Text and photos by Glenn Maffia
Nestling upon the shores of the Aegean some two hours drive south of Izmir one can find the site of the second most important Oracle active during the Archaic and Hellenistic Eras; the Temple of Apollo in ancient Didyma. Indeed, this area was purported to be a sacred place devoted to Apollo even before the Greek colonization c.800 BCE.
A vast and impressive structure, which continues to stand proud within its peaceful environment, albeit ravaged by earthquakes in the passages of time. Though, due to the Temple’s solid construction and the covering of earth which accumulated after its disuse during the early Christian period, much remains to be seen and appreciated, especially after the German excavations under Theodor Wiegand during the early 20th century. Whilst this is merely but a small fraction of the other scintillating discoveries unveiled in recent years by the German Archaeological Institute which remain reinterred, silent and unseen beneath the baked earth.
Unfortunately, the lure of quick and easy money from mass tourism and a profound ignorance of the wealth of ‘cultural gold’ upon which the locals stand has seen the modern day town of Didim become a cheap holiday resort focusing upon the beachfront areas and the mundane pursuits of the rather limited intellect of visitors.
It is possible that the ‘mass’ and ‘cultural’ aspects of tourism could, indeed should, be able to coexist together, but always (in my opinion) the dominant ideology remains firmly in the commercial field of procuring immediate money. The fact that Turkey has a Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and not a Ministry of Culture and a separate Ministry of Tourism, makes me wonder where, and by whom, the decisions are being made.
When I first visited Didim/Didyma in 1996 there were but merely three modest cafés close to the Temple site. Today, due to the changes in applying for a ‘Certificate of Habitation’ (too long to explain here) there are now eighteen when I last counted. And these built upon an active archaeological site. I find that incredulous.
Now we have had news of a proposed theatre upon a beach nearby to the Fun Fair Park. That certainly brought a wry smile to my lips for two notable reasons.
Firstly, the insistence on continuing to call this structure an amphitheatre merely shows a complete lack of knowledge of architecture; one would have thought that someone should have corrected the mayor and councillors by now.
An amphitheatre is an arena entirely enclosed by seating, either in a complete circle or within an oval or elliptical design. The computer generated illustrations released by the council clearly lack this entire encirclement of seating, therefore it depicts a theatre. The Greeks built their theatres in a horseshoe shaped design extending beyond the semi-circle points, whereas the later Roman style stopped at the semi-circle points. These are all quite distinctive and easily recognizable.
I trust that is now fully understandable and that in future the Didim authorities shall refer to it in the correct descriptive term of theatre. I realize that amphitheatre probably sounds grander and more imposing, which is why that word is used in its selling to the public. The great Ottoman architect, Sinan, who produced such wonders during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, is probably turning in his grave.
Excavate and display the original
It is also quite amusing for me to know that Didim has a 3500-4000 seating capacity theatre already in situ. “Where?” you may ask. Slap bang alongside the Temple of Apollo upon its southern edge. Admittedly, this 1st-2nd century CE theatre rests below ground level these days, reinterred by the German archaeologists after they had excavated it in 2012. I was fortunate to be in place when they, over the course of a number of weeks, slowly peeled back the pages of time. They were absolutely thrilling times as the first sign of an ancient fragment of architecture was revealed, and it was just a matter of course to continue following it. Pretty soon its shape and dimensions made the pronouncement as it being a theatre absolutely elementary.
It remains there to this day quietly awaiting an end to its interment, though I have been informed that a compulsory purchase order has been placed on this land by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This certainly bodes well for Didim’s cultural tourism, if true, for the theatre could easily be placed within the temple’s enclosure as it is merely a short distance towards the south perimeter walls.
Naturally I would go further, for there is a Byzantine chapel standing atop of a Hellenistic foundation structure a touch further to the east which I would certainly add to the enclosure. Whilst to the north we have, in touching distance to the temple both the Sacred Road and a second temple which I believe to be dedicated to Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. Somewhere in this vicinity a map produced by the Dilettanti Society of London, whom surveyed the site during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, depicts an “Ancient Wall", which I conjecture to be a Doric Stoa, fragments of which are to be found in the foundations of the present day Mosque.
I don’t go much for the fanfare for this newly proposed theatre, as I did not for the new promenade along Altinkum front (the beach area of Didim) a number of years ago, as the council have previously cut back on expenditure whereby the end results have been barely recognizable to the original plans. I do so hope to be proved wrong, but nearly 20 years experience of living here nags that that hope is liable to be dubious.
Neither do I comprehend the ‘roll of drums' announcement from Didim Council for this futile project within the middle of a pandemic that shall witness a heavily depleted number of visitors. They, the elected representatives and guardians of this town, would be better employed protecting and extolling the truly unique aspect of Didyma’s allure, its Graeco-Roman past.