“If Afrodisias were closer to the sea or İstanbul it would clearly be one of Turkey’s most-visited attractions.”
–Lonely Planet Turkey, 12th Edition
Lonely Planet describes it well; Aphrodisias would be a tourist Mecca if it were more convenient to get to. Without easy transportation options, the ruins are less accessible. As a result, Aphrodisias is a splendid historical site that has been spared from the tourist masses by its inconvenient location.
As with us, many visitors arrive at Aphrodisias from another of Turkey’s celebrated sites, Hierapolis-Pamukkale. Usually this trip takes about two hours by car. For us our eventful journey took longer.
With our flight to Istanbul leaving Denizli in the evening we had time to visit Aphrodisias before we departed. We arranged with our Pamukkale hotel’s owner to hire transport. The owner talked to his friend. For 30 TL each, we’d be shuttled to Aphrodisias. Afterwards we would be taken to the airport. (Denizli’s airport is oddly distant from both Denizli and Pamukkale; it’s over an hour drive.)
At the arranged time a compact car driven by a middle-aged, Turikish-speaking man collected us at the Melrose House Hotel. On the way to the center of town we stopped to pick up another passenger, a woman from Argentina traveling on her own. At the collection point in town we expected to transfer to a van. This transfer did not happen. The shuttle company owner decided that the four passengers and the driver, all cramped into the small car, could continue on to Aphrodisias. Soon we were headed out of town.
Once on the open road, I inspected our driver’s vehicle more closely. The car looked neither clean nor well maintained; it didn’t seem like it was used to carry paying passengers. On the dash, the fuel gauge pointed to empty. The heater was permanently on. This ride was familiar; I’d been in a car just like many times as a college student.
“I should have brought my passport,” I thought.
My passport was back at the hotel. Not that that was unusual. I often leave my passport in my room while touring about for the day. What was odd was that I thought I might need my passport on this particular day. Somewhere in the back of the brain warning bells were going off.
We crossed through modern Denizli and headed out through the Turkish countryside. The driver was motoring fast but so were many other cars. Up ahead we came upon a traffic police car creeping along. Our driver slowed, closely followed the police car for a short time, and then gunned the engine to pass.
“That was weird,” I thought as I glanced in the rearview mirror to see if there was a response from the police. You couldn’t drive any more suspiciously.
Predictably, seconds later, the lights on the police car came on. Our driver pulled to the side of the road.
The lead police officer came to the car and glanced in. After getting the driver’s license and documents, the policeman came back to the car and asked in pigeon English for the passengers’ passports. When all the passports, save mine, were turned over, our driver was directed to follow the officer’s car to a nearby local café.
At the café the officer separated the passengers from the driver. We were directed to a table and offered coffee or Turkish tea. It was quite civilized. The police began their interrogation of our driver several tables away. There didn’t seem to be any hurry. After about an hour and a half, the shuttle company owner arrived as a formal police statement was being completed.
To finish up the police came back to our table and asked again for my passport. I gestured to indicate that I didn’t have it. We were at an impasse. After a few moments I figured I’d try my drivers license. I dug out of my wallet, pulled out the card, and offered it to the policeman. The senior officer nodded; the license would do. He took my California driver’s license and returned to interrogation table. After copying down the details, the police officers returned to our table with a statement.
Aside from the names and document numbers of the travelers, the full-page report was handwritten in Turkish. It was completely incomprehensible. Before we could get our travel documents back, we needed to sign the statement. Though we could only guess at what it said, we all dutifully penned our names to the paper with the blind hope that we weren’t confessing to high crimes against the Turkish state. When it was my turn, as I scrawled my signature, my mind flashed to the Turkish prison conditions shown in the movie Midnight Express; I wished I had never seen the movie.
But there was nothing to worry about. It seems we hadn’t confessed to evil doings. Though our driver remained behind, we tourists were free to continue on. With the passports and driver’s license returned, we loaded into an actual mini-van. The shuttle company’s owner took over the driving. Soon the van was on the road and we were on our way again to Aphrodisias.
“He is poor. I was just trying to help him,” the shuttle company owner explained.
The full truth, as always, is likely more complicated.
And it was as we suspected. The driver did not have the proper license to carry passengers. He was supposed to take the back way to Aphrodisias to avoid the police.
As it always does, being stopped by the police in a foreign country creates a strong travel memory. Fortunately, the three times we’ve been stopped have all been inconsequential. This time we were delayed but there was still enough time to see Aphrodisias.
Even with a longer than normal travel time, trip is worth the effort. Aphrodisias’s ruins are extensive and impressive. The historical site’s isolated location is part of the attraction. There is no encroaching development to alter the layout of the town; the temples, theaters, baths, and other civic buildings remain in place separated only by dirt paths. Neither a Starbucks nor a snack bar is on the way from one ruined building to another. When we visited, there were only a few clusters of tourists milling about.
Archeological studies determined that the Aphrodisias acropolis is a result of successive settlements that started about 5,000 years before the birth of Christ. Aphrodisias’s temple was a popular pilgrimage site in the 6th Century BC but it wasn’t until a century or so before the birth of Christ that the village grew into a town. The new town prospered and by the 3rd century AD Aphrodisias was the capital of the Roman province of Caria. At its peak Aphrodisias reached a population of 15,000. As the Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire the city changed; the monument to the Goddess of Love, the Temple of Aphrodite, was changed into a chaste Christian church. Defensive walls were built around the perimeter using stone acquired by demolishing older buildings.
Earthquakes in the 4th and 7th Centuries damaged Aphrodisias’s buildings. Perhaps more devastating, the rupturing faults altered the area’s water table causing frequent flooding. As a result, Aphrodisias was abandoned and left neglected for centuries.
Today, thanks to the efforts of an archeological team lead by the late Kenan T. Erim, a Turkish professor from New York University, Aphrodisias’ elaborate ruins have been unearthed. Travelers who make the effort to reach the area can visit the uncovered remnants of the town. Entrance to the site costs just eight Turkish Lira (less than five dollars US). It takes at least two hours to see all there is to see.
Of all Aphrodisias’s ruins the most impressive is the stadium. Located at the edge of the walls, the stadium measures approximately 890 feet by 200 feet. With 30 rows of seats, it could and probably still can hold around 30,000 spectators. The encircled playing field is longer than two American football fields placed end to end. It is one of the largest and best-preserved structures of its kind in the Mediterranean or so they say. In its time, filled with patrons, it must have been a spectacle.
The stadium, on its own, justifies a visit to Aphrodisias. But there’s much more see. Theaters, temples, and other ruins are scattered through the compound. Around each corner is another curiosity. Indeed, Aphrodisias is worth the extra effort get to. Toss in a police stop and the day trip is simply unforgettable.