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The Northern (military) harbour of Knidos, in Turkey, with the agora in the foreground and the Cape Krio lighthouse behind

The Northern (military) harbour of Knidos, with the agora in the foreground and the Cape Krio lighthouse behind

Every time we travel to Knidos, we feel giddy with anticipation. That's not just because the approach itself - be it from North or South - is lovely, but really because the site is remarkable and absolutely stunning. Knidos is a highlight on many of our tours in Turkey, and more than that, it is quite simply one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the Turkish coast, a place of great beauty and immense interest, with some great stories to tell.

Head of a caryatid from the Knidian treasury at Delphi in Greece

Head of a caryatid from the Knidian treasury at Delphi (Delphi Museum, image: Ricardo André Frantz, Wikimedia Commons)

Early History

The first references to Knidos in the historical record would seem to place the foundation of the city, probably by Doric Greeks from Laconia or Megara in the Greek mainland, in the 8th or 7th century BC as a Greek colony on the coast of Caria. Early on, Knidos was allied with five other Doric cities in the islands and mainland of the region, forming the so-called Doric Hexapolis.

The city appears to have achieved great wealth and major creativity already in the 6th century, by the middle of which it donated a treasury at the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. This building, designed to hold offerings to the deity, was revolutionary in many regards: it was the first such structure built at Delphi, and one of the first full marble structures in Greece, but moreover, it was the first building in mainland Greece to use caryatids instead of columns for its porch. To the Greek visitor of ca. 550 BC, the sight of the Knidian Treasury must have been astonishing, exotic, innovative and luxurious, and there can be little doubt that this was its creators' intention, a reflection of how they saw their city and its place within the Greek World. We shall return to this theme of innovation, as the Knidians themselves did, later on.

Around the same time, Knidos fell to the Persian empire. From 478 BC, i.e. immediately after the Second Persian War, it was part of the Attic-Delian League, the great naval alliance headed by Athens, but defected to the Spartan side in 412 BC. Also in the 5th century, the city donated another famous structure at Delphi, the so-called Lesche of the Knidians, lavishly decorated with frescos by Polygnotos, the greatest painter of that era, which were described in detail by the travel writer Pausanias some 600 years later.

View of the central part of Knidos in Turkey, with the isthmus and both harbours in the background

View of the central part of Knidos, with the isthmus and both harbours in the background

Refoundation and the site of new Knidos

Unfortunately, that early Knidos of the Archaic and Classical periods remains a bit of a mystery, as we are not quite sure where it was located, although it is usually assumed to have been in the vicinity of Datça, 30km (18mi) east of the present site. At the place now known and visited as Knidos, full urban activity appears to have begun only to the 4th century BC, older material being scant. So, what seems to have happened is that the Knidians, and perhaps some of their neighbours, decided to abandon their original settlement(s) and refound their polity as a planned city in a highly strategic location. It is also possible that originally, Knidos was a state entity with multiple centres, in which case the refoundation represents an act of centralisation or synoikismos, a phenomenon observed in the same time-frame elsewhere in the region (e.g. on Rhodes and Kos).  Thus, strictly speaking, the site we describe here and show to guests on our tours should really be called "New Knidos". It thrived in the succeeding centuries, first as a Hellenistic, then a Roman and eventually Byzantine city, to be abandoned around the 8th century AD.

The marble-clad defensive tower overlooking the entrance to the northern harbour at Knidos in Turkey

The marble-clad defensive tower overlooking the entrance to the northern harbour

The site is located at Cape Krio, the tip of the enormously long Datça peninsula, jutting westwards into the Aegean for a length of 65km (40mi). As a result, it is literally surrounded by the Greek islands of Kos, Giali, Nisyros and Tilos, and its character mixes island and mainland features. The spot must have been chosen primarily for its excellent twin harbours, still among the best on this stretch of the Anatolian coast, offering a welcome landfall for ships sailing along one of antiquity's key sea routes that most traders and travellers between the Aegean, the Black Sea and the East Mediterranean had to use.

Centred on the narrow isthmus between the two ports, and occupying the slopes on either side, the ancient city is enormous. Its walls reach a length of over 4km, not including the stretches of cliff where no built walls were necessary for defence, enclosing a land area of ca. 80 hectares (or 200 acres), space for a population in the dozens of thousands, plus a mountaintop citadel or acropolis. Within the walls, the orientation of streets and buildings mostly follows a rigid set of orientations, indicating that New Knidos was built as a Hippodamian city, following a rectilinear street grid rather than the natural contours of the rugged terrain. There are two separate such grids, one to the north of the central isthmus, the other to the south.

The small theatre, overlooking the southern commercial harbour at Knidos in Turkey

The small theatre, overlooking the southern commercial harbour

Excavations have taken place here intermittently since the 19th century, but especially in the 1960s, 1970s and more recently. While a number of (mostly public) buildings and streets are clearly presented to the visitor, the vast majority of Knidos, including most of the residential quarters, still awaits exploration. To the discerning viewer walking through the site, or sitting on  a boat moored in its southern harbour, the presence of the city, even where unexcavated, is indicated all around, by stretches of urban terraces, sections of structural walls, and on a closer look by the vast quantities of ancient potsherds eroding out of the ground everywhere.

Monuments between two harbours: a theatre, a temple of Dionysos and a very famous portico

So, beyond the picturesque and panoramic topography, the two harbours (apparently linked by a channel in antiquity) and  the remains of the city walls, what is there to see of ancient Knidos? Well, a lot.

The sanctuary of Dionysos at Knidos in Turkey, as seen from its theatre, with the temple/church at the centre and the long stoa on the right

The sanctuary of Dionysos as seen from its theatre, with the temple/church at the centre and the long stoa on the right

The most striking monument for the visitor arriving by boat is probably the "little" theatre, the smaller one of two on the site. It is a typical example of a Hellenistic Greek theatre, in a particularly perfect seaside location, but what makes it even more instructive is its clear relationship with the sanctuary it belongs to: that of Dionysos, god of wine, pleasure - and theatre. The sanctuary area, right by the commercial harbour, is a large flat terrace, partially created by digging into the slope. At its centre are the foundations of a once grand temple of the god, converted into a church after Christianity was established as the leading religion in the 4th century AD.

The northern edge of the Dionysos terrace is defined by a huge stoa, a colonnade of more than 100m length. This might be the ambulationa pensilis, a famous building designed by Sostratos, a 4th/3rd century BC Knidian architect who was also responsible for the Lighthouse at Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to descriptions, this was another example of Knidian innovativeness: a "hanging" stoa at multiple levels, but the on-site evidence is unclear in that regard. It was certainly very ornate, with ornate marble fittings in the rooms at the back, which were probably used for ritual banquets, and fine Corinthian columns in front. Even in its ruinous state, the grandeur of this building is tangible.

One of the main streets of ancient Knidos in Turkey, beautifully paved with marble

One of the main streets of ancient Knidos, beautifully paved with marble

Immediately to the west of the sanctuary, part of one of the city's main streets has been exposed. Broad and marble-paved, its steps lead uphill, lined by the doorways and pillars of still unexcavated buildings, perhaps shops, their vaulted storage spaces visible behind.  It compares well to the famous, but even more glamorous, Kouretes Street at Ephesus. The adjacent flat area, adjoining the "military harbour" was probably the city's agora or market place. It is not yet well understood, although two large Early Christian churches have been partly excavated here.

The main sanctuary: temple and altar of Apollo

The marble street gives access to the most fascinating part of the site: A series of terraces, far above the ports and market and crowned by a craggy cliff-face, contains what appear to have been the main sanctuaries of Knidos, the chief places of worship that defined the community and its identity. Entering through a formal propylon or pillared gatehouse, the visitor has access to three discreet temples. Passing the lowermost, known as the Pink Temple, the least understood of the three, the visitor soon reaches the largest of the sanctuary, that of Apollo Karneios, whose worship tends to be foremost in Dorian cities.

The sanctuary terrace of Apollo Kareneios, at Knidos in Turkey, with the altar in the foreground and the temple behind

The sanctuary terrace of Apollo Kareneios, with the altar in the foreground and the temple behind

This is a wonderfully clear and concise example of the basic features that define a typical Greek sanctuary. The temple itself is ill-preserved, but still clearly recognisable as  a large but fairly simple structure, essentially a rectangular room fronted by a columned porch. Most unusually, part of the monumental cult statue survives inside; it probably depicted Apollo, clad in a flowing garment and playing the kithara, a type of lyre. The cult statue is central to the function of a Greek temple, it serves as a stand-in for the god himself, the temple being merely its housing.

The temple's porch looks eastwards upon an open area that contains an even more important structure: the altar. One of the better-preserved examples of its kind, this was a raised rectangular platform, approached by steps from the western side and surrounded by a low parapet. It is here that sacrifice, the central act of ancient Greek religious worship, took place, under the open sky and symbolically overseen by the god himself in form of the aforementioned statue. The Knidos altar also preserves some wonderful pieces of ornate architectural sculpture from its parapet.

A Roman copy of the Knidian statue of Aphrodite

A Roman copy of the Knidian Aphrodite

The terrace wall towering behind the altar contains an additional interesting feature: it is crowned by a few rows of stadium-type seating. Evidently, this must have served an audience observing a spectacle, perhaps the sacrifice itself. Moreover, the annual festival of Apollo Karneios, the Karneia, probably included athletic contests (as attested elsewhere), which may have taken place in the sanctuary itself and could be viewed from above.

Mighty Aphrodite?

Above the sanctuary of Apollo, a third terrace contains another sanctuary, the most evocative, most famous and arguably most mysterious feature in all of Knidos. Here, a small altar is overlooked by the marble foundations of a large circular temple, probably in the Corinthian order. Although little of the superstructure survives, it is clear that this building must have been very striking, providing a visual focus for much of the ancient city, and in reverse offering wonderful views of the centre and both harbours. Unfortunately, neither its date not its function are as clear as some guidebooks would have it.

The circular temple at Knidos in Turkey

Aphrodite or Athena? Or something entirely different? The circular temple at Knidos.

At this point, we need to digress: In antiquity, Knidos was famous for a very special object: the Knidian Aphrodite, a marble statue depicting the goddess of love in the nude, made by Praxiteles, the most famous sculptor of the 4th century BC. Supposedly, Knidos's neighbour and rival city, Kos, had originally commissioned this work from the Athens-based artist. On realising that Praxiteles had departed from established tradition by depicting the goddess naked, the Koans blanched and opted for a more conservative clothed representation. In keeping with their long-standing habit of being innovative, even provocative, the Knidians seized the opportunity and acquired the work, which was soon to become a major tourist magnet and became the emblem of the city's coinage. Pliny describes it as "superior to all the statues, not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed". Unfortunately, the original work has not survived, we only know its appearance from a series of Roman copies.

Some scholars, including the original excavator, interpret the circular temple as that of Aphrodite, erstwhile home of the celebrated statue. There are various arguments in favour of that view, not least the structure's pivotal and lovely setting, but eventually, there is no consensus on the matter. An inscription on a nearby foundation names "Athana", the Doric name for the goddess Athena, providing another possibility as to which deity the upper sanctuary was dedicated to. Maybe future research will clarify the matter.

Remains of an Early Christian basilica church in the agora of Knidos in Turkey

Remains of an Early Christian basilica church in the agora of Knidos

So much more to explore...

These  are the main sites of Knidos, but there is a lot more to see, including remains of a splendid Roman temple, another huge Early Christian basilica (with graffiti by 8th century AS Arab raiders!), the bouleuterion or council chamber, a larger (but ill-preserved) theatre, a sanctuary of the muses and one of Demeter, the mountaintop citadel, parts of rather grand Hellenistic and Roman houses, and so on. Furthermore, the site is surrounded by one of the largest necropoleis (cemeteries) known from any ancient city, consisting of many dozens of built tombs, many of them enormous and elaborate, in a variety of beautiful setting between mountains and sea.

Knidos clearly rewards extensive and repeated exploration. You can visit the site, with expert guides, on a selection of our escorted gulet cruises in Turkey.

3 responses to “Knidos: a stunning ancient city in Turkey”

  1. […] Knidos is one of the major ancient cities in Caria (southwest Turkey). It is situated on the Datça peninsula which forms the southern side of the Gulf of Gökova. […]

  2. […] For a description of the site and its history I found this site to be one of the best reads. […]

  3. […] shooting at the US Embassy, but for us, on our tiny peninsula, sitting between two seas, located on ancient archeological ground where civilizations have lived for thousands of years (since ~500 BC), we are relatively immune […]

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