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The Archaeological site of Assos is located in the south-western part of the Biga Peninsula (Troad), within the borders of the Village of Behramkale, 17 kilometers south of the district of Ayvacık in the province of Çanakkale. The ancient city lies on a steep hill, rising 235 m above sea level, and commands panoramic vistas northward over the fertile valley of the River Tuzla (ancient Satnioeis), westward along the southern coastline of the Troad and the Aegean Sea, eastward up the Gulf of Adramyttion and Mount Ida, and southward across the straits of Mytilene to the island of Lesbos.
Assos was first settled during the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age cities Assuwa, mentioned in the Hittite texts, and Pedasos, mentioned in the Homer’s Iliad, are both set to be equal to Assos. According to antique sources, Methymnians from the island of Lesbos founded the Greek city of Assos in the 7th century BC. In 6th century BC, Assos was among the western Greek states which became subject to Lydia. After the destruction of the Lydian Kingdom by the Persian King Cyrus II, it was incorporated into the Persian Empire. In 5th century BC, it became a member of the Athenian Confederacy, but presumably reverted to Persian control in early 4th century BC.
Assos reached its peak of fame in the 4th century BC. In 365 BC, under the rule of banker Eubolos, it was subjected to a land and sea investment by the combined forces of the Persian commander Autophradates and the Carian satrap Mausolus, but successfully withstood the besieging forces. In 350 BC, Assos came under the control of a eunuch called Hermias, who was a former slave of Eubolos and a former student in Plato's Academy. Hermias invited a number of philosophers and natural scientists, including his former fellow students Aristotle and Xenocrates to establish a philosophical school at Assos. Aristotle, who subsequently married Hermias' niece Pythia, spent 3 years in the city following Plato’s death in 347 BC. In 345 BC, Assos came once more under Persian control, where it remained until its liberation by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. After Alexander’s death, the City was subject to Seleucid rule, and subsequently became part of the kingdom of Pergamum, before passing finally to Roman control in 133 BC.
Assos, which was visited by St. Paul, the apostle in 56/7 AD, was one of the first western Anatolian cities that converted to Christianity and listed as an episcopacy in the lists from the 5th to the 14th century AD. During the Byzantine times, Assos was still an important provincial city for regional and interregional trade. In Byzantine period the city was called Machram and it is believed that the modern name of the place, Behram, was derived from Machram. The Turks conquered the city at the beginning of the 14th century. The harbour never lost its function until the 18th century, when it was an important port of trade for the cortices of Valonea oaks (Quercus macrolepis).
The location of the settlement of Assos is unique with its interplay of use of the natural environment, combined with embedding of the architecture. The most remarkable “landmark” from Assos is the sheer rock walled acropolis at the highest point of the city. On the east side of the acropolis the temple of Athena is situated, where it could easily be seen when one approaches the city from the sea. The temple, which has a peripteros plan with 6x13 columns, was built out of andesite blocks carved out of the rocks of the acropolis. Elevated and isolated on the top of the acropolis, visible from far out to sea and commanding panoramic views, the position of the Temple of Athena is as breath-taking today as it must have been in antiquity. The temple of Athena is the only known example in Doric order in Archaic Anatolia, but it is also single with its combination of Doric order with Ionic frieze and other unusual architectural decorations. Today, the decorative architectural remains of the temple are stored in the collections of the museums in Paris (France), Boston (USA), Istanbul and Çanakkale (Turkey).
The ancient city on the terraces below is still surrounded by a well-conserved fortification wall with a preserved height of 12 m, which is 3100 m long and supported by 8 towers. The main gates were linked with roads coming from the east and the west. In Assos, the southern slopes, from where the Aegean Sea and Lesbos can best be seen, were reserved for the public area. Due to the fact that the ancient city was never been overbuilt in Ottoman and modern times and there was no large-scaled excavations before, the city centre is one of the best example of an early Hellenistic building programme, with changings and additions in late Hellenistic and Roman Imperial times. The flat area required for the agora was constructed through cutting the conglomerate rock on the north side and building a very high terrace wall on the south side. In Roman times a small Doric order temple with a prostylos plan was built on the south of the monumental entrance at the west of the agora. The agora had two stoai, one of which was on the north and the other was on the south, having two and four storeys respectively. The lower storeys of the southern stoa were used as a cistern and storage, the fourth floor opened out onto the agora. The agora ended with the square-planned Bouleuterion, founded at end of the 4th century BC, therefore one of the eldest bouleuteria in Asia Minor. A large scaled, old fashioned gymnasion was located on the same terrace between agora and the western gate. The building with preserved storeys and cistern was never been excavated. After an inscription found in the gymnasion, it was repaired during the Augustan period. In the early Byzantine times,Christian community built a church with mosaic floors using the northern porticus.
The theatre, which was located on the south of the agora on a slope overlooking the Aegean Sea, was built on a stepped terrace formed by cutting the surrounding conglomerate rock. The building, which is dated to the end of the 4rd century BC, is a typical Hellenic theatre with a horseshoe-shaped plan. The results of new research in Assos provide evidence for the formation of a confident Polis in the decades after the end of the Persian rule by Alexander the Great and his victory at Granicus in 334 BC. The early Hellenistic Period started with the establishment of the first urban large structures for the polis institutions. For the first time it can be shown that these earliest Polis buildings were applied parallel or perpendicular to each other, so the new city center was a unique programming based on their building lines, however, rotated with respect to the orientations of the older late classical house terraces. In this period the cityscape of Assos got a uniform appearance which is still visible.
Both sides of the roads linked to the main gates in the west and east of Assos were used as necropolis areas. The earliest graves here are dated to the mid-7th century BC. In the Hellenistic and Roman times, Assos was famous for its sarcophagus productions, which were sold around the Mediterranean world. Pliny the Elder descripts the “lapis sarcophagus” from Assos as “It is well known that the bodies of the dead placed in it will be completely consumed after forty days, except for the teeth”. In the western necropolis also lies one of the seldom well-preserved examples of a middle Byzantine grave church in Asia Minor, build on a 5th/6th century baptismal church. In late Byzantine times the acropolis was fortified and used as a castron for protecting Byzantine refugees from the Skamandros valley from the attacks of the Turks.
Murat Hüdavendigar Mosque on the northern edge of the acropolis and a still standing bridge over the Satnioeis River was built after the Ottoman conquest in the early 14th century. The picturesqueTurkish village Behramkale lies along the slope area between the mosque and the river.
Assos, a significant polis in the Archaic Period, has maintained its important role in the region until the Byzantine times. Built of andesite, most of the structures at Assos preserved their historical features of the time they were constructed. In this respect, it is an ideal site for investigating the progress of Greek art from Orientalism to its Hellenic grandeur. Since it reflects all the main features of a Greek polis, Assos was chosen as the very first excavation site of the American Archaeological Institute in 1881.
The first cities of Greek civilization were built on high hills called Acropolis, where the administrators sit. The towns are surrounded by thick and high walls. In antiquity its hilltop location had made Assos an easily defensible port city, and by the sixth century B.C. it thrived as one of the chief emporiums of the ancient Greek world. The great elevation that gave Assos its strategic importance also made it breath-taking to behold. The city has a very well preserved fortification dating from the 6th through 3rd centuries BC, a 235 m high acropolis with the famous Athena temple, one of the best preserved and well investigated necropolis of Asia Minor with a continuous usage from about 1000 years outside the city walls. The establishment of a philosophy school by students of Plato, who also briefly ruled the city and the Temple of Athena, the only example of a Doric temple in Archaic Anatolia, the unique cityscape, its topography, layout and preservation make this Greek city unique among its counterparts.
Criterion (iii): Being one of the best-preserved Greek cities of Asia Minor with its all major religious and public buildings, Assos bears an exceptional testimony to the historical development of a Greek polis in Asia Minor. The city clings to the apex and precipitous slopes of an andesite volcanic plug rising from the Gulf of Edremit in the southern Troad. Its steep heights were legendary in antiquity, and it is possible that the place and its encircling urban plan had some effect on its one-time resident, Aristotle’s, notion of the ideal city. The combination of city and place drew the attention of early antiquarians, e. g. W. M. Lake (1800) described Assos as »the most perfect idea of a Greek city that anywhere exists.« The site has not lost its premier place over the intervening centuries. In fact Assos has an impressive physiognomy, which reigned over the city all the ages. From the lowest settlement terrace above the ancient harbor to the Acropolis plateau the relief of the landscape increases with 170 meters to a total height of 235 meters above the sea. Actually exists on the Asia Minor west coast, no further city whose topographic conditions for a representative vertical city scape were so well. Structures such as the temple of Athena on the acropolis, gymnasium, bouleuterion, agora with stoa buildings, palestra and theatre are well preserved. Thus, Assos is one of the few ancient cities where one can have a clear idea of a spatial layout of a Greek polis.
Criterion (iv): The oldest Doric temple of Asia Minor, Temple of Athena at Assos, ca. 540/30 BC, is located on the top of the acropolis - unexpected in a region dominated by the Ionic order. Being an archaic example in the Doric order, the temple is an important structure in terms of architectural history. Despite its splendid position and local venerability, the Temple of Athena – to modern eyes – is anything but the most perfect idea of a Greek temple. The two features that set this temple apart are well known: it is the lone archaic Doric temple in Asia Minor, and it bears sculpture not only in the metopes but also across the epistyle. The first is seen as a curiosity, and the second as an unconscionable violation of Greek tectonic principles. The temple of Athena at Assos stands witness to the wide range of options that stood open to archaic temple builders as they shaped monumental stone sacred architecture. Because the building is well preserved and idiosyncratic, we can trace their actions with some specificity. The epistyle and metopes of the Temple of Athena were sculpted with reliefs of sphinxes, lions, boars, and centaurs that represented the earliest stages of the Doric order. Parts of these animals displayed “fine mastery,” while others were marred by “Oriental stiffness.” As such, the sculptures could be considered ”the most important link in the chain connecting the carving of the early civilizations of the East and the unequalled sculptures of Greece," showing ”the path followed by the early Greek artists in the progress toward supreme excellence."
Criterion (vi): In ca. 350 BC, Hermias invited the former fellow students from Plato's Academy, namely Aristotle, Xenocrates, Callisthenes, and Theophrastus, to join him in founding a philosophical school at Assos. Due to the presence of these great philosophers, the city became the most important center of the Platonic doctrine in Asia Minor for a short period. Aristotle had a strong interest in anatomy and the structure of living things in general, an interest which helped him to develop a remarkable talent for observation. Aristotle and the members of his group carried out observations in Assos, particularly in zoology and biology. Aristotle probably began his work “Politics” in Assos as well as “On Kingship” which is now lost. He began to develop a philosophy different from that of Plato who had said “kings should become philosophers or philosophers should become kings”.
Assos Archaeological Site is under protection by the Law on the Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property since it was registered as a 1st degree archaeological site with the decision of the Superior Council of Immovable Antiquities and Monuments in 1982. The geographical extent of the ancient city of Assos partially overlaps with the historical village of Behramkale, which is also under protection through the same act. Those areas, including the Ottoman remains and the houses of the Behramkale village are registered as Historical Urban Site. The conservation plan of the site is under preparation. These regulations have prevented the ancient and historical remains from being damaged by the modern building activities. Thus, the authenticity and integrity of the site have largely been protected until today.
Following a brief investigation of the site by C. Texier in 1835, the first archaeological excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Institute of America at Assos from 1881 to 1883. After a gap of almost a century, excavations restarted at Assos in 1981 by Turkish archaeologists. The protection, promotion and restoration of the ancient city and the historic city are all undertaken by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Governorship of Çanakkale and the local administration of the Behramkale village. The excavated monuments are part of the conservation program and are constantly monitored and maintained. The restoration works inside the ancient city walls carried out according to Charter of Venice and local andesite is used in the process. Some of the previous restorations made out of concrete in the Temple of Athena were replaced with andesite pieces between 2009 and 2011.
Since the remains of ancient Assos co-exist with the buildings of the modern town, local municipality has been working on a site management plan for protective purposes. A small gendarmerie outpost provides the security of both the historical site of Behramkale and the archaeological site of Assos.The excavation team tries to raise awareness of the citizens of the modern town about the cultural heritage who earn livelihood to a large extent from tourism. In this regard, new projects to educate the public about the production of local products and souvenirs are planned. Besides, since tourism is an important source of income for the people living in Behramkale, they pay special attention to the protection of the ancient and historic building remains. Due to the fact that the ancient site of Assos and the village of Behramkale are lying in an extraordinary landscape with its scare dark brown andesite rocks, the sea flanking with the island of Lesbos in front and the river Satnioeis in its hilly surroundings the attendance of tourists increased steadily in recent years.
For exploring the historical process of urbanization in ancient Greek cities, Assos offers a particular advantage because it has substantially retained its Greek urban profile during the Roman and early Byzantine periods. Assos is among the first Greek cities established in Anatolia along with Ephesus, Miletus, Priene, and Pergamon. Some of the major ancient Greek cities such as Miletus and Priene have been under excavation for almost a century. Nevertheless, such ancient Greek cities lost most of their Greek elements because of the re-use of these cities with heavy re-building activities in the Roman and Early Byzantine periods. Unlike these cities, Assos has remains from the Archaic period such as the necropolis and streets.
Well known temples dedicated to Athena in the western Anatolia are Pergamon Athena Temple (3rd century BC), Priene Athena Temple (4th century BC), Miletos Athena Temple (first half of the 5th century BC) and Assos Athena Temple (ca. 530 BC). The Temple of Athena at Assos is the oldest among these temples and also the only known archaic Doric temple in Asia Minor. Along with the Parthenon in Athens and the temple of Concordia in Sicily, the Temple of Athena in Assos is one of the most authentic examples of Doric order. It has Doric columns and triglyphs, but also has sculpted friezes. Holding Ionic and Doric features at the same time the temple of Athena in Assos thus resides a unique place in the history of ancient Greek Architecture, it is eclectic and innovative in a time when architectural orders were conservatively followed.
According to the latest studies, Assos has late fourth-early third century BC buildings such as the bouleuterion and the theatre, which are hardly seen in this period at other Greek cities. Thus, it is necessary to re-evaluate the development and chronological aspects of public architecture in ancient Greek cities and in this context, Assos can be taken as a reference point.