adopted by shepherds. Many years later, unaware of his origins, Minos fell in love with his own grandson, who fled to Caria. He married the daughter of King Eurydos - Idotea.
Another version states that Miletos was the son of Aria. He was abandoned by his mother and adopted by his grandfather, Kleos. He grew up to be a handsome young man and attracted the attention of Minos, who wanted to rape him. Miletos fled from Crete, first to the island of Samos, where he founded the first city called Miletus, and then to Caria, where he founded another town of the same name.
All these versions of the legend have two things in common: the father of Miletos was Apollo, and he fled to Asia Minor from King Minos.
It is not currently possible to determine how long Miletus area has been inhabited by humans because any potential traces of the first settlements are located under thick layers of sediment deposits of the river Meander. The oldest traces, accessible to archaeologists, come from the Neolithic period (3500-3000 BC) when these areas were located on several islands, located off the coast, at the mouth of Meander.
Around 1900 BC the items from Crete, identified with the Minoan civilization, appeared in Miletus. Most probably they were trade objects. The impact of the Minoans on the development of Miletus, visible over the next centuries and corresponding layers of the archaeological excavations, seems to explain the origins of the founding legends of the city, binding this event with the influx of people from Crete.
Clear traces of settlement in Miletus are dated to the Mycenaean times, i.e. the middle of the second millennium BC. At that time, Miletus area was settled mainly by Carians, the indigenous people of Asia Minor, and the settlers from Crete. There are preserved fragments of city walls, houses and lots of ceramics from those times.
The historical documents mention Miletus for the first time in the Late Bronze Age, in the notes from the Hittite empire. The settlement is referred to as Milawata (Millawanda) in these documents. These texts demonstrate that in the 13th century BC Miletus was subordinated to the Hittites as a territory belonging to the vassal ruler of the land known as Ahhiyawa. This period corresponds to the archaeological findings, according to which at that time in Miletus the rising influence of Mycenaeans could be clearly observed.
In literature, Miletus appears in the Iliad, where the Milesian princes are mentioned, fighting alongside the Trojans as their allies.
Greek colonization and the development of the city
Greek settlers arrived in Miletus in the late 11th and the early 10th centuries BC. According to local tradition, they came to the city under the leadership of Meleus, son of the Athenian king Kodros. After landing, they murdered all the men living in Miletus and married the widowed women.The aim of this story was to explain the enduring alliance between Athens and Miletus, which was crucial during the wars with Persia.
The period of greatest prosperity of Miletus fell for the 7th and the 6th centuries BC. Especially from 650 BC the city developed tremendously, thanks to the colonies founded on the shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. In total the Milesians founded about 90 colonies, of which the most important were: Naucratis - the only Greek colony in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs, Cyzicus on the southern coast of the Marmara Sea, and Sinope (now Sinop), Amisos (Samsun) and Olbia (now in Ukraine) on the Black Sea coast.
At the turn of the 7th and the 6th centuries BC, the kings of Lydia - Sadyattes and Alyattes II, attempted to conquer Miletus, but they were successfully repelled by the famous Milesian tyrant, Thrasybulus. This ruler features in an anecdote from Herodotus's Histories, in which a messenger asked him for advice on ruling. Thrasybulus took the messenger for a walk in a field, where he cut off all of the tallest ears of wheat. The message was that a wise ruler would remove those prominent men who might be powerful enough to challenge him.
Persian rule and Hellenistic Period
The independence of Miletus ended in 546 BC, when, together with the nearby area of Lydia, it came under Persian control. The Milesians responded to such a turn of events with a rebellion against Persia, with the participation of all the Ionian colonies in Asia Minor. Despite initial successes and burning the capital of the satrapy, which was Sardis, Ionian rebels were finally defeated and lost their fleet at the Battle of Lade in 494 BC. In retaliation, the Persians captured and destroyed Miletus, and some of its inhabitants were resettled inland, to Ampe on the shores of the river Tigris. As a result, Miletus lost its dominant position among the cities of Ionia, and it has never regained its former importance and splendor.
The city had been weakened, but it did not disappear from the pages of history. In Hellenistic times, it was known as one of the major commercial cities of Ionia, and as a center of art. After the conquest of Asia Minor by the Romans Miletus retained its status of an independent city. In the New Testament Miletus appears as the meeting place of the Apostle Paul with the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20: 15-38). During his second stay in Miletus, there already existed the Christian community.
In the Byzantine era, Miletus became the seat of the archbishops. During this period, a small castle called Castro Palation was built on a hill near the city. Seljuk Turks conquered Miletus in the 14th century AD, and they used it as a port to trade with Venice. The same function was also played by Miletus at the beginning of the Ottoman rule, but soon the port was completely silted up, and the city was abandoned. Today, its ruins are situated about 10 km away from the seashore.
Thales was, most probably, the most famous was Milesian. He was a philosopher and a mathematician and was considered to be one of the so-called Seven Sages of Greece. Seven Sages were prominent activists and reformers active in areas belonging to ancient Greece in the 7th and the 6th centuries BC. Thales was recognized by Aristotle as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition. This conviction was also expressed by Bertrand Russell, who claimed that Western philosophy began with Thales.
The main achievement of Thales as a philosopher was the attempt to explain natural phenomena without recoursing to mythology. Nowadays the most famous legacy of Thales are his achievements as a mathematician. It is difficult to find a person who did not learn Thales’ Theorems at school. Thales applied his findings in geometry to solve practical problems, such as the determination of the height of the pyramids or the calculation of the distance of the ship from the shore.
Thales' work was continued by his Milesian successors: Anaximander, who dealt with the origins of the universe, and his student, Anaximenes.
Another famous Milesian was Hecataeus - a historian and a geographer, also known from his opposition to the anti-Persian uprising of the Ionian cities. He was the author of two works: the historical book Genealogiai, in which he presented a critical review of Greek mythology and the geographical book Ges Periodos, a sailing guide to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean.
Hippodamus, another Milesian, was a philosopher and an urban planner. He was the author and the namesake of Hippodamian plan of city layouts (grid plan). It was a system that helped to plan the layout of the city in a rational way. A city, built according to this system, was divided into districts, divided by transport routes in the directions east-west and north-south, and streets intersecting at right angles, forming a grid. Many Greek cities, including Miletus, Priene and Piraeus - the port of Athens, were built in accordance with this idea.
Isidore of Miletus was an architect, a physicist and a mathematician. Together with Anthemius of Tralles he designed the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
The first archaeological excavations in Miletus were conducted in 1873 by a French researcher, Olivier Rayet. His work was continued, in the years 1899-1931, by the Germans - Julius Hülsen and Theodor Wiegand. Successive seasons of excavations in 1938, and after World War II, were also led by the German teams. Currently, the works at Miletus are conducted under the leadership of the Ruhr University of Bochum.
The exhibits unearthed during the excavations in Miletus are scattered across numerous museums. One of the most interesting objects - the Market Gate - was transported in pieces to Germany and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. In Turkey the finds from Miletus are on display in the local museum in Miletus, but also in archaeological museum in Izmir and Istanbul.
Before you start walking around Miletus, you should realize that in the ancient times this city was situated on a peninsula, extending far into the waters of the Latmian Gulf. The most important strategically harbor was the so-called Lions Bay, located in the northern part of the city. The isthmus leading to the bay was guarded by the statues of two lions. The isthmus was so narrow that it was possible to close it with a chain.
The largest and best-preserved monument of Miletus is the great theater that welcomes the travelers coming to see the ruins of the ancient city. Its origins were much more modest than the preserved building. In Hellenistic times, the theater was rebuilt four times, but it could then accommodate only 3,500 spectators.
The Romans greatly extended the theater so that it could sit as many as 15 thousand people. The structure preserved to the present day is 140 meters wide and 30 meters high. There is no upper gallery, which in the past extended the thearte to the height of 40 meters. While strolling through the audience keep in mind that in antiquity the theater stood on the seafront and overlooked a beautiful view.
Under the facade of the theater, the archeologists have found the remains of the city walls from the Hellenistic Period. Above the theater, there were walls from the Byzantine times that were dismantled by German researchers. The fragments of these walls have been preserved on the hillside above the theater.
To the north of the theater, there are some traces of the stadium, built around 150 BC and rebuilt by the Romans. The length of the stadium was 191 meters, and it could accommodate 15,000 spectators. The size of the audiences of the theater and the stadium, give an idea of the power and grandeur of ancient Miletus.
Miletus had three agoras: the northern, the southern and the western. The Souther Agora was the commercial area in the form of a massive courtyard surrounded by colonnades in the Doric order.
Baths of Faustina
Another well-preserved monument in Miletus is the Baths of Faustina. The colonnades surrounding the courtyard were in the Corinthian order. Changing rooms were decorated with the statues of the Muses, now located at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. In the frigidarium or cold water room, the visitors could enjoy the swimming pool decorated with statues of the god of the river and a lion.These statues played not only the decorative role but were also fountains.
The caldarium - hot bath section - was composed of two large rooms, heated with hot air flowing through the channels in the floor and the pipes in the walls of the building. The inscriptions, discovered during the excavations, inform that these baths were built by Marcus Aurelius for his wife, Faustina.
Other ancient buildings
Other ancient buildings in Miletus, preserved in various conditions, are: another Roman baths, a bouleuterion, a heroon - the place of hero worship, a synagogue, a gymnasium. There is also so-called Delphinion - the sanctuary of Apollon, and the foundations of several temples.
İlyas Bey Mosque
İlyas Bey Mosque is a relatively new structure, when compared to other buildings in Miletus. It was erected in 1404 years, during the transition period between the reign of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks over these areas. The mosque was funded by the Menteşe emir İlyas Bey, in gratitude for the safe return of his wife who had been captured by Tamerlane. It is located in the southern part of Miletus and clearly visible from the road leading to the ruins from a local museum.
The mosque was built on a square plan with sides about 18 meters long and covered by a dome. It is characterized by beautiful ornaments carved in marble. Especially noteworthy is the mihrab, window frames, and the marble floor, lined with multi-colored stones.
The building was granted the Europa Nostra award as an important part of the cultural heritage of Turkey. After long restoration period, both the mosque and the cells of the surrounding medrese have been made available for tourists.
İlyas Bey Caravanserai
Right at the entrance to the excavations at Miletus, opposite the theater, stands a 14th-century caravanserai, also known as İlyas Bey Caravanserai. On the ground floor, there were once stables and on the first floor - rooms for travelers. Currently, there is a restaurant in the caravanserai, offering several types of kebabs, köfte, gözleme and ayran.
The ruins of Miletus are open to visitors daily, in the summer (April - October) from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm and in winter (November-March) from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. The area is not fenced, but in the evening, after the guards go home, the entrance is guarded by large and not very friendly dogs that make sure that visitors quickly and efficiently depart from Miletus.
The ticket to Miletus costs 10 TL. Parking at the ruins of Miletus is additionally paid. If you pay a visit at the end of the day, however, the fee will not be collected.
Currently, there is virtually no possibility of reaching Miletus with public transport. However, you can take advantage of organised trips, known as PMD or Priene-Miletus-Didyma, during which you will be able to visit all three places in just one day.
By car: from the main roads of the region i.e. İzmir-Aydın highway take an exit at Germencik and go in the direction of Söke. There are two access roads from Söke to Miletus. The shorter but slower one goes through Güllübahçe (with the ruins of Priene) and Atburgazı, through the lovely area of Büyük Menderes River delta. The distance from Söke is 38 kilometres. Slightly longer (41 km), but faster route from Söke to Miletus leads through Sarıkemer, and in Akköy it connects with the route through Güllübahçe.
If you choose Söke as a starting point, it is possible to make a loop using the above routes and visit Priene, Miletus, and Didyma duirng one tour.
From the east (from Milas) the road to Miletus leads around Lake Bafa, and the distance is 74 km.