Aphrodisias or Bust. Tucked Away in Turkey,Giles Milton Discovers an Ancient City Devoted to the Goddess of Love - and Falls Head over Heels for Its Classical Beauty

Article excerpt

Byline: GILES MILTON

THE woman in front of me was seated in a most provocative pose. Naked from the waist down, and with legs coyly crossed at the knees, she looked every bit the seductive temptress. Except that something was missing - namely, her head, arms, shoulders and torso.

This life-size statue of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, had gone topless and, in the process, lost just a little of her allure.

Yet her missing parts were more than compensated for by the chunks of heads, hands and bodies strewn across the ground at Aphrodisias - one of the most extraordinary classical sites ever discovered. Even if ruins leave you as cold as old stone, this ancient city - which once supplied the entire Roman Empire with its statues - is a must.

Aphrodisias, some 95 miles inland from the port of Izmir on Turkey's Aegean coast, is the great lost city of the ancient world. For centuries it was the most vibrant metropolis in Asia Minor - home to a population of several hundred thousand, many of whom worked in the city's sculpture workshops.

It was also home to the cult of Aphrodite and a monumental temple provided the focus for worshipping pilgrims. They came to offer libations, sacrifice animals and ask the goddess for her blessing in all things pertaining to love.

For more than eight centuries, Aphrodisias prospered and expanded - under Greeks and Romans, pagans and Christians. But in about 620AD disaster struck.

A massive earthquake shook the region, toppling temples and public buildings that had stood for longer than anyone could remember.

The great baths of Hadrian slumped in on themselves. The city's ornamental gateway was flung to the ground. And the mighty Temple of Aphrodite, converted into a Christian church two centuries earlier, crashed into a thousand pieces. In one violent shudder of the earth, Aphrodite's city ceased to exist.

I hired a car in Izmir and headed inland - a pleasant drive across rolling pastures and farmland. On the steeper hillsides, vines were about to burst into flower. In the well watered valleys, vegetable gardens and fields of wheat were responding to the spring sunshine.

A deserted motorway leads to the bustling town of Aydin and, from here, a smaller road winds through picturesque towns and villages, encircled with rustic farms and orchards watered by the Buyuk Menderes river. This is Turkey's most fertile land, where most of her garden vegetables are produced.

I stopped for an early lunch at a roadside

restaurant and was brought a succession of mouthwatering, home-grown mezze.

There were aubergines fried in olive oil, juicy tomatoes with coriander, aromatic goat's cheese and succulent little skewers of charcoal-grilled lamb.

The same food has been served up in this area for thousands of years. The Greek and Roman pilgrims en route to Aphrodisias probably ate very similar fare.

Some 15 miles from the main road, Aphrodisias is reached by a country lane that weaves upwards towards the distant mountains. The setting could scarcely be more impressive - a flat plain sprinkled with poppies and ringed with snow-covered peaks that once supplied the city with fresh water all year round.

The first things you notice are great fragments of the city's walls striding across the plain. Built late in Aphrodisias's history, when its riches made it a target for raiders and brigands, the walls provided scant protection against the earthquake, which toppled entire sections.

For the next few centuries, the ruins were inhabited only by ghosts. Locals came occasionally to raid the site for blocks of stone - and, once in a while, pulled up the stone heads of long-forgotten gods.

It was not until the late 1700s that English gentlemen on the Grand Tour, learning of this extraordinary lost city, began sketching the broken columns that poked through the earth. …