This article has been previously published as a part of book Around Ephesus and Kusadasi: TAN Travel Guide by Izabela Miszczak
The ruins of the Ionian city of Priene are picturesquely situated on a slope of Mykale mountain. They provide a spectacular lookout point over the plain where the river Meander winds its way to the Aegean Sea. Priene also offers an excellent practical lesson in archeology and history. The main conclusion of the visit in Priene, combined with a cursory reading of literature devoted to this city, is: nothing here is obvious. The original name of the city was, Kadme, it was founded by Karians, and it was situated in a different location on the shores of the Aegean Sea.
The researchers speculate that in the place where the Greek colonists settled and called Priene, there had already been an earlier settlement. It is likely that, as in the case of Miletus, the origins of this city go back to Minoan times. There are also theories that the city belonged to the Ahhiyawa kingdom, which was founded in the vicinity of Miletus at the time when the Hittites ruled over of Anatolia. However, in contrast to the situation of Miletus, in the case of Priene there is a lack of material evidence to support these theories and conjectures.
The reason for this is simple: the original location Priene remains unknown, probably hidden deep beneath the layers of sediments brought by Büyük Menderes River (ancient Meander). It is believed that at the beginning, the city was situated on a peninsula that had two natural harbors. However, with time the peninsula was surrounded by the sediments carried by the Meander and cut off from access to the sea, forcing its residents to relocate.
According to the ancient tradition, Priene was founded by Aepytus, a son of Neleus - the founder of Miletus, and a grandson of Neleus - the king of Athens. He selected the place of earlier Karian settlement called Kadme. The co-founder of the colony was Philotas from the Greek city of Thebes. There was also another belief that the original settlement had been founded by the Amazons, similarly as Gryneion and Pitane (present-day Çandarlı).
Greek colonisation and Persian rule
The arrival of the Greek colonists and the founding of Priene is dated to around 1000 BC. The researchers believe that the settlement was located near the ancient Aneon (currently the area near the town of Söke). The first relocation of Priene took place around 700 BC, and the impulse to carry it out was a series of earthquakes. The settlement was then moved to the place about 8 km away from the final location of the 4th century BC city.
From the times of uniting the Ionian colonies in Asia Minor in the form of so-called Ionian League i.e. the alliance of twelve towns, Priene had a great importance. It hosted meetings and events held in a place called Panionion. The only reminder of the town's history preserved from that time is one of electrum coin, minted from the alloy of gold and silver, and decorated with the likeness of the goddess Athena. It was made at the turn of the 6th century BC.
The most famous resident of Priene from that period of history was Bias, considered, like Thales of Miletus, to be one of the Seven Sages of Greece. He gained fame as an expert lawyer, a thinker, an author of the poem of Ionia and, above all, a man with a good heart and a remarkable sense of justice. His most often repeated thought is: "Everything I have, I carry on me" - which means that the true human value lies in the persons' interior.
It is known that the inhabitants of Priene took part in the lost naval battle with the Persians at Lade in 495 BC, sending 12 ships into battle. Further history of the town took a similar course as other cities of the Ionian region. After a period of repressions by the Persian, caused by the rebellion, the Ionian settlements came under the domination of Athens. Then Priene became a member of the Delian League. Just before Alexander the Great arrived in Asia Minor, Priene was managed by the famous Mausolus of Halicarnassus, appointed by the Persians at the satrap of the region. Mausolus was responsible for the final relocation of Priene to its familiar location on the slopes of Mount Mykale. He hoped that it would prove a durable solution with the access to excellent Naulochos harbor located below.
Work on the construction of new Priene had just begun, when the Macedonians finally recaptured the area of Asia Minor from the Persians. Their leader, Alexander the Great, readily grasped at the idea of the construction of a new city and for this purpose established close cooperation with Mausolus. Their intention was to make Priene a model city, planned by the arrangement of urban planning popularized by Hippodamos of Miletus. The main street of the town ran along the east - west axis and smaller streets crossed it at right angles. Alexander the Great himself was a sponsor of the Temple of Athena Polias, and wealthy inhabitants of the city decided to finance other public buildings from their private sources. Most of these buildings still have inscriptions with the names of sponsors.
Priene from the Hellenistic period was a small town with a population of 6,000 inhabitants, according to the maximum estimates. The city's location on the slope of a mountain, on a small area, forced the high density of residential and public buildings. At the same time, however, it was a very wealthy city, where many houses were lined with marble, and about one-third of the houses had its own sewage system or toilets and running water that came straight from the streams at the top of Mykale. In those days most Greeks, including the inhabitants of Athens, had to draw water from public fountains.
Roman and Byzantine times
The period of greatest economic and cultural boom of Priene lasted from the 3rd to the 2nd century BC. The town even had its school of sculpture. However, it never regained its political significance, which it had enjoyed in Archaic times. For a time, it was subjected to the government of the rulers of the Kingdom of Pergamon, and then it came under the control of Roman and Byzantine empires when it became the seat of the diocese. The Turks conquered Priene at the end of the 13th century AD.
In modern times, the first researchers who became interested in the ruins of Priene were the members of the Society of Dilettanti from London. They sent their expeditions to Priene in the years 1765 and 1868.
Extensive archaeological excavations in Priene were conducted on behalf of the Museum of Berlin in the years 1895-1898 by German scholars - Carl Humann and Theodor Wiegand. Their team uncovered the whole area of the city, including the city gates, public buildings, temples and houses.
Priene ruins are located on a slope of Mykale Mountain (tr. Samsung Dağı), on four terraces facing towards the valley of the river Meander. The main thoroughfare of the city runs from east to west, and the steep intersecting streets lead up and down the slope, giving access to four terraces where the ancient city was located.
The remains of Priene are considered the most spectacular example of an almost entirely preserved ancient Greek city. At the same Priene is regarded as one of the most extensively studied ancient cities, next to Pompeii. The city was built of marble obtained in nearby quarries on Mykale.
On the lowest terrace, there was a stadium and the lower gymnasium. The most important buildings of the city are located on the second terrace from the bottom. Historically, it was the center of Priene, and now there are the remains of the agora and the temple of Zeus there. Above, on the third terrace, there was the temple and the sanctuary of Athena Polias, the upper gymnasium and the theater. Higher up, on the fourth terrace, the sanctuary of Demeter was located. To the north of the city the mountain rises steeply, with the acropolis on its peak. It was once surrounded by a fortified wall, and the access to the city was by three gates.
Water was delivered to Priene straight from the mountains by an aqueduct. Then it was stored in three cisterns and distributed throughout the city by the system of clay pipes that fed the public fountains and some private homes.
The Temple of Athena Polias
The most important building, which can be seen during a visit to Priene, is the temple of the goddess Athena Polias. It was built about 335 BC using the funds provided by Alexander the Great, and it initially was dedicated to him. The main architect responsible for its construction was Pyteos, who also took part in the erection of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The temple once housed a copy of the statue of the goddess Athena from the Athenian Parthenon, made in the second century BC. Its appearance is known from coins minted in Priene during the Roman period. So far the archaeologists have found only the left foot and the left arm of this statue. On this basis, the statue was estimated to be 6.5 meters high, i.e. half the height of the original from Athens.
Architecturally, the temple of Athena was a hexastylos with six by eleven columns. At the same time it is described as a peripteros as from the outside the building is surrounded by a single row of columns. It was built in the Ionic order and is considered the classic model for Ionic architecture. The architect, Pyteos, reportedly wrote a book in which he described how he applied the rules to create this architectural design.
Five columns on the northern side of the temple were reerected in the 60s of the 20th century, creating a unique sight with Mykale Mountain as the background. Unfortunately, during the reconstruction one element base was forgotten, so the columns are now lower than the ones that originally adorned the temple. Only foundations of the altar of the temple have been preserved in its original location, and one fragment of its base is located in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.
The grounds of the temple are now littered with various architectural fragments, and their size and amount give us an idea of the scale and grandeur of the building.
The agora was located in the center of Priene. It was built in the 3rd century BC, on a rectangular plan with sides of 76 and 35 meters. On three sides it was surrounded by colonnades in the Doric order, and from the north it was adjacent to the main avenue of the city.
Food market was located outside the agora, on its western side. On the west side of the agora there were shops, and because of terrain gradients the southern colonnade had a basement. On the agora and along its colonnades once stood numerous statues, but only their bases and foundations have been preserved. In the central part of the agora there was an altar dedicated to Hermes. Because of the winter winds the spaces between the columns were walled up to half of their height.
In the second half of the 2nd century BC the agora was surrounded by new, impressive structures. The most important was the colonnade on the northern side, known as the Sacred Stoa. This stoa represents an extremely rare architectural solution in Greek architecture: a real arch. The Sacred Stoa was 116 meters long. Because of the excavated inscription, the construction of this stoa is attributed to Ariarathes VI, the king of Cappadocia. This colonnade was connected with the main avenue along its entire length by six steps, which could also serve as a place of rest and observation of human traffic.
After entering the Sacred Stoa, the pedestrians found themselves on a promenade nearly 6.5 meters wide, lined with marble. The western wall of the stoa was covered with inscriptions describing Priene and life of its inhabitants. There were 15 rooms located on the northern side that were used in Roman times for religious purposes.
Temenos of Zeus Olympios
The quarter of the city devoted to Zeus Olympios was on the east side of the agora. From the temple and the altar once standing here only the foundations have been preserved. The reconstructions, carried out on the basis of the fragments of the buildings, show the strong influence of Pyteos the architect style. However, there are also differences, for example, greater spacing between columns. The width of the base in the central part of the temple suggests that two statues of deities stood there, most probably Zeus was accompanied by his wife, Hera.
Bouleuterion and Prytaneion
The bouleuterion is one of the best-preserved buildings in Priene. It was built on a square plan with a side of a length of 20 meters. It had a shape of a room with the altar in its centre, on three sides surrounded by rows of steps, which were used as seats. On the north side, there were as many as 16 rows of seats, and the eastern and western sides - only ten rows. In total, the hall could sit 640 people at the same time. The double entrance was located in the south, and on this side there was also a lectern. The whole thing was once covered by a wooden roof. The altar in the centre of the bouleuterion was carved from a single block of marble, adorned on all sides with carved busts of gods and bulls heads (i.e., bucrania).
In bouleuterion, the meetings of Priene senate were held, and the members of the city government, selected from among senators, met in the neighboring prytaneion. It was both an administrative and spiritual center of Priene, where an eternal flame burned. The establishment of both buildings is dated to the middle of the 2nd century BC.
Temenos of Egyptian Gods
The area where the gods of the Egyptian pantheon were worshipped occupied a rectangular area measuring 47 to 31 meters, located on the eastern side of the city. The fragments of a stone wall and an altar standing on the platform at a height of 1.73 m have been preserved.
According to information provided by the inscription found in the temenos, the gods worshiped here were: Isis, Serapis and Anubis. It also informed that rituals were held under the chairmanship of an Egyptian and the worship of these deities was an exotic phenomenon for the citizens of Priene. The temenos was the result of commercial relations in Egypt and the emergence of the Egyptian merchant community in the city.
The theater, located in the north-east section of the city, has retained many of the characteristics of Hellenistic structures, despite the architectural changes carried out in Roman times. In addition to theater performances also parliamentary assemblies, attended by citizens of Priene, were held in this place.
In our times, only the lower rows of seats are still visible, but it is estimated that in the past there were 50 rows of seats and the theater could accommodate 5,000 people. Square holes next to the seats indicate the places where the canopies were mounted, protecting spectators from the sun and rain. In the middle of the 5th row, there are five seats with the backs, designed for the most distinguished citizens. Some of these seats have armrests in the shape of a lion's paw.
The construction of the theater was carried out in four phases. The theater was built shortly after the town was founded in its present location i.e. in the second half of the 4th century BC. At the beginning of the 2nd century BC, several elements were added, including proskenion (a raised platform in front of the skene, on which the actors performed), skene i.e. the structure opposite the audience, the seats of honor, and an altar dedicated to Dionysus. More changes to the design were introduced around 130 BC and in the 2nd century AD when the theatre was expanded so that it could sit 6,000 spectators.
Gymnasiums and Stadium
Priene had two gymnasiums, one to the north of the bouleuterion and the other - in the southern part of the city. Northern (or Upper) Gymnasium, built in the 4th century BC, was largely rebuilt in the Roman period. Tthe baths and a small temple dedicated to the imperial cult were then added to it.
Lower Gymnasium, preserved in a superb condition, had the nature of the Hellenistic school and a sports center. It was adjacent to the stadium, which was used for sports in mild weather. During cold and hot days, athletes moved into the area of the gymnasium. Lower Gymnasium was built around 130 BC when the Upper Gymnasium turned out to be too small for the needs of Priene residents. Then the young men moved to the Lower Gymnasium, and the Upper Gymnasium was allocated for the exercise of children and adolescents. In the Roman period, the Upper Gymnasium was fitted with a water heating system while the Lower Gymnasium preserved older Greek custom of cold baths.
Sanctuary of Demeter
One of the oldest places of worship in Priene was dedicated to the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Within the cult area, there were statues, houses of priestesses and the temple with a sacrificial pit, surrounded by grotesque figures. When the Greeks sacrificed to the gods of the underground, including Persephone, instead of burning animal on the altar, they poured out its blood into such a pit.
The residential houses in Priene are frequently compared with the dwellings from the island of Delos and from Pompeii, both regarding their preservation, as well as their size and beauty. Most of them represent the characteristics of the early Hellenistic period.
The walls of the houses were built of small stones, sometimes in the upper part with the addition of sun-dried bricks. Most carefully constructed walls of the houses are located along the main avenue of the city. The rooms have a height up to 6 meters. In several cases, from the fragments of the stairs it can be concluded that some of the houses were two-storey buildings.
Some houses had shuttered windows, and their internal walls were clad with stucco imitating marble. Interiors were lit with olive oil lamps and adorned with terracotta figurines. In one house, there was a bathroom with a clay bathtub with dimensions allowing for a dip in a sitting position.
House of Alexander the Great
One of the houses, located in the north-west area of the city, is known as the house of Alexander the Great. In fact, it was a place of worship, as evidenced by the inscription proclaiming that the entrance to the building was granted only to people dressed in white. The building consists of a large courtyard, a hall with three columns and many smaller rooms.
In the area of the building, a marble statue depicting Alexander the Great was found. It is currently located in Berlin. It indicates that Alexander the Great was worshiped in this sanctuary. Since Alexander had allocated a significant amount of money for the construction of the Temple of Athena in Priene, one should not be surprised by this fact. It is also thought that he lived in the building during the siege of Miletus in 334 BC, which is why this location was later established as the sanctuary.
Travelers with a significant amount of time and an adequate physical condition may be tempted to climb to the acropolis, towering over Priene. It boasts fabulous views of the surrounding countryside, including the delta of the river Meander.
Ancient Priene is located close to Güllübahçe. In this village, there are several restaurants, tea houses, and small B&Bs.
The ruins of Priene are open daily, during the summer season (from April to October) from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, and in the winter season (November - March) from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. The ticket costs 5 TL. At the ticket office, you can park your car. Sometimes, there are some stalls with snacks and drinks nearby.
The unshaded path leads uphill from the ticket office to the terraces of Priene. Remember to bring drinking water and appropriate protection from the sun. The ruins of Priene are well marked with information plaques, and their significant advantage is the relatively low popularity among tourists.
By public transport: there are frequent minibuses from Söke to Güllübahçe (15 km, 4 TL for the ticket). They stop next to the restaurants, just 250 meters from the Priene ticket office.
With an organised tour: in Kuşadası it is very easy to buy so-called PMD tour, during which the tourists can visit the ruins of Priene, Miletus and Didyma in one day. Otherwise, you need to rent a car as public transport connections are were unreliable between these three sites.
By car: from the main road in the region, i.e. İzmir-Aydın highway, you need to turn off in Germencik, and drive in the direction of Söke. From Söke to Güllübahçe there is a straight road taking you in a south-westerly direction. If you select Söke as a starting point of a trip, it is possible to make a tour through Güllübahçe (Priene), Balat (Miletus) and Didim (Didyma), to see three most interesting ancient sites of the region in one day.