Why does the Sacred Road in Didyma remain in Glorious Isolation?

Roman Baths in Didyma
Roman Baths in Didyma

Text by Glenn Maffia

My feelings are probably dismissive of the gravity of this pandemic we continue to ease free from, though I certainly have sorely missed my usual visits to the Temple of Apollo. A small window of opportunity offered itself recently and was hungrily devoured. Nothing much has changed upon the archaeological site; the columns still stand proud as sentinels, the marble continues to dazzle beneath a sun-filled sky, the groundwater steadily dribbles into the southeast section, the reeds growing in abundance, and the Sacred Road remains firmly shut to any inquisitive mind.

Personally, I felt the site appeared rather unkempt, which is hardly surprising given today’s circumstances. Hopefully, the gardeners shall awake to tend the dishevelled fauna soon. That always brings a particular tidiness to the elegant proceedings of this superb site.

There must be some question as to whether the archaeologists shall descend during July and August this year. The important task of maintenance is always scrupulously carried out by Christophe and his team. It may not grab the headlines, which is a pity as this preservation work adds sheen to this jewel.

Information boards

Peering through the iron railings which offer merely a glimpse of the Sacred Road, I noticed that the unread information boards remain within a ‘lockdown’ isolation even graver than that which the population currently endures. This is quite shameful as the information they contain is highly illuminating and the archaeologists deserve the maximum plaudits.

There are four of these boards which cover the site. The initial board that one encounters is a brief outline of the whole of this site and the dating of prominent features. This overview allows the visitor to put into context the site and the long duration of time that it took to evolve. Hopefully, this timeframe shall be appreciated by the readers.

Walking further along the paved road notice the camber along its width. This is to permit rainwater to run into the gutters which flank the kerbs, and from there run into drains. When I was showing some Turkish friends this site some years ago one of them said to me, “How old is this road”? “Two thousand years”, I replied. “Oh, that long. And it is still the best road in Didim”.

The Felsbarre

As we continue to walk the road, to the left is an area named the ‘Felsbarre’ (ridge in German). Here we can observe many water features, certainly wells and possibly fountains at one time. I shall leave that to your imagination. On some older German archaeological maps (there is one by the entrance to the Temple) this area was thought to be a Sanctuary of Artemis as there is an ancient inscription which equates the goddess with a well covered by a golden ornate lintel. Therefore, a well, or wells = Artemis.

Personally I tend to believe that these numerous wells, certainly later if not initially, fed the adjacent Roman Baths. Or it may possibly be that it could have been an early sanctuary to Artemis, though as another temple has since been discovered in the old school grounds which hints at being dedicated to Artemis (dated 2nd century BCE) it is feasible that Artemis’ sanctuary was merely redesigned and the wells of the ‘Felsbarre’ subsequently used for replenishing the waters of the Baths. Change happens over time.

Ancient Altar and the Baths

Almost immediately, located on the right-hand side of the road, the foundations of a substantial structure, possibly an altar, are located on the considerable ‘east turn’ of the road. To the rear of the structure and extending some good distance (32 metres) is a wall thought to be a temenos (limit of a sanctuary). This is the reasoning for it being a probable altar. Alas, to which god, I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess.

Finally, and my personal preferred section of the Sacred Road site, we reach the Roman Baths. Here the information board abounds with not only excellent information, but with the added delight of photographs taken during the excavations from the 70’s. One can see the hypocaust system used to transport heated water steam beneath the floor, and the illustrations which decorated these floors of the building.

The Baths were rather modest in size as they catered primarily for the celebrating citizens during the festival season. Didyma was never a permanently populated area as the Temple was a religious culture centre within the jurisdiction of Miletus. Though there would have been labourers maintaining and building the Temple (never completed) and its numerous other construction projects (of which today’s visitors are entirely unaware), and, no doubt, priests would have been in attendance, as well as scribes to record prophesies uttered by Apollo. Didyma could have possibly resembled the sleepy working village we can witness today, which also bursts into life during the tourist season.

Nonetheless, these absolutely first class information boards offer a succulent taster of the delightful and fascinating history which surrounds us. Now, why is this area off-limits to those who visit this incredible site?

This closure of the ancient road to visitors has perplexed me for many years, primarily, because I could see neither rhyme nor reason for it to be so. I continuously questioned locals, the Tourist Information Centre located upon Altinkum beachfront and resident archaeologists and historians, all were at best vague, proffering a variety of equally incredulous answers. It proved frustrating, as it seems to be a national trait to circumvent a straight question with an oblique reply. This circuitous avoidance was compounded when, on many occasions, I observed the rural shepherds roaming upon the site with their flocks. “No one is telling them to get off. Why”?

Without complaint or censor

I enquired for this elusive answer from two archaeologist friends in Europe whom are familiar with the site. It appeared that they too had also had been confronted with the same wall of silence. I found this irritatingly ironic as it was the Europe archaeologists who were charged with the building of the wall which prevents admittance to the site. Surely they must have asked why? Prior to this wall, one could wander into this area without complaint or censor. This whole matter was beginning to take on the mysterious shades which inflamed my curiosity.

It wasn’t as if I were inventing phantoms of deceit, for the public were essentially barred from entering this fascinating area of the Temple’s environment. I did consider that this entire charade could be something as mundane as the bureaucracy cogs turning wearily slowly. Bureaucrats are notoriously punctilious the world over, and one would never equate the word ‘vibrant’ with that particular profession.
Nonetheless, when I noticed that the information boards were being prepared and situated along the Road one year (was it 2014 or 2015?), my spirits and expectations rose that all was now going to be promising for some grand opening and the public would be once again be allowed admittance. Though nothing, absolutely nothing, happened. Why erect information boards if the public continues to be excluded? It did not make the slightest bit of sense.

“We want it open”

A couple of years back I was observing the archaeologists investigating the influx of water into the Temple’s precinct when one of them seated herself quite close to my table. Naturally, we spoke of this problem concerning the water. The conversation continued and she introduced herself. I was familiar with her name and knew that she was very close to the Director of Excavations. I, therefore, extended the conversation to ask about the continued closure of the Sacred Road and why erect information boards when no one can have the delight in reading them? “But we want it to be open”, she emphatically replied, before returning to work.

I had from the beginning believed that to be the case, for why else situate the boards in situ upon the Road? Thus, thinking that the archaeologists had been exonerated I resolved to visit the Miletus Museum to question the people there as to this state of ludicrous affairs.

Fun and games at the Museum

My initial enquires at the Museum were interesting, in their evasion, though it was obvious that the people I spoke to were not senior members of the Museum staff, as charming and delightful they certainly were.
Not to be dissuaded I visited once again earlier this year, before ‘lockdown’, and was fortunate enough to be seen by a senior member this time around, again a very courteous person. He was joined by some other members as their interest was roused by my questions.

At first, they insisted that the Sacred Road is indeed open, though I had anticipated this reply and quickly became more specific, “No, not the Akköy and Mavişehir access points, the paved section of the Road at its conclusion near the Temple”. Fortunately there hung a photograph on the wall that, conveniently for me, depicted the locked gates in the corner of the photo. “Here”, I pronounced, stabbing a finger at the photo, “These gates are permanently locked”.

They all looked at one another and then began to talk (too fast for me to understand their Turkish) then spoke to me once more, “But it was the Director of Excavation’s idea to keep it closed”. At last, an answer, but not one I was anticipating. A European archaeologist insisting to keep off-limits to the public an archaeological site. I was dumbfounded.

Therefore, with the surprising revelation from the staff at the Miletus Museum, we have ascertained that the continued closure of the Sacred Road is, according to them, squarely in the court of the Director of Excavations. Though, I wasn’t merely going to accept a singular source, nor one that appeared hesitantly given. It was with no further adieu that I emailed the Director within the week. I asked her for a response to this accusation, and then waited. And waited, and waited more. Nothing, absolutely nothing, appeared. No explanation whatsoever.

A genius archaeologist

Naturally, I was disappointed in such negativity for I have a very high regard for the Director. It was she whom discovered the theatre to the south of the Temple, was acting upon pure intuition and imagination to locate a Byzantine Chapel with a Hellenistic structure beneath the Christian foundations. While most impressive of all, in my eyes, was the discovery of another temple located in the current mosque’s garden and stretching into the old school grounds. These are no small feats.

Last year the Director was searching for an antique Stoa (a covered colonnade) of which intriguing evidence was found within the foundations of the present mosque. This evidence was deduced by knowing that Apollo’s Temple was ‘Ionic’ in its articulation, as too was the recently discovered temple (maybe dedicated to Artemis), though in the foundations were fragments originating from a ‘Doric’ style of architecture. Reason then demands that there must have been another structure in this area.

A quick research of old maps reveals a British expedition to geographically plot this area during the late 18th century and the early 19th century, and there in black and white was illustrated an “Ancient Wall”. One of these expedition members was a certain Richard Chandler, and it was his diary that the Director was following. I felt ecstatically happy about that as I had chanced upon this book five years earlier.

Looking for another source

Nonetheless, my high estimation of the Director was waning as I awaited some reply. The silence felt as if it could be an admission of guilt. Something though told me that this was simply not the case, one must know that ‘feeling’ that something is amiss, but cannot pin down precisely what, that was nagging me.

I decided to contact another archaeologist who is familiar with ancient Didyma. He did recall hearing of some conversation, years ago, about a decision being made whether to open or close the Sacred Road to the public. He remembers hearing that it was “pretty complicated”, but cannot recall the details. He also added that it was so long ago that even the Director had probably forgotten the specific reason or reasons.
Therefore, I guess that my hunch is somewhere near correct, but as to this continued silence from the Director, well, I find that bemusing.

I can speculate quite assuredly that the Director is not altogether happy in the public domain, for apart from a couple of awkward-looking photo shoots for the local Turkish press after the finds of the theatre and the second temple she remains anonymous to the point of invisibility. Not her natural domain, one may say.

Even merely last year she ducked out of an update on the state of excavations to local tour guides, sending her more than capable assistant, Aylin Tanrıöver to deputise. I can fully understand a sense of shyness, maybe even hesitancy over precise details (don’t worry about details, they always follow), but this project requires a high profile to promote the ‘second-to-none’ importance of this glorious site and for modern Didim as a venue for discerning foreign visitors.

I am now in possession of the contactable addresses of the Director’s immediate superiors, and though I am concerned about losing a, albeit brittle, friendship I require some explanation as to why the Sacred Road is not accessible to the public and why no information about the site is conveyed into the public domain. I am not an archaeologist, I am versed in history, though if it were not for my writings then who would be any the wiser as to the secrets of the Temple and its environment?

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Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Sacred Road - information board
Roman Baths in Didyma - plan
Roman Baths in Didyma - plan
Roman Baths in Didyma - illustration
Roman Baths in Didyma - illustration
Roman Baths in Didyma - mosaics
Roman Baths in Didyma - mosaics
Roman Baths in Didyma - hypocaust system
Roman Baths in Didyma - hypocaust system
Wells in Felsbarre
Wells in Felsbarre