The Hellenistic theatre of Stratonikeia, before recent restoration works

The Hellenistic theatre of Stratonikeia, before recent restoration works

Have you ever heard of Stratonikeia? If your answer is yes, I can only assume that either you have travelled in southwestern Turkey, or you are an expert on ancient history with a special interest in Asia Minor. There would be a third explanation, but that’s even less likely… To most, the name should be perfectly unfamiliar. Stratonikeia is one of Turkey’s many great surprises, but may soon receive a little more attention.

To be honest, I had not heard of it either until a few years ago. Yes, I might have seen the name on a historical or archaeological map or two, but I only registered it properly in the late summer of 2009, when I was about to drive back to Bodrum from a reconnaissance trip preparing a tour in Lycia. My colleague casually mentioned that I might as well drop by the ancient city of Stratinokeia along the way. Pretending that I was fully aware of that possibility, I discreetly checked the two Turkey guidebooks I had on me (yes, the two very obvious ones you would expect a traveller on a budget to carry), only to find that neither of them mentioned the place. My conclusion was that this would be a second- or third-tier site, some reasonably interesting ancient foundations, hopefully in a nice setting. And I was wrong.

Yes, it really says that

Yes, it really says that

Stratonikeia (also Stratonicea) turned out easy to find, as it was indicated by a billboard-sized sign beside the highway, advertising in capitals “THE CITY OF ETERNAL LOVE & GLADIATORS”. (Spoiler alert: I still have no idea why it says that.) So, I duly turned into a side-road and after a few minutes found myself in a tiny rural village with the occasional bit of ancient masonry visible between the houses, just like so many other ancient sites in Turkey, or anywhere.

But leaving my car and setting out on foot, I soon realised that Stratonikeia is simply magnificent. No, wait, it’s not that simple: Stratonikeia is complicatedly magnificent!

What I found then, on a cold and rainy late summer’s day, feeling more like autumn, was extraordinary. A fairly small plain, surrounded by hills, contained a recent village (which I now know is called Eskihisar), its mosque, tea-house and simple cottage-like dwellings scattered far and few between. Among and around them, bits of much grander and more ancient marble-built structures, colonnades, gateways, roadways and a theatre stuck out of the ground here and there. Conventionally, one might describe the atmosphere I experienced then as melancholic. A sense of long-gone greatness overcome by time.

Ancient architectural sculpture, a 19th century cottage and a lot of vegetation...

Ancient architectural sculpture, a 19th century cottage and a lot of vegetation…

But not really. What can be seen as melancholy can also be interpreted as hopeful and affirming. Clearly, a village had thrived not so long ago among the ancient walls, showing us that human societies go on regardless. Likewise, the boughs of near-ripe wild pomegranates, ivies, figs and flowering plants overhanging the laneways between the ancient and recent ruins tell us that nature does not give a damn and will produce its own breathtaking beauty, in its entire range from grandiose and stunning to modest and intimate, just as it likes. Also, it was clear on that first visit that excavations were ongoing around the site, exposing more and more of a forgotten city.  A little museum had recently been opened, work was ongoing to preserve the 18th century mosque, and digging was in progress all over, exposing extraordinary grandeur everywhere.

Stratonikeia was founded in the early 3rd century BC by a member of the Seleucid dynasty, a major power in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death. The city’s name honours a certain Stratonike. Who is she? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. If we can believe Plutarch, she was married as a young princess to the much older Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s former generals who then controlled Syria and Southern Asia Minor.  After she bore him a first child, it turned out that Seleucus’s oldest son by an earlier wife, Antiochus I, had desperately fallen in love with her and was consumed by passion. Sensibly, Seleucus divorced her and gave her to his son. Clearly, the city was named for her, but we cannot tell whether by son or father (or various other kings).

A typical "Macedonian tomb" outside the city walls may betray the origin of its erstwhile occupant

A typical “Macedonian tomb” outside the city walls may betray the origin of its erstwhile occupant

What is clear is that Stratonikeia was deliberately built up as a major city, even a capital for Caria. Evidence indicates that it was settled with a mixed population made up of local Anatolians who had previously lived in more scattered communities on the one hand, and Hellenised Macedonians from the Seleucid armies and administration on the other. Local traditions appear to have survived e.g. in religion (the nearby sanctuary of Hekate at Lagina is a case in point), whereas the city itself, like many others at the time, was given a thoroughly Greek appearance.  It was embellished with major architectural monuments already in the 3rd century BC and in subsequent periods, when it was treated as an important Carian city. After changing hands between Rhodes, others and itself for decades, it eventually became a regional centre until Late Roman times, occasionally claiming the status of Carian capital.

There is very much to see and to tell of those times (and there will be more before long). The key monuments visible now include a large theatre, fitting 10,000 spectators and recently restored, a temple of Zeus or the Roman emperor Augustus or both, a colonnaded street lined by mosaics and leading to a city gate and monumental fountain, and a grand Council Chamber, probably Hellenistic, with multiple Roman inscriptions, including a copy of Diocletian’s Price Edict of AD 301, an early and unsuccessful attempt to contain inflation. All of these grand monuments are outshone, however, by the sprawling remains of the enormous Hellenistic gymnasium or sports ground, one of the most ornate of its kind.

The monumental colonnade leading to the city gate was excavated and re-erected recently

The monumental colonnade leading to the city gate was excavated and re-erected recently

Beyond my first impression of melancholy glory, on a sunny day the site is serene and joyous, during a storm (I’ve seen that, too) it is mysterious and awesome, and on any day, it is unforgettable. You can still visit Stratonikeia with a sense of exploration, a sense of finding what not many have seen, a sense of place and a sense of the fluidity that is history. The site embodies a combination of man-made monumental grandeur and nature’s subtle and random prettiness like none other.

As excavations continue, the site is guaranteed to become even more interesting every year. There you have it: discovery, atmosphere, grandeur, intimacy and great beauty. You need to see Stratonikeia. Please do so in your own time. One way is our 2-week Carian cruise.

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