Turning off the Antalya – Alanya road at kilometer 30 in the direction of the village of Belkis we come to the best-preserved ancient theater in Turkey. According to Strabo, the city of Aspendos was founded by colonists who came from Argos under the leadership of Mopsos. Coins minted in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. give the city’s name as Estwediya. (Aspendos had the distinction of being the only city besides Side that coined money in its own name at that early period.)
For a while, the city was a member of the Athenian maritime alliance (the Delian League). A naval battle was fought off Aspendos in 469 B.C. during which the Persian fleet was defeated by the forces of the Athenian general Cimon. Despite this however we see Aspendos being used as a Persian base in 411 B.C. With Alexander’s defeat of the Persians in 334 B.C., Aspendos was freed of Persian rule. It was ruled by various Hellenistic period kings following the death of Alexander and like most other cities in Asia Minor it came under Roman rule in 133 B.C.
The city particularly flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. In the 5th century the city’s name was changed to Primupolis. Aspendos was badly affected by the Arab incursions in the 8th century. The Seljuks, who arrived in the area in the 12th century, appear to have made use of some of the ancient structures, the theater being among them. One may approach the ruins by car as far as the theater and we shall begin our tour there.
The Aspendos theater is built of regularly dressed blocks of conglomerate while the door and window frames are of a cream-coloured limestone. One enters the skene through five doors, the one in the middle on the east being larger than the other four on located two on either side. The stage building is a two-tiered facade with four rows of windows, each row of which is of a different form and size. The niches contained decorative statuary. Even today the facade has an attractive appeal.
From inscriptions at the theater we know that the structure was built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) by two brothers, Curtius Crispinus and Curtius Auspicatus, to be dedicated to the gods and the emperors. The architect’s name was Zeno. The auditorium is divided in two by a diazoma and there is a gallery of columns surmounting the top row of seats. While the theater appears to be built on barrel vaulted substructures, parts of it do rest against the hillside. With a seating capacity of 20,000 the Aspendos theater is still useable today.
North of the theater at the same level is the stadium. The Aspendos stadium resembles the one at Perge: the spectator’s seats are also set on vaults. To the south of the theater are the remains of a gymnasium and baths now in ruins.If we ascend to the acropolis on the hill above the theater from the path connecting the theater and stadium we pass through the eastern of the city’s three gates into the ruins of the city proper.
Proceeding west from this gate, we come upon a basilica, part of which was used for government and civic affairs and as a courthouse. Much of this section is still standing. The triple-nave basilica extending 105 meters to the west was a commercial building while the agora lay to its west. The agora was surrounded by public buildings. West of the agora is a covered marketplace measuring 70 meters in length.
The front was open consisting of a row of shops with a stoa in front. North of the agora are the remains of a nymphaion (fountain) of which only the facade measuring 32.50 meters in length and 15 meters in height remains. This elaborately decorated facade has two rows of niches. Northwest of the fountain are the remains of the bouleuterion, which was used as the city state’s parliament hall.
In the center of the ruin are the traces of the foundations of a monumental arch. At the southern end of the basilica are the remains of exedrae, which served both as pedestals for statues and stone benches for the public. Another of the remains worth mentioning at Aspendos are the city’s magnificent aqueducts, parts of which are in the nearby village and on the site of the ruins.