Archaeological Site of Priene

Date of Submission: 02/05/2018
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Turkey to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
City of Aydin, Söke Town, Güllübahçe Village, Turunçlar District
Coordinates: N37 39 31.65 E27 17 51.34
Ref.: 6348

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The Archaeological Site of Priene is located within the borders of the modern Village Güllübahçe, 15 kilometers southwest of the town of Söke in the province of Aydın, in southwestern Turkey. It is about 500 m north of the Menderes (Maeander) River, 15 km inland from the Aegean Sea and on the south slopes of Mycale (Mount Samsun).

 According to Pausanias (7,2,10), Priene was originally a Carian town on the Milesian-Latmian Gulf, which was seized by the Ionians and Thebans, probably before the 7th cent. BC. It was a member of the Ionian League, whose communal shrine (Panionium) was on the site of an earlier sanctuary and lay in Priene’s territory, as did the port town of Naulochus. In the 6th cent. BC, Priene was the home of Bias, one of the Seven Sages. During Bias’ lifetime, Priene came under the domination of the Lydians, who were replaced by the Persians in 546 BC. Priene took part in the Ionian revolt (499/494 BC) and was a member of the Delian League for parts of the 5th cent. The location of the town in archaic and classical times is unknown (possibly near present-day Söke). As a result of the continual silting up of the Gulf through the river Maeander, Priene was rebuilt in the middle of the 4th cent. BC to the west of present-day Güllübahçe, below the Teloneia (c. 370 m high) on the muddy, southern slope of the Mycale promontory. Since then, the chṓra (territory' of Priene covered the eastern section of the Mycale as well as the plains to the south and north of the range. Alexander the Great granted autonomy to the democratic polis, which later came under the changing sovereignty of the Hellenistic kings. In 283/2 BC, Lysimachus settled the dispute with Samos over the ownership of land. The chṓra of Priene, though not Priene itself, was devastated by the Celts in 277 BC. Around 155 BC, Ariarathes V (Cappadocia) and Attalus II threatened Priene because the inhabitants did not want give back the   400 talents, which Orophernes of Cappadocia had entrusted to them.

After 129 BC, Priene, nominally free, was part of the Roman Province of Asia, but, unlike Miletus, had not shared in the general upturn in the middle of the Imperial period. There is evidence that bishops were present in Priene from the 5th cent. AD until AD 1270. A little later, Priene, which was last called Samson, came under the control of the Turks, who abandoned the original area of the town.

Town layout: An important aspect of the development and perception of the city is its location on the Maeander delta – the second-best known river of antiquity after the Nile, rich in mythology. The successive silting-up of the delta was probably the cause of the city "moving" to its current location in 350 BC, thus giving it the opportunity to build the city complex that was so modern in its time.

In the 4th cent. BC, the town which is situated on a steep hillside had a rectangular (Hippodamic) plan, laid out according to the main points of the compass. Each insula (block of buildings) of the residential district was originally probably divided up into eight oblong plots of land for houses with courtyards. In Priene these houses typically consisted of a group of four main rooms facing northwards: a prostas (hall), andron (room set aside for men to entertain visitors), oikos (main salon/dining room) and a room adjoining the oikos (House II B). Areas were left vacant in the town centre for the Agora and the most important shrines. Springs to the northeast above the town supplied Priene with water by means of clay pipelines and street canalisation disposed of the sewage.

Construction history: Marble was available on the eastern slope of the Teloneia rock which was   itself the site of the largest quarry. Construction began with the building of the town wall with its West, East and South-East Gates. The Teloneia, which is connected to the residential area by a steep flight   of rock steps, was fortified too. In the 4th century, the residential quarter was laid out, as were the terraces of the sanctuaries of Athena Polias and of Demeter Kore. Work commenced on the famous temple of Athena which was built by Pytheus in the Ionic order ; a naos and a devotional image, a copy of the Athena Parthenos, were completed before 323 BC (dedicatory inscription of Alexander the Great), while building work on the peristasis continued over centuries.

The extension of the agora began in the 3rd cent. BC at the latest: initially with rows of small rooms, including those of the Street Stoa towards the east, then with column façades in front of the rooms; these latter were completed on the west stoa. In addition to these, the north stoa of the Asclepius sanctuary, the stone version of the earlier theatre, the sanctuary of the Egyptian gods and possibly the upper gymnasium were built and, in the decades around 200 BC, the Bouleuterion and the altar of Athena in place of an earlier building. In the 2nd cent., the older Prytaneion and the 'sacred stoa',   which was financed by the son of a Cappadocian king before c. 130 BC, followed in the area of the agora in place of an earlier north stoa. Likewise, the remaining positions for the columns on the east and street stoai as well as the market gate were built in the 2nd half of the 2nd cent. At the same time, the south stoa of the Athena sanctuary, including the imposing terraced wall beneath it, the lower gymnasium, the subsequent stadium stoa and finally the Asclepius temple were built. Around 140/130 BC, a fire destroyed the western half of the town, which was only partly rebuilt, so that much household equipment, including terracotta figures and a wealth of coins, were preserved. The first peristyle houses (House II B 4) originated probably in the Hellenistic period. The antae in the annexe north-east of the sanctuary of Athena are also Hellenistic; they are probably to be identified with the shrine of Zeus. Probably still in the 1st cent. BC, baths were built in the northern district of the upper gymnasium; in the Augustan period, a monumental tomb was put up on the pathway to the eastern theatre parados (gangway on which chorus and actors made their entrance).

In early Imperial period, the Athena sanctuary acquired a monumental propylaeum, its temple was completed and it, like the altar, was additionally dedicated to Augustus. Later the Prytaneion on the old square was renovated. No more major building activity took place again until late antiquity: a synagogue, a Christian basilica with a nave and two aisles, possibly with an adjoining bishop’s palace, several chapels, a fort to the east of the agora as well as repairs to the town wall and fortifications in the north of the Teloneia, continuing into the 13th century.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Priene includes all the qualities that make up a classical Hellenistic “polis” and puts these together with a remarkable order and around a Hippodamos plan. Even though the city itself is quite small and probably never had more than 5,000 inhabitants during its greatest time of flourishing various circumstances and the extent of its territory always placed it in the center both of cultural exchange   and of political/military confrontation between Greece and the Near East.

There are a lot of monumental buildings in the ancient city center, which were built by famous architects and were placed on a well-planned city plan. For example, the Athena Temple was built by Pytheos, who is one of the famous architects in the ancient world. As another remarkable example for the monumental architecture of the city, the theater of Priene can be mentioned, which is a typical example for the Hellenistic period and has been very well-preserved until now. Besides official monumental buildings like temples, the theatre, the agora etc. in the ancient city’s downtown, it also presents most beautiful examples of domestic architecture for the Hellenistic period.

Priene has played an important role in terms of socio-political history in the ancient Ionian region. The polis of Priene was the guardian of the Ionian Federation's central cult; this was a federation of twelve Greek cities in western Asia Minor and Samos, which joined together both out of a feeling of common cultural identity and to fight for freedom against foreign occupation (especially by the Persian high kings). The Panionion, the sanctuary of one of the most important religious-political unions in the ancient world and situated in the territorium of Priene, was administered by priests from Priene. The city was also a cultural center – like its neighbor city Miletos. It was the hometown of the philosopher Bias, one of Greece’s Seven Sages and a mentor of the Ionian Federation. Rational philosophical tradition, which Bias founded in Priene, made it, despite its size, a spiritual-intellectual center of the Greek world in the following centuries.

As small as the city was, highly important people paid special attention to it – along with Bias, others included Alexander the Great, Hellenistic kings and the first Roman emperor Augustus – and made large donations (as witnessed by preserved inscriptions) towards buildings including the temple to Athena, which was famous in Roman times already. Due to Priene's unusual reputation in ancient textual sources field archeology began to search for it in its earliest phases already, since the 17th century. The documentation of building parts of the Athena temple, as transmitted by Vitruvius, was one of the early projects of the English Society of Dilettanti.

Criterion (ii): Representing the most well-preserved city-planning example from antiquity until now, Priene is quite important in terms of understanding the development of city-planning in Asia Minor and as a model for modern city planning. Priene had a democratic constitution modelled on that of Athens (Asboek 1912); its city plan and public structures reflect this form of government, which was extremely progressive for its time, more strongly than any other city.

The geographical location at the Maeander delta, where the river used to flow into the Mediterranean, had always made Priene to a cultural hub between Anatolia’s western coast, which was influenced by Greece, and the hinterland under Persian rule up to the sources of the Maeander (von Kienlin 2011). Some modern scientists even go so far as to maintain that Priene with its city grid system – built on a basically hostile stretch of land under Persian rule – was planned as a constructed symbol of Greek superiority over the representatives of Achaemenid culture. It was to be a reminder of and testimony to the greatest conflicts of Greek antiquity between two nations, the so-called Persian Wars, which personally motivated the father of Alexander the Great and later Alexander the Great.

Already shortly after being excavated and published by the German archeologists Humann, Wiegand and Schrader the city was acknowledged as the Greek “ideal city”; it was understood as the architectural reflection of a democratic, highly cultivated middle-class city, among other things. As such it was even used as a direct model for mid-20th-century urban planning theory for urban planning projects (von Kienlin – Gisbertz 2015). Its city plan can be found in every textbook on the history of urban planning, from Europe through the entire American continent to East Asia. In the same way, Priene is the standard example for ancient urbanistics and the so-called Hippodamian Plan in every basic work on classical archeology worldwide, since the city embodies most clearly and understandably the probably most significant step of development towards regular and systematic formation of streets, squares and housing quarters. In this system, each element has its fixed value and its defined form, which give it clear boundaries to other systems (Mania 2014).

Criterion (iii): As one of the best-preserved examples of residental construction from the Late Classical and Hellenistic period, the houses of Priene are a unique ensemble of settlement history and present significant information about the lifestyles of the inhabitants. The principle of Isonomia – equality of all citizens – is shown in Priene in the row house-like houses, which were all similar, from the founding phase (Hoepfner - Schwandner 1986). Every citizen received by lottery a plot of land of exactly the same size, on which essentially the same houses were built.

Priene's extensively excavated residential homes earned Priene the honorary title of "Pompeii of Asia Minor" in the early 20th century already. The high degree of late Classical and Hellenistic houses, but especially the minimal reshaping during the Roman period present us with a clear picture of private life in a Greek city. The individual houses as an impressive testimony to an isonomia (principle of equality) or a democratic society, give deep impressions of social developments of citizenship in a Greek polis.

Criterion (iv): The stringent city grid work, together with architecturally outstanding individual structures that perfectly fit into the plan makes Priene an exceptional architectural ensemble of the Hellenistic Period. In modern perception, the city is always mentioned in the same sentence with Athens, Rome and Pompeii.

The strict contrast of the geometrically regulated city plan to the actual situation in landscape is especially noticeable. The terrain slopes downwards on three sides and upwards on the fourth side – Priene is one of the steepest ancient sites. But in Priene nature did not determine the plan or the layout of the streets and squares. The builders of Priene successfully experimented with the idea of allowing human, democratic intellect to conquer nature: in this adverse terrain, they constructed something along the lines of Aristotle's perfect beauty. According to Aristotle (Aristotle, mech. 847a.b) the techne that is necessary to artificially reshape the landscape stands against nature and, moreover, it helps people emancipate themselves from nature (Fehr 1980; Filges 2012). 

The design of the city layout makes brilliant use of the conditions of the difficult topography, but makes no compromises with regard to clarity and usefulness of the built-up areas: Unlike earlier Greek cities, which more or less "grew", the strictly orthogonal street plan does not follow the natural topography but uses every opportunity of developing the slope: Rock-cutting, terracing and landfill. Yet the planning is so detailed that in all – compared, for example, to Roman urban planning – the natural topography was altered only minimally. For example, the Agora makes use of an extended natural plateau; the Athena sanctuary was built on a rocky ridge in the city as a small acropolis; the theater was skillfully embedded in the already existing slope. All structures and areas, even the later lower gymnasion, still blend into the city grid. Rubble from grading measures was immediately re-used for the houses. Thus, Priene is also an outstanding example of intelligent and sustained use of natural resources in (Greek) antiquity.

Priene is equally of outstanding significance for its city plan and for the individual buildings. The temple to Athena, which has been sought for and studied since the 17th century because of its literary fame among ancient writers (especially Vitruvius), may easily be called one of the major buildings of antiquity. Its architect, Pytheos, was also the builder of the Maussolleion of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Athena Temple is his second famous building and he himself wrote a book about it. From then on it was considered to be the classic Ionian temple; in fundamental texts on ancient architecture it is always compared directly with the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens and the urban Roman pantheon. It was this Prienian building whose construction was financially supported by Alexander the Great at the beginning and by the first Roman emperor Augustus at its completion. This shows – probably more than modern investigations of its proportions– the building's significance already while it was being built (Koenigs 2015).

The Agora of Priene is epitomized for “democratic” urban architecture of the Classical period, as is the whole city plan itself. All the buildings of a democratic city administration can be found there practically as archetypes, even more clearly than in Athens. But even the square itself, which is framed by columned halls, makes it easy for a visitor to envision everyday life in an ancient city. Hundreds of inscriptions have transmitted to us a fascinatingly in-depth and lively picture of Priene's social structure, of the citizens themselves and of the mechanisms of individual care and responsibility for the city (something like the leiturgia = financial support for the city in the form of filling an office, sacrifices or donating a building). In this case as well no other ancient city has left as much information. 

The bouleuterion is located on the northeastern edge of the Agora and it housed the central democratic organ of the polis. The building is the best preserved of its kind and since it’s especially since its reconstruction in perspective by Krischen (1921) it is also the best known. In modern perception it stands for the Greek city hall just as the temple to Athena stands for the Ionian temple.

Until today the building inspires even working architects to their own designs, like the anatomy lecture hall of the University of Mannheim (architect J. Misiakiewicz) shows. The special urban planning concept – be it the founding period or later in the 2nd century BC – was the creation of a building ensemble in which all political structures and institutions of a democratically constituted city were concentrated in the heart of the city 200 years after its founding (von Kienlin 2004; Filges 2012, 2013).

Since its excavation the theater of Priene is considered to be the standard example of a Hellenistic theater. Most Greek theaters were reshaped fundamentally in the Roman period, but in Priene the changes were comparatively small. Thus the building today still reflects early Greek theater or its typically building structure like no other. 

The lower gymnasion of Priene, like the Theater, stands out from the large group of similar "multifunctional complexes" in other cities since the Hellenistic shape has been preserved for the most part without changes. The complex, an extensive Peristyle structure with a central Ephebeum, well- preserved washroom, many side rooms and an attached stadium with a well-preserved starting structure for the runners and seats hewn out of the rocky slope to the north shows all the elements of a Greek gymnasion in archetypal form. Its rich collection of topos inscriptions – student "signatures" chiseled into the walls of the Ephebeum (with teachers' tolerance) – form a unique collection of students' names across many generations. Many later dignitaries of the city may have left their mark there.

The well-preserved city wall of Priene and the municipal water system, which has been researched well for some years, are mentioned in all scientific and popular general texts on these topics. Both are high-level witnesses of the history of technology in antiquity (building, fortification and water system technology) (Fahlbusch 2003, 2006; Ruppe 2007, 2010, 2015). The so-called Archelaos relief (today in British Museum) is an example of the high status of the musical arts in Priene: its delicate figural Relief shows the Apotheosis of Homer (the only ancient depiction of this kind at all) and testifies to the great respect that Literature and Philosophy enjoyed in Priene.

Criterion (vi): The high spiritual-cultural level of Prienian citizenship, which was founded in the archaic period already by the philosophical Sage Bias, appears at that time and again during the following centuries in various spiritual as well as literary-artistic levels. Priene's structurally well-preserved gymnasiums were so well-known that students were sent there from far away to be trained. The Cappadocian prince Orophernes was the city's most prominent student. The building school at the temple to Athena, which was founded by the most famous architect of his time, functioned for centuries; Ionia's second “star architect,” Hermogenes, who is of central importance to Hellenism and also for all of Roman architecture later, possibly also studied there. The medication skammonion, which was known in antiquity in the entire Mediterranean region, bears witness to the sophistication of pharmacy in Priene.

The Archelaos relief testifies to the great respect that literature and philosophy enjoyed in Hellenistic Priene. This led to a pragmatic and interested openness to "foreign" ideas, which in turn led to a multi- layered, tolerant and lively cultic business in the city. Unquestionably the "state" cults for the city goddess Athena and the guardian of the Ionian Federation, Poseidon, whose sanctuary stood within   the jurisdiction of Priene, are central. Numerous other public as well as private cultic sites are distributed over the entire city and give an impressive testimony to the religious aspects of an enlightened Greek society. The tolerance also promoted the early appearance of Christian, but especially of Jewish cultic sites: one of the earliest known diaspora synagogues was located in Priene (Burkhardt - Wilson 2012).

 During the excavations in 1895-99 the excavators discovered Christian chapels and houses of worship from the 5th century AD onwards whose distribution could be interpreted clearly from the spatial distinctions. Next to the old pagan cultic site there was always a small Christian chapel, which did not destroy the heathen site, but rather disempowered it. This juxtaposition of old and new was found at the temple to Athena, the theater, the sanctuary of the Egyptian deities, on the east side of the Agora and in the eastern necropolis.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Priene Archaeological Site is under protection by the Turkish Legislation for Preservation of Cultural   and Natural Property, Law No.: 2863. İzmir Regional Council Numbered II for Conservation of Cultural Heritage has registered the site as 1st degree archaeological site with the decision dated 03.06.1992 and numbered 2719.

After the site was discovered in 1673 by English merchants (for finding the famous Athena Temple in Priene, which was built Pytheos and mentioned by Vitrivius), researches were carried out especially at Athena Temple during the 18th and 19th century as short-term campaigns. The first scientific German excavations have been carried out under the direction of Carl Humann in 1894 with the permission of Ottoman authorities. After the death of Carl Humann the excavations and researches were directed by German archaeologists Theodor Wiegand and Hans Schrader between 1895-1899. Through these excavations large parts of ancient city area have been unearthed. Armin von Gerkan who, in 1911/12, made detailed studies of the theatre and conducted a number of probes,presented a detailed publication (von Gerkan 1921). After a long term break the surveys in Priene begun in 1977 under the direction of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener and continued until 1982. Between 1990-2013 the excavations carried out by a German Team first under the direction Wolf Koenigs and then Wulf Raeck (German Archaeological Institute and Goethe University – Frankfurt). Since 2014 the excavations have been continued by a Turkish-German Team under the direction of Hasibe Akat İslam from Milet Museum with the scientific advisory of İbrahim Hakan Mert (Uludag University).

19th-century travelers and explorers already described the "acropolis" of Priene as an outstanding natural phenomenon and the most noticeable point of the southern Mykale (Wiegand p. 35) – the mountain range that is now protected as a national park and that forms the northern boundary of the Maeander delta. The actual city area, which has now been planted like a park, is located on a plateau of massive rock right above the Maeander Valley that visitors today still find to be exceptionally beautiful. The archeologists working in Priene have never carried out anastylosis or reconstruction measures; rather they always tried to preserve the location’s “natural” ruin-like state by means of holistic care. Guidelines have been developed for a monument protection concept and site management (Klessing - Hoffschildt 2013).

Accordingly, two models have been designed for Priene's touristic development: One is Priene as model city with its unusually good state of preservation. Priene has a compact area and does not spread out so that the whole picture is easy to grasp; it offers insight into a late Classical-Hellenistic   city with many ideally typical buildings.

The other model is Priene as a romantic ruin. Visitors are enthusiastic about the trees and intimate spaces caused by the interlaced spaces. The city can only be discovered by walking through it because of the limited visibility. The tourist becomes an explorer. This impression is intensified by the avoidance of large protective structures.

Comparison with other similar properties

Priene is a city with an extraordinarily good state of preservation. Unlike many other ancient cities in Anatolia, the city was not occupied since Byzantine Era. Because of that the city stayed very well preserved until now and it presents a good view of the reflection of the daily life in ancient times like Pompeii in Italy. Because of this similarity between two cities, Priene has also named by Theodor Wiegand, who was one of the first archaeologist excavated in Priene, as Pompei of Asia Minor.

 The archaeologists, who intended to unearth the important buildings of Priene at the end of 19th century, encountered with a well-planned city. Priene was founded in the 8th century BC at the latest; however the location of the original city remains still unknown. At about 350 BC old Priene was abandoned for unknown reasons, and the new city built where we find it today. Despite the steep ground, the city was planned according to completely regular pattern, the basic unit being one block of buildings (insula). With its well-organized city plan the city differs from the many other ancient cities in Asia Minor, like Xanthos, Ephesos and Aphrodisias, which shows a temporal and organic expansion. 

Priene is a compact site that is not too large and the visitors will easily get an overall view as well as insight into a Late Classical-Hellenistic city with many ideal typical buildings. For instance, in Pergamon the ancient and modern cities mixed within each other and as a result of that it is hard to understand the entire city except for the Acropolis.

 Like many other ancient cities for example Pergamon, Athens etc. Priene has an Acropolis, which rises on the north side of the city. Different from the other ancient cities, the citizens of Priene has named their Acropolis as Teloneia. The Acropolis, which the Prenians simply called akra (hill, hilltop)   or Teloneia, after their hero Telon, was meant for pure defense and there were no prestigious buildings as, for example, in Athens or Pergamon, nor were there any buildings of residential purpose.

 As the other ancient cities around, Priene had many sanctuaries and religious buildings. The Prenians had built for their main and protector goddess Athena. This temple was planned and built by famous architect Pytheos, who was also the architect of Mausolleion of Halicarnassus, which is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In addition to this temple there were many other sanctuaries in Priene, which belong to other religions, like the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods, synagogue and bishop`s church.

 Theatres are common in many ancient cities in Asia Minor and a lot of them can be mentioned in Anatolia. The theatre of Priene is the only preserved one in western Asia Minor which was not lavishly overbuilt in the Roman period but, with its low stage house, has preserved its Hellenistic state.

Compared to other excavation sites in Asia Minor – be it Pergamon, Izmir, Ephesus or Knidos, Ankaror Pamukkale, Troy or Byzantion – the excavated residential quarters represent an indisputably unique feature of Priene. As a whole, the houses of Priene are a unique ensemble of settlement history and present Hellenistic life to us to a similar degree to that which the Italian Pompeii does for Roman life.