New Hope for a Forgotten City

Guidebooks give Assos--a site on Turkey's Aegean coast between the more famous Troy and Pergamon--a page or two, noting its fourth-century B.C. city walls and the picturesque ruins of the temple of Athena overlooking the sea. But in a sense Assos has been a lost site for a long time, and not just because it is little known outside the scholarly literature. After excavations in the 1880s, archaeologists abandoned the site. When work resumed a century later, it was in the form of a botched reconstruction of the theater and temple. Today, however, things are looking up for the ancient metropolis.

On the six-hour drive there from Istanbul, I wonder what we will find beyond the reconstructed temple columns pictured on a few travel websites. With me are my colleague Şengul Aydıngün and her husband, photographer Haldun Aydıngün. They had visited the site briefly years ago and looked forward to spending a couple of days there, and Şengul had arranged to meet with the site's new excavation director, Nurettin Arslan of Çanakkale University.

The approach to Assos by car reveals little of the site's grandeur. The modern village of Behramkale covers the landward slopes of the coastal mountain on which Assos was built. But walking up the crooked streets brings us to the top of the acropolis and the temple. From here there is an incomparable view of the site and, to the south, the Aegean Sea. The island of Lesbos, from which the Greek settlers of Assos came in the seventh century B.C., is clearly visible a few miles away.

Laid out below us, as in an aerial photograph, are long, well-preserved stretches of the city's walls, which once extended nearly two miles. To the west, the towers of the main gate still rise some 45 feet. Outside the gate, the ancient paved street is lined on both sides with funerary markers and huge sarcophagi, which led the early excavators to call it the "Street of Tombs." Within the gate, on a broad terrace curving around the side of the peak, are the tumbled blocks and fragmentary walls of the city's main public buildings. A gymnasium, where the city's youth studied and exercised, once stood near the gate. Farther along was the agora, or marketplace and civic gathering area, with a small temple at its west end and a council house at its east end. Between them, a wide open area was bounded north and south by two colonnaded stoas--the shopping centers and office buildings of their day. The northern stoa, nearly 380 feet long, rose two stories high. The southern stoa, smaller but multistoried, overlooked the theater, which was built into the side of the peak on a terrace below.

The mountainside steepens below the theater, and the modern road swings around and down a gentler slope to the small harbor, a narrow piece of land between the base of the peak and the sea with a few guesthouses and small restaurants. American excavators of the 1880s stayed here. We did the same.

Assos was an important regional center, but was rarely able to control its own fate. Dominated by Lydia and then Persia in the sixth century, it gained a measure of freedom in 478 B.C. as a member of an Athenian-led confederacy. (The annual payment Assos made to the confederacy indicates it had about 4,500 citizens, so a total population of perhaps 30,000 men, women, children, and slaves.) The end of the fifth century saw a return of Persian rule, but in 387 B.C., the eunuch Hermias seized power. Hermias was a student of Plato and a friend of Aristotle, who came to Assos in 348 B.C. The philosopher married Hermias's niece, and taught there for three years, until the Persians lured Hermias into a trap and killed him. Assos again returned to the Persian fold until the advent of Alexander the Great in 334. After the conqueror's death, the city passed from one of his successors to the next, finally coming under the dominion of the kingdom of Pergamon, which was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire. Assos prospered during the first and second centuries A.D., but later dwindled as it came at times under the Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Frankish crusaders, and finally the Ottoman Turks in 1330.

Up early the following morning, we work our way from harbor to acropolis, exploring and photographing the site and becoming more impressed by its extensive and well-preserved remains. But we see few other visitors--only a busload of schoolchildren and a handful of German tourists--and they seem to do little more than clamber about the temple, which is not surprising given the recent history of Assos.

The excavation from 1881 to 1883 was the first dig by the Archaeological Institute of America. That it succeeded at all was due largely to the efforts of Francis Bacon, a gifted young architect who was the expedition's second in command. Bacon and the project's leader, Joseph Clarke, had scouted the site in 1879 and believed it would yield information about ancient city planning. The excavation team, a group of college students, had no prior field experience. And the Institute seems not to have understood the scale of the work it was undertaking or made any provision for the proper study and publication of the material its team was digging up. Hundreds of objects--from Athena temple reliefs to a human jaw bone--were shipped back to the Institute in Boston, where they were deposited in the Museum of Fine Arts, which catalogued them and curates them to this day. The five-volume series Investigations at Assos, with Bacon's exquisite reconstruction drawings of the site's ancient monuments, was the result only of his own labor and funding.

Bacon's accounts make clear that the expedition dug far too quickly. "We began excavating a few days ago at the Street of Tombs and have about 10 men at work," he wrote in his 1882 journal. "We have already made quite a hole...and I'm going to run a prospecting trench clear up the hill and hope to strike some unopened sarcophagi! The men work very industriously." Another entry from that season: "I have been digging for the past three weeks at the Street of Tombs, sinking pits and cutting trenches all over it." One can't hold Bacon to today's standards; for his time the work was adequate, even though enthusiasm clearly trumped caution. But the site suffered at the hands of the AIA expedition, and not just from the rapidity of the work. For example, Bacon repeatedly decried people taking stones from the ruins: "It makes one's blood boil to think how this grand old city has been devastated within the last 50 years! The Turkish government has been carting away cut stones, and every little village in the neighborhood comes here for building material" and "As fast as we uncover a wall of dressed stone the Turks are apt to demolish it! The gypsy smiths steal all the iron clamps as fast as we expose them, and next year a new magazine [storeroom] will be built here at the port all of ancient blocks. In 10 years it won't be much use coming here to see Greek ruins; better go to Athens!" But his own accounts also tell how the Americans demolished later, medieval walls to extract ancient carvings: "We worked nearly two hours trying to get off an enormous block that [was] laid on top.... At last, just as the sun sank, it moved, and a little well-directed prying soon tumbled it over the edge and it went crashing and smoking down the side of the Acropolis." And when the Americans left, the tombs and walls unearthed by them remained untended and exposed to the elements.

In 1981, a century after the Americans departed, a Turkish team under Ümit Serdaroglu resumed work at Assos. Serdaroglu conducted some excavations, finding several temple reliefs, which are now on display at the regional archaeology museum in Çanakkale. But he is, for better or worse, known more for his reconstruction efforts at the theater, which he had rebuilt extensively, and the Athena temple, where he had several columns re-erected.

The ancient builders at Assos used andesite, a locally available fine-grained igneous rock that is extremely durable. But Serdaroglu replaced missing ancient stones with concrete ones. Anyone who visits the site can see clearly that the concrete is eroding quickly and shows more wear after two decades than the ancient temple blocks do after more than 2,500 years. There are other problems. For example, it is possible that some original theater seats assumed to be missing were in fact entombed by their modern replacements. In the case of the temple, the columns re-erected by Serdaroglu are fundamentally flawed because all of the column drums (the individual segments) were cast at the same size and shape. But in Greek architecture, columns swelled in the middle and tapered toward the top, so no two column drums were the same. In short, the reconstructions are a mess.

Visitors to Assos today see monuments that are as much testaments to hasty excavation, long neglect, and bad reconstruction practices as to the site's ancient past. But now, the site is under the watchful eye of Nurettin Arslan, who has been director of the Assos excavations since 2005. We meet Arslan--approaching 50, with hair graying at the temples, in a green field jacket--at the west gate. We talk at length about the site and his plans for it, sitting at the chamber tomb of Publius Varius, where Bacon ate his lunches during the 1880s campaigns, and walking along the Street of Tombs. Arslan explains, quietly but intently, that there will be new excavations, but they will be limited in scale and have focused goals, such as filling out the chronological framework of the site. There will be none of the over-exuberant digging as in the 1880s.

Also off the menu are reconstructions in the manner of Serdaroglu's. Since my visit, Arslan has received a site-preservation grant from the AIA to correct the temple restoration. The columns will be dismantled, the eroding concrete drums replaced with new ones carved from andesite by local stoneworkers. A corner of the temple will be re-erected, incorporating original architectural elements now scattered around it.

The acropolis and areas exposed by the American diggers are only part of the site. We continue our walk on the east side of Assos, away from the gymnasium, agora, and theater. It seems virtually unexplored: ancient tombs half-hidden by weeds line the road from the city's east gate; fortification walls loom above crowded, scrubby trees; ancient paved streets appear and disappear in the undergrowth. A careful mapping of the whole site is another of Arslan's priorities.

We stop at a restaurant in Behramkale for tea, and the locals greet Arslan deferentially. I find myself musing about the site and its future. How could a place, with such impressive remains, vast unexplored areas, and a remarkable setting be so little known? How, after more than a century and with two archaeological expeditions, could we still not know the extent of the city or have its chronology nailed down? Maybe this time the right person is directing things here, I think. Maybe this ancient metropolis will finally receive the attention and care it deserves.

Originally posted in Archaeology

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