Miletus was a city primarily of nature, but also of writers, sculptors, town planners, historians and sages.
Civilization means water... An essential, if perhaps not often repeated, definition. So many places on earth bear witness to it, and Anatolia is one of them. The creators of the great civilizations have always been those who founded cities next to rivers, lakes and seas. And even if we overlook their temples rising to the sky, their majestic theatres, and their monumental avenues and sculptures, their sages still haunt us even today...
CITY OF SAGES
Some 2100 years ago today, Strabo, writer of the ‘Geography’, enumerates the sages of Miletus: “Among them were also Thales, one of the seven sages of the world, who originated mathematics and natural philosophy among the Greeks, and his student, Anaximandros, and Hecataios of the ‘Historia’, and Aiskhines, an orator who lived in my own time and was exiled for speaking out too freely in the presence of Pompey the Great.”
Thales, who is also mentioned in the book, ‘In the waters of the Greater Meander: Priene, Miletus, Didyma’, is a learned man who predicted the solar eclipse of 5 May 585 B.C. exactly one year in advance. This scientific calculation later influenced Arabs, Iranians and Turks in the Islamic world. Meanwhile, its effects in Europe were observed in the Renaissance and laid the foundation for science in the 19th century. Hippodamos of Miletus must also be added to the list. This great town planner implemented his grid system of intersecting streets not only in Miletus and Priene but also in Greece and Italy. The system was later repeated in Alexandria, Macedonia and on the island of Rhodes. Its purpose: to take continuous advantage of light and breezes. To prevent cramped houses that obstruct each other’s sun and wind. Nor did it apply only to houses and streets; even today in the dog-days of August the corridors and enclosed staircases of Miletus’ theatre provide relief from nature’s sweltering heat.
TRACES OF IONIAN ART
You may be distracted by details as you tour Miletus and its environs with the heart of a traveller: a marble figure, spirals, grooved columns with Ionian capitals, statues of Eros, lion’s heads, stylized flowers and an endless plain... Perhaps the story of Pericles’ beloved Aspasia, a girl from Miletus, will transport you to the clouds. Aspasia was a favorite with the learned men. Socrates, Euripides and Anaxagoras were regular guests at the house of this girl, whose knowledge complemented her beauty. If necessary, she could even give orders in the heat of battle. But no small number of people branded her a ‘prostitute’. Such details are unimportant; but Miletus is the port city of a great sea, a land where a civilization was created that would influence societies even thousands of years later. To loll around empty-headed in the shadow of its 15,000-person theatre would perhaps for this reason not become an Ionian! And for similar reasons we need to understand the mystery behind the theatre, the Stoa along the ceremonial way, the Harbour Monument, the Agora, the Gymnasium,
the Temple of Serapis, the Stadium and the public baths, adorned with statues. This mystery is none other than Ionian thought and art, which was created on the lands of Anatolia and in the waters of the Greater Meander, today’s Söke Plain. The Greater Meander River, which has its origin deep in Anatolia on the slopes of Mt Murat near the city of Usak and flows 584 kilometres on its great journey to the Aegean’s salt waters, is at the same time the source of a great legend. The ‘river god’ Maeandros of ancient lore was one of the offspring of Oceanus and Tethys. Every piece of land through which his river flowed became a source of plenty. And Söke Plain today is an important area of cotton production. Owing to its sinuous flow, ‘Maeandros’ is now a symbol in art as well. An indispensable model for artists who give shape to marble, it took the name Meander and had an impact on our own age as well.
THE RIVER GOD ON TRIAL
Every fact and every legend here is like a dream. If it were not, would the people of Miletus have taken their river god Maeandros to court?
Yes, according to legend, the river god they worshipped took the mud that followed him, the soil that he nourished in his breast on his great journey through the Anatolian lands, and turned it into silt which he deposited in the salt water, transforming the Bay of Latmos (today’s Bafa) into a lake and the surrounding area, the island of Lale where a great naval battle with the Persians was fought in 494 B.C., into a tiny chunk of the mainland. The people of Miletus, whose lands thus became a field of silt, appealed to the temple to take the god to court. And they won their case! How?
Well, man is a strange beast... First he creates a god. He builds temples to his god. He makes donations—gold, silver, whatever he has... He takes refuge in its priests. And when he is angry, he goes to court. What could the priests do? In order not to lose the people’s donations, they sued the gods and reimbursed those whose fields had been destroyed. And who would collect the donations after that? What one hand giveth the other taketh away...
No city devoted to art and culture is an ordinary city.
But Miletus, capital of the ‘Ionian League’, has a special place, like many cities of Anatolia. All of them are cities of nature. Cities of writers, sculptors, town planners, historians and sages... founders of political solidarity, of the league known as ‘Panionia’. Cities that symbolize the Ionian way of thinking to which Panionia gave rise. A maritime people who established colonies not only on the Aegean and the Mediterranean but on the Marmara and the Black Sea as well. Its story is long, but for us Miletus is not just a city of temples and monuments and those who take refuge in their shade, but a city that has left great marks in science and in art. If it were not, would the Anatolian principality of the Menteseogullari have erected the Mosque of Ilyas Bey, who had great respect for nature and art, in plain view of the ancient theatre? To us, this monument is no different from the Ionic Stoa... shades of Ionian art thousands of years later... Best of all however is to tour Miletus in spring. To follow the trail of the sunflowers. To ponder the Ionians as we survey the poppies that cover the plain.
TEXT: GÜROL SÖZEN
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Ionia’s great port city Miletus
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