Text and photos by Glenn Maffia
Following the recent press reports informing us that the cave beneath Miletus’ theatre was now open to the public, I and two companions decided to journey along to the Meandros River delta to locate and explore this mysterious natural fissure.
Into the Underworld
The three of us have visited Miletus on numerous occasions but had never heard even a whisper of a sacred cave, therefore, we were hugely intrigued.
The entrance to this long concealed by natural vegetation location is to be found within the west section of the main façade of the theatre (or to one’s left when looking from today’s car park). A newly positioned information board stands prominently, and very informatively, in front of the cave entrance, which consists of a descending stairwell of eight rock hewn steps. It would be advisable for any visitor to bring along a torch, as the descent soon plunges one into the darkness of an adjoining passage off to the left.
There is also an antechamber off to the right, again in pitch darkness, which leads to an abrupt end. Therefore, take the passage leading to the left and take care to negotiate a deep step upwards and a metal bar affixing a precarious looking hanging stone. The visitor shall then once again be bathed in light as shafts stream through from a window and another doorway, though I suspect these to be rather recent, illuminating most of the central aspect of the cave.
The ambiance oozes a dank and gloomy Stygian abyss. A green slime of moss and algae clings to the walls and ceiling of the cave, permeating a feeling of otherworldliness which conjures a feeling of foreboding.
When had the spring first burst through on this rocky hill is open to debate, and possibly the archaeologists reports may report a rough timeframe, but it is well documented that this area was, indeed, populated during the Neolithic era and a local source of fresh water would have been imperative for survival. The alluvial deposits from the River Meandros may hide even earlier signs of human habitation, though that can only be conjecture at this point.
The entrance steps into the cave have been crudely cut which suggests pre-Greek, and chisel marks along the walls appear to corroborate an early date to the cave being made easier to gain access.
Therefore, if these rock hewn steps are not Greek then they may well be Carian, the people whom inhabited this south-western section of Anatolia. Which could conceivably mean that the Anatolian mother goddess, Cybele, was worshipped within this cave with the sacred spring?
When the Athenian Greek traders first settled in the area they would have incorporated this shrine into their belief system, identifying Cybele with their own mother goddess, Gaia.
It is estimated that the Greeks built possibly four different theatres upon the slope of this rock hill, though with a projected seating capacity for 3,500-5,000 spectators it would bear no comparison with the Roman theatre, capacity 15,000, we observe today. Would the smaller Greek theatres have covered the entrance to the cave? The city walls of this time may have, though that could have been incorporated into the design.
The Roman versions, the first probably during the reign of Nero, which was then usurped by the theatre we know so well today during Trajan’s tenure as Emperor, would certainly have integrated the cave into the sophisticated plan.
Description of the interior
The vaulted ceiling of the cave and some bricks at the doorway into the entrance passage indicate a Roman origin. In the main chamber a substantial and solid main pillar hewn out of the living rock and clad in finely worked masonry on each of its sides. In front of this pillar on the window-lighted side is a hollow basin cut into the bedrock in which to collect the water which spills forth from the surrounding rocks. I shall be interested in discovering how much water collects during the rainy season. Cut into the walls, furthest from the light sources, are three pilasters which reveal that this cave was well adorned with representations of sumptuous architecture, it therefore must have held some high status, such as one would expect that a god or goddess would command.
The Roman embellishments of this central cavity, as can also be seen in parts of the linking corridor which have been meticulously faced with rectangular masonry vying with the areas chiselled out of the living rock, which appear crude by comparison, imbue the confidence of an Imperial powerhouse, confident in its status. Romans were never shy of pompous display.
Due to the water gushing forth within this sacred cave, it could be also referred to as an Ayazma, a holy well or spring. These are mostly ascribed as belonging to the cult of the ‘nymphai’. Female spirits of the natural world; minor goddesses of the forests, rivers, springs, meadows, mountains and seas. Though certain archaeological finds, most notably a fragment of a black marble sceptre with a coiled snake’s body around it suggest the god Asclepius.
And may it well do so if the archaeological finds of severed fingers are any indication. It appears that these gruesome objects of veneration were votive offerings to the god Asclepius, god of medicine and healing. Though, such an attribution to this god requires more clarification.
Though this sacred cave has evidently been long known, I had heard nothing about it whatsoever. It was, therefore, with excitement and expectation that I visited, and I was not disappointed in the slightest.