Archaeology Travel, Asia Minor, Hadrian, Lycia, Photography, Turkey

Hadrian goes to Phaselis – images from a Lycian harbour city

Phaselis was an ancient Greek and Roman city on the coast of Lycia, today situated 35km south of Antalya. Shaded by towering pine trees, its ruins lie scattered around three small beautiful bays. Once a thriving port shipping timber and rose oil, its beauty is now admired by thousands of visitors each year.

Phaselis was founded in 690 BC by colonists from Rhodes. Due to its geographical position,on an isthmus, it became the most important harbour city of western Lycia and an important centre of commerce between Greece, Asia, Egypt, and Phoenicia. The city was captured by the Persians after they conquered Asia Minor and in 334 BC by Alexander the Great. Alexander admired the beauty of the city and remained at Phaselis throughout the winter of that year. This event elevated the city’s importance and prestige throughout the Mediterranean. After the death of Alexander the Great, Phaselis came under the rule of the Ptolemies and of Rhodes.

The main paved street, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

After 160 BC Phaselis was absorbed into the Lycian confederacy under Roman rule. In the 1st century BC the city was under constant threat from pirates and was even taken over by the pirate Zekenites for a period until his defeat by the Romans.

Hadrian visited Phaselis in AD 131. The Phaselisians erected statues in order to greet the emperor with a flamboyant ceremony. They also built a gate and an agora near the south harbour. Most of the remains that can be seen today date back from this period.

Upon entering the ancient site, the aqueduct, Phaselis’ best preserved and most impressive ruins, greets the visitor to the city.

The ruins of the Roman aqueduct, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The aqueduct began at a spring on the hill behind the northern harbour and extended as far as the agora. The water was then distributed within the town through channel water pipes.

The ruins of the Roman aqueduct, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

As mentioned by Strabo, Phaselis had three harbours. The best preserved of these is the main one, otherwise known as the military or middle harbour, through which fishing and tourist boats easily enter and leave even today.

The middle harbour, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The street linking the main harbour to the southern port is paved with blocks of conglomerate rock and measures 225 metres in length by 25 metres in width. Narrow raised pavements in the form of terraces and reached by stairs line both sides of the street.

The main street, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The paved street ends on the side of the southern harbour with a single-arched monumental gateway erected for Hadrian’s visit. Sadly, it is now in a state of ruin.

The ruins of Hadrian’s Gate, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

Epigraphic evidence provides us with solid evidence for the emperor’s visit to Phaselis. A dedicatory inscription (see image below), carved in three lines onto the architrave at the top of the arch, honors Hadrian as savior and benefactor.

Inscription on the gate of Hadrian, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

Other inscriptions found near the gate are dedicatory inscriptions to Sabina and Matidia, Hadrian’s wife and mother-in-law respectively. The empress Sabina would have accompanied Hadrian on his tour of the Roman provinces.

The ruins of Hadrian’s Gate near the south harbour, Phaselis © Carole Raddato
The Southern Harbour, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

A second agora, the commercial heart of the city, was built during Hadrian’s visit. The agora was lined by porticoes and shops and was decorated with statues and a fountain.

Agora of Hadrian, Phaselis © Carole Raddato
Agora of Hadrian, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

Statues were erected to Hadrian as “saviour of the universe and their country” by a woman from Phaselis named Tyndaris. Two neighbouring cities, Korydalla and Akalissos, also erected altars in Phaselis for the explicit purpose of honouring his visit.

Dedicatory inscription to Hadrian erected by the privy and assemblies of Akalissos on the occasion of his visit, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

Domitian’s agora lies along the second section of the main street. It had two gates that faced the street. The courtyard of this agora was in the shape of a major structure complex. The agora’s inner courtyard was surrounded with corridors in a portico manner and the shops were located at the rear.

Domitian’s Agora, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

An inscription written in honour of the emperor Domitian was found above one of the two gates.

Inscription written in honor of the emperor Domitian found above one of the two gates that faced the main street, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The theatre, situated on the north-west slope of the acropolis, is approached by steps from the town square. It was most probably rebuilt on the Roman plan in the second century AD on top of an earlier Hellenistic theatre.

The Roman theatre, built in the 2nd century on the foundations of the earlier Greek Hellenistic theatre, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The cavea, which is in quite good state of preservation, had a capacity of around 2,000 people. The partially preserved walls of the two-storey stage building indicate it had five doors.

The cavea of the Roman theatre, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The Roman theatre overlooks the city and the sea with a spectacular view on Mount Olympos (Tahtali) which rises 2,365 metres.

The Roman theatre with Mount Olympos in the background , Phaselis © Carole Raddato

On the west side of the main paved street are the baths which was part of the bath-gymnasium complex unearthed in recent excavations. The floor and walls of the baths, constructed in the 3rd century AD, were once covered in marble and mosaics.

The bath-gymnasium complex, Phaselis © Carole Raddato
The bath-gymnasium complex, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

On the east side of the main street lie the Small Baths built in the 3rd-4th century AD.

The small baths, built in the late period 3rd-4th century AD, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

The Acropolis, covered with a thick vegetation, is located above the theatre. According to ancient writers, here stood the Temple of Athena where Achilles’ broken spear was exhibited. It is said to be the first place that Alexander the Great visited upon his arrival in the city. However the temple has not yet been located. Other temples, including a palace and official buildings were also built on this site.

Temple, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

With its unmatched natural beauty combined with an ancient historical legacy, Phaselis should be at the top of your list of places to visit if you are travelling to the Antalya province or following the Lycian way.

The necropolis and the northern harbour, Phaselis © Carole Raddato

Phaselis is on the Lycian Way, a long-distance footpath along the Lycian coast. The Lycian Way is approximately 510 km long and stretches from Ölüdeniz, near Fethiye, to Hisarcandir, about 20 kilometres from Antalya. According to the Sunday Times the Lycian Way is one of the ten most beautiful long distance hikes of the world.

Lycian Way map

Sources: Antalya, Lycia, Pisidia, Pamphylia: Antique cities guide by Kayhan Dörtlük / Hadrian: The Restless Emperor by Anthony R. Birley

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