The ancient site of Magnesia on the Meander, located 19 km of Ephesus and 24 km of Miletus, lies on a major road which cuts through the archaeological site. It is one of the relatively unknown archaeological sites of the Aegean Region of Turkey, but the ongoing excavations bring new discoveries every year, promising an excellent visit for the travellers interested in history.
According to Greek tradition, Magnesia on the Meander was founded by the colonists from the tribe of Magnetes who arrived in Asia Minor from Thessaly. According to Homer, they took part in the Trojan War as a part of the Greek troops led by Agamemnon. The name of the tribe originated in the myth about Thyia, a daughter of Deucalion. Hesiod explains that she had an affair with Zeus and bore him two sons: Magnes and Makednos. Their names became the eponyms of the Magnetes and Macedones tribes. To complicate the issue, Strabo comments that "the Magnetans are thought to be descendants of Delphians who settled in the Didyman hills, in Thessaly".
After the Trojan War, the Magnesians founded two cities in Asia Minor, both called Magnesia. The city discussed here was later called Magnesia on the Maeander, to distinguish it from Magnesia ad Sipylum (modern Manisa). Interestingly, two Magnesias were the only important towns established inland from the Aegean coast at the time of the Hellenic migration to Anatolia at the end of the second millennium BCE. Geographically, Magnesia on the Maeander was located in Ionia, but the Magnetes were of Aeolian origins. Because of this, Magnesia on the Meander was not accepted into the Ionian League.
The Magnetes travelled to Asia Minor through Delphi and Crete, before they finally crossed the Aegean Sea. They spent eighty years on the island where they had also founded the city called Magnesia. Later, certain Leukippos took a group of colonists to Asia Minor. According to an inscription found in the agora of Magnesia on the Meander, a prophecy of Apollo that they most probably heard in Delphi, led these settlers to Leukophryene (White Eyebrows). She was the daughter of a local king Mandrolytos and betrayed her city to the Magnesians. The legendary founder of the city, Leukippos, was depicted on the coins minted in the city together with a hump-backed ox. On the other hand, the memory of Leukophryene was remembered in the epithet of the city's chief goddess - Artemis Leucophryene - and it was believed that the heroine was buried in the sanctuary of this goddess.
The city was founded on the banks of the small river Lethacus, a tributary of the Maeander. The land around the city was extremely fertile, producing excellent wine, figs, and cucumbers. Strabo describes the location of Magnesia in the following words: "The first city one comes to after Ephesus is Magnesia, which is an Aeolian city and is called Magnesia on the Maeander, for it is situated near that river. But it is much nearer the Lethaeus River, which empties into the Maeander and has its beginning in Mt. Pactyes, the mountain in the territory of the Ephesians." The original site of this first settlement, now called Palaimagnesia (Old Magnesia) remains unknown. Strabo adds that in this first location there was also "the temple of Dindymene, Mother of the gods." Dindymene was not the Greek deity but one of the names of Cybele, the Anatolian goddess worshipped by the Phrygians.
Magnesia attained great power and wealth that enabled the city to compete with Ephesus. It later came under the control of the Lydian king Gyges who ruled from 716 to 678 BCE. However, the city was destroyed by the Treres, a Cimmerian tribe, sometime between 726 BCE and 660 BCE. Strabo informs that after this disaster "the Milesians took possession of the place in the following year." Subsequently, Magnesia was controlled by Ephesus and then the Persians. It even became the residence of a Persian satrap (governor) in the 6th century BCE.
In the 5th century BCE, the exiled Athenian Themistocles came to Persia to offer his services to Artaxerxes. To support his family, he was made governor of Magnesia on the Maeander. Additionally, he was assigned the revenues of three cities: Magnesia (about 50 talents per year, for bread), Myus (for fish), and Lampsacus ("for wine"). Themistocles erected a statue to himself in Magnesia. This statue was depicted on the reverse of some of the Magnesian coins of Emperor Antonius Pius in the 2nd century CE. He appointed his daughter, Mnesiptolema, as the priestess of the Temple of Dindymene in Magnesia, and this tradition was related by Strabo " According to tradition, the wife of Themistocles, some say his daughter, served as a priestess here."
When Themistocles died at Magnesia in 459 BCE, the Magnesians erected him a splendid tomb in their agora and continued to support the family of Themistocles financially. The tomb still stood during the time of Plutarch, i.e. at the turn of the 1st and the 2nd centuries CE. The son of Themistocles named Archeptolis became a governor of Magnesia after his father's death. He married his half-sister Mnesiptolema, the priestess of Dindymene. He also minted his own silver coinage. Thus, the family of Themistocles created a peculiar political arrangement that can be called a Greek dynasty in the Persian Empire. Pausanias claims that the sons of Themistocles "appear to have returned to Athens" where they had a bronze statue to Artemis Leucophryene, the goddess of Magnesia, erected on the Acropolis. It possibly happened after 412 BCE, when the Achaemenids decided to regain firm control of the Greek cities of Asia Minor.
For a short period of time, around 400 BCE, Magnesia was controlled by Thimbron, a Spartan general who was sent to help the Ionians in their fight against Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap of Lydia. He was then recalled to Sparta and exiled for allowing his troops to plunder Sparta's allies in the region.
Strabo alludes that the location of Magnesia was changed as the city was moved from the banks of the Lethacus to the foot of Mount Thorax (today Gümüşdağ, meaning the Silver Mountain), several kilometres from the river. In this location, a temple of Artemis had already stood from the 6th century BCE, but the move of the whole city took place, most probably, after 392 BCE. The motivation for the change was that the area was more defensible. This is the location visited by Strabo, and the traces of this ancient site can be seen today.
Alexander the Great conquered Magnesia in 334 BCE and the city became a part of the Macedonian domain. After Alexander's death, the city fell to various Diadochi during their wars of succession over the vast Macedonian Empire. Strabo mentions two well-known natives of Magnesia who were active in the Hellenistic period. The first one was Hegesias, a rhetorician and historian, who the founder of the florid Asiatic style of composition. The second famous son of Magnesia was Simus the poet.
Around 220 BCE, the Magnesians decided to rebuilt the temple of Artemis Leucophryene. The new temple was designed by Hermogenes of Priene, who also erected the Temple of Dionysus at Teos. Strabo writes that "in size [the temple] surpasses all the sacred enclosures in Asia except two, that at Ephesus and that at Didymi." Comparing the temples of Asia Minor, he adds that the temple in Magnesia "in the harmony and skill shown in the structure of the sacred enclosure is far superior to [the Artemision of Ephesus]". The new temple stood on a large platform 41 meters wide and 67 meters long. It was surrounded with 15 Ionic columns along the longer sides, and eight columns along the shorter sides. A frieze, 175 meters long, found at the site depicts an Amazonomachy, the violent fight between the Greek warriors and the Amazons. Forty-three panels of this frieze are now exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
At the same time, the goddess Artemis supposedly manifested herself in Magnesia. Because of this unusual event, the oracle of Apollo at Delphi declared Magnesia and its environs as the sacred ground. Consequently, the temple and the city were recognised as a place of asylum by other Greek states. From this moment, the Magnesians initiated a quadrennial festival dedicated to Artemis called the Leucophryna, for which they invited people from all over the Greek world. The popularity of this event is confirmed by the inscription discovered on the wall of Magnesia's agora. It documents around 70 Hellenistic cities that sent their representatives to the Magnesian games, from as far as Sicily and Persia.
Magnesia experienced its cultural heyday when it was a part of the Kingdom of Pergamon in the 2nd century BCE. During the series of military conflicts, in 201 BCE, Philip V of Macedonia detached the territories of Myous from Miletus and offered them to neighbouring Magnesia ad Maeandrum. However, the terms of the Peace of Apamea in 188 BCE, Miletus reoccupied the territories of Myous that had been detached by Philip. The peace between Magnesia and Miletus was signed after 190 BCE.
When the last king of Pergamon Attalus III died without issue in 133 BCE, he bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman Republic. During the conflict between Rome and King Mithridates VI of Pontus, Magnesia sided with the Romans. In recognition of this attitude, the Roman general Sulla rewarded the city with political autonomy.
Destroyed by an earthquake in 17 CE, the city was rebuilt by Emperor Tiberius within twelve years. An early Christian community existed in Magnesia as early as 110 CE, as the letter from Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch to the church in Magnesia, written in this period, testifies. Magnesian Christians regularly sent their bishops to the councils in the following centuries. Magnesia never fully recovered from the conquest and plunder of the Goths in 262 CE, sharing the fate of the neighbouring cities of Ephesus and Miletus.
Magnesia continued it existence as a late Roman bishopric and it was even surrounded by defensive walls that were to protect it against the onslaught of Persians and Seljuk Turks. However, it was little more than a Byzantine frontier fortress in the Middle Ages. Around 1300, the Turkish clan of Aydınoğulları conquered the area. As a result of floods, epidemics, and other plagues, Magnesia was gradually abandoned by its last inhabitants and fell into decay.
The main motivation for the earliest researchers who wanted to discover the site of Magnesia on the Meander was the search for the famous Temple of Artemis Leucophryene built by Hermogenes. The first archaeological team, led by Charles Texier from France, worked hard to unearth the temple from the swampy ground of the heavily sedimented site. In the winter of 1842-43, they succeeded and revealed some parts of the temple. Among their most important finds were the fragments of the frieze depicting Amazonomachy which they promptly sent to France. Forty-three panels of this frieze are now exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris. However, they failed to publish any of their discoveries.
More than forty years later, in 1887, the renowned Ottoman scholar, Osman Hamdi Bey, removed a further 20 meters of frieze blocks from the Artemision. This time, the fragments were sent to the Ottoman capital, to be displayed in the Archaeological Museum.
More rigorous excavations at Magnesia were undertaken by the German Institute at Constantinople in the 1890s. These excavations were carried out by the Berlin Museums under the direction of Carl Humann who uncovered the remains of the temple of Zeus as well as more fragments of the Artemis temple. He also discovered the theatre, the agora, and the prytaneion. As the result of the multinational archaeological excavations conducted in the 19th century in Magnesia, the sculptural elements of the Hermogenes' Artemision are scattered among the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.
After Humann left the site, Magnesia was forgotten for almost a hundred years. Unfortunately, during a very long break in the excavations in Magnesia, many architectural remains were damaged by local lime burners. For example, the well-preserved remains of the Zeus temple were destroyed by some locals after Humann's excavations.
The work at Magnesia was resumed in 1985, by archaeologists from the University of Ankara under the direction of Professor Orhan Bingöl. These excavation have continued until the present days, and many fascinating discoveries have been made. For example, in July of 2018, six statues were discovered in the ruins of a temple of Artemis: four female, one male, and one with unknown gender.
The archaeological site of Magnesia on the Meander is cut into two parts by the Söke-Ortaklar road. Most of the unearthed ancient structures are situated on the western part of the site. The visit begins close to the sacred district of Artemis Leucophryene. It consists not only of the temple itself and the altar to Artemis, but also other structures, such as the sacred spring, the processional area, are three porticos on the sides of the district. There is the processional area to the west of the temple.
The altar to Artemis, of only the foundations have been preserved, was originally modeled after the grand Altar of Zeus in Pergamon. In the sacrifice area, to the west of the temple, it is possible to see eleven holes in the marble paving blocks. Iron rings were attached to these wholes, and the animals that were sacrificed to the goddess were tied to the rings.
Behind the long stoas, several rooms have been discovered. One of them, excavated in 2006 at the northwest corner of the sanctuary was most probably a library. Another room, located behind the northern stoa, was turned into a public latrine at some moment of history. This toilet consisted of two rooms and was equipped with two fountains and two rows of toilet seats, with fresh water running in the channels below the seating area. The sewage system was discovered underneath the structure. This toilet could accommodate about 30 people at the same time.
The propylon, i.e. ceremonial gate, constructed in the 1st century CE, led from the sanctuary of Artemis to the agora in the west. This almost rectangular square, 188 meters long and 95-99 meters wide, was surrounded by the colonnades. The Temple of Zeus Sosipolis used to stand in its southern part. However, today its remains are still underground, with the exception of its façade which is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Market basilica stood to the east of the agora. It was a two-storied, covered building with three naves. There was an apse at its eastern end. The building, dating back to the Roman period, served as a roofed market and there is no evidence that it was later transformed into a church. The excavations of the basilica were carried out from 1989 to 2010. There revealed fascinating capitals of the pillars, depicting Scylla, the sea monster from the Homeric epic Odyssey. The capital that can be seen on the site is the plaster copy as the original pillars are now on display in Aydın Archaeological Museum.
The area adjacent to the sacred district of Artemis from the south, surrounded by the Byzantine walls, consists of the odeon and a hypocaust building. There is also a much younger structure, Ҫerkez Musa Mosque. This ruined building was erected in the 15th century, in the transitional period between the Seljuk and the Ottoman eras. It has a very rare elongated plan but no minaret. Historical Muslim tombstones can also be seen in this location.
After crossing the Byzantine Walls, there are two paths to follow. The first one takes the visitors to the south-west, to the structure described by the archaeologists as the theatron, meaning the place for the audience. It differs from ancient theatres as its entrance is in the middle of the podium. The researchers have not discovered the function of this building but they established that it was never finished, possibly because of a landslide. If completed, the theatron would consist of seven segments with the capacity of about 4,500 people.
The theatron is situated on the slope of a hill. On the top of this hill, there is a tumulus and a tholos, i.e. a circular structure, from the Hellenistic period. An inscription discovered there informs that a person called Apollonios dedicated the building to the goddess Athena.
The second path starting near the Byzantine Walls leads to the west. It first reaches the tallest ancient building of ancient Magnesia preserved to our times. It is the city gymnasium from the 2nd or the 3rd century CE. It consists of the baths, the changing rooms, and the palaestra, i.e. the exercise area.
At the city gymnasium, the path turns to the south and reaches the stadium, one of the most spectacular buildings of this archaeological site. Despite the recurring earthquakes, water inundation and invading flora, the stadium is really impressive and surprisingly well-preserved. This horseshoe-shaped building from the Roman period has a monumental sphendone - the semicircular ending, with four levels of galleries and a colonnade. The stadium, aligned on the north-south axis, was erected between two hills. Fifty-two stairs had to be ascended to reach its highest level and it could accommodate 30 thousand spectators. The stadium was 189 meters long. At the base of the stairs, the archaeologists discovered 129 so-called tropaion reliefs, showing armors, shields, and helmets of the enemies, to symbolise triumphs and victories. These reliefs also suggest that gladiatorial fights were organised in the stadium. According to the inscriptions found there, the stadium was still in use in the 3rd century CE.
Finally, on the eastern part of the Söke-Ortaklar road, the Lethaios Gymnasium can be seen. It dates back to the 2nd or the 3rd century CE and is divided into the same three sections as the City Gymnasium. The necropolis of the city was situated on its southern part, outside the ancient city walls.
The entrance to Magnesia is free of charge. The site is open every day, from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm in the summer season, and from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm in the winter season. The site is very extended and you have to walk some distances to visit all the remains. As Magnesia is an active archaeological project, some of its parts may be unavailable to visitors because of the conducted research.
By car: the site of Magnesia on the Meander is well-signposted and very easy to reach via the main road 550 leading from Kuşadası to Ortaklar. The distance to Kuşadası is 29 km. At the entrance of the site there is a car park.