Last week, I wrote about the ancient city of Lato on Crete, and how its evocative remains reveal the key features and characteristics of the Cretan city state. Continuing on that idea, let’s have a look at Priene in Ionia (Western Turkey).
Priene is probably the clearest, best-preserved and most accessible example of a planned Classical Greek city to be found anywhere, making it one of the most important sites to visit in that cultural context. It presents a unique opportunity to walk on the very same streets and lanes the ancients did, to explore their public buildings and private homes, and to experience and understand the city in its totality.
The location of Priene, on a forested slope between the towering cliffs of its acropolis to the North and the fertile plain that was once the wide Gulf of the Maeander to the South, is a place of immense charm, the ancient ruins set within a very beautiful and memorable natural scenery. The site is located in a much-travelled part of coastal Turkey, close to major tourist resorts at Didim and Ku?adas?, but nevertheless, it receives far fewer visitors than one would expect for such a famous site, rediscovered already in the 17th century and subject to extensive excavation and publication in the 19th and 20th. This lack of tourists is mostly due to the presence of the nearby archaeological sites of Miletus and Ephesus, both of which are more spectacular and monumental than Priene at first sight, but certainly not more instructive to the well-prepared or well-guided (!) traveller.
A planned city
Like Lato and like Knidos, Priene appears in its present location quite suddenly, namely around 350 BC. Historical records indicate the existence of Priene since the 8th century BC, and the city’s coinage goes back to around 500 BC, but we have no idea so far where its original location was, although it is assumed to have lain somewhere to the west of the present site. Likewise, we cannot tell what might have instigated the move of an entire community, a major undertaking. The reasons could be strategic, political or economic in nature, or a sudden disaster like an earthquake or gradual topographic changes such as the silting up of the Maeander estuary might have triggered it. In any case, such relocations were fairly common at the time.
Be that as it may, Priene as we know it now is the perfect model of a city from the Golden Age of Ancient Greek culture, its coherent design expressing the values, the ideology, the politics and the practicalities of urban life at the time. What is most striking about Priene is the clearly thought-out and coherent urban design underlying all its structures and their placement within the city boundaries.
Ironically, we owe the excellent preservation of Priene to its relative lack of success. The community that initially relocated to the site must have been an affluent one, as indicated by the grand scale of the city walls and its major public buildings, nearly all of them constructed or at least begun at the very start or within about 150 years from it, and all clearly looking forward to housing a thriving community. Apart from a slight upturn around the 2nd century AD, Priene never saw a second flourish throughout its 17 centuries of existence – it appears to have been abandoned only around AD 1300 – so that virtually no major constructions of later date obscure the original design, except a small Byzantine fortification and a 6th century church.
City walls and street grid
Approaching Priene, the visitor first glimpses the main city wall as well as the fortified acropolis towering high above it. In both cases, the defenses follow the natural contours, quite logically making use of them to increase their effectiveness. As a result, the city proper is of an irregular, roughly ovoid shape, enclosed by a finely built wall with a number of towers and pierced by two gates. All the more striking is the layout within, dominated by a perfectly regular and rectangular grid of primary and secondary streets, set out in near-complete disregard of the natural topography to form a series of building blocks of equal shape and size (35 by 47m or 114 by 154ft, which equalled 120 by 160ft in the measurement system used then). Underneath the street plaster lies a system of pipes that supplied water from springs further uphill, as well as a network of drains to evacuate rainwater.
The agora: politics and commerce
That regular grid structure is interrupted only rarely, most significantly at the town’s centre, the agora or market place, which occupies more than two of the regular blocks. As in any Greek city, the agora was Priene’s commercial and political centre, and it is one of the most instructive examples of its kind. An open area is lined by a series of colonnades or stoas, which would offer shelter from sun or wind, but also provide a clear definition of this key urban space. Behind them lay shops and markets. Within the square, a large altar indicates the central role of collective religious activity in the formulation of the city state’s identity. In the same area, a series of inscribed statue bases show that important citizens were commemorated and honoured at the heart of the city.
Adjacent to the North of the agora, and reached through the “Sacred Stoa” are two structures that exemplify Priene’s political organisation. One of them, centred on a large courtyard, was the prytaneion, the official residence of the prytanes, the college of officials entrusted with the role of the city’s executive government at a given time. It also contained a large hearth, probably Priene’s eternal fire and sanctuary of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. Next to it lies the bouleuterion or council chamber. Looking like a rectangular theatre, this is still clearly recognisable as the city’s parliamentary chamber, and the best-preserved such structure from the ancient world. The close integration of these two structures with one another and with the agora underlines the transparency and democratic, or at least civic, legitimation that are characteristic of Greek city states.
Places of worship
The second major interruption of Priene’s grid system is its other heart, the sanctuary of Athena, set on a prominent rise supported by a massive terrace wall to the Northwest of the agora. This was the city’s chief shrine to its patron goddess, including a large and ornate open-air altar and the large Ionic Temple of Athena Polias (protector of the city) itself, one of Priene’s most prominent monuments then as now, not least due to the five re-erected columns. It is not difficult to imagine this large marble edifice gleaming in the Aegean sun, visible to travellers and seafarers far afield, signalling Priene’s piety, wealth and cultural ambition. Although the temple was begun when the city was refounded here, it was only completed five centuries later, perhaps indicating Priene’s financial difficulties.
The complex is not the only religious shrine in Priene. In fact, an exploration of the city is an admirably clear demonstration of ancient Greek polytheism with its series of cults. Other shrines at Priene include a small temple near the agora, perhaps dedicated to Zeus, the sanctuary of Demeter, goddess of agricultural fertility, on the slopes of the acropolis, a place of worship for the “Egyptian Gods” and one for Alexander the Great. Another god whose worship must have been important is Dionysos, god of wine and drama. The smallish 6500-seat theatre at Priene is one of the best-preserved and moreover one of the prettiest to be seen anywhere.
Changes over time in Priene’s religious habits are indicated by the discovery of a Roman-era synagogue – an extremely rare find, built into a private home – and by the presence of an early Christian church near the theatre.
Public buildings and private homes
Another typical feature of Classical Greek urban life is the central role afforded to education and athletic training for its male youth. Thus, a large gymnasium, which would have served both those purposes, is located at the southern edge of town, right beside the large stadium.
All of these public buildings are well worth visiting, and all are typical examples of their type, instructive especially due to their fine preservation. None of them are per se unique, but the possibility to experience their totality that Priene offers is not given at any other site of the period. And there’s more: Priene is one of very few Greek cities that includes accessible and comprehensible remains of private homes, making it a key source for our understanding of the period’s domestic life.
The homes of Priene, all of roughly similar size and layout, were built of mud superstructures on stone foundations. Especially the western part of town merits exploration: around 140 BC the residential quarter there was destroyed by a fire and never rebuilt, leading to an unusually good preservation of the ground levels and their contents. Here, the visitor can make out the typical layout of entrance, courtyard, semi-covered spaces and ground-floor kitchens – the bedrooms were probably upstairs. Here and there, one recognises the andron, the formal dining room serving as the location of the symposium, the drinking party that was a key focus to male social life. Also visible are modifications made to houses during their use-life, including their enlargement through the incorporation of spaces from neighbouring homes, presumably indicating differing levels of affluence – a glimpse of ancient social history.
Many daily-life objects were found within these homes; including lamps, weaving equipment, parts of furniture and so on, but also small works of art. Some of them can be admired in museums at Miletus and at Berlin.
A visit to Priene is a vivid and beautiful experience of ancient urban life. Exploring the site is stepping into the past and gaining a lively and comprehensive understanding of an exemplary Greek city, directly approachable and at a human scale. You can visit Priene with our expert guides on our Cruising to Ephesus, along with Miletus, Ephesus and many other fascinating archaeological sites. In 2015, we are offering this tour twice: in June and September Cruising to Ephesus. The site is also one of many highlights on our newly-reintroduced epic 2-week cruise from Halicarnassus to Ephesus.