The cradle of western philosophy

Once the oldest and most powerful metropolis
among the 12 Ionian cities, Miletus now stands
in a marshy, neglected landscape

Posted with special permission of

Athens News
By Amanda Castleman

THE RUINS of Miletus jut up from the marshy scrub, a snaggle-toothed amphitheatre of stained stone, topped with Byzantine fortifications. At the highest point, a Turkish flag snaps in the breeze, brazen scarlet against a turquoise sky.

The crescent moon banner is a newcomer here. A johnny-come-lately on the shores of the Marmara, dominated by Greeks for thousands of years. Miletus was once the oldest and most powerful metropolis among the 12 Ionian cities, a nexus of culture and commerce. Now it lies coated in river sludge - the same sludge that smothered the vibrant community hundreds of years ago.

Thales - hailed by Aristotle as the first philosopher - made his home here, as did Anaximander and Anaximenes. All of ancient Greece adopted the local alphabet. The city's sensible layout inspired a host of Roman imitations - and urban planners still use the grid system today.

At its height, 100,000 people lived on this tiny peninsula, just 1.5 miles long. International trade boomed in the four harbours. The Miletians were so successful, they founded 90 colonies - a maritime empire stretching from Egypt to the Black Sea, according to Pliny.

Now rust-coloured ponies and cattle browse among the spiky shrubs, dotted with green berries. Mosaics dissolve back into the earth. Precious marble lies submerged in pools of stagnant water. Broken columns protrude, gripped by slime, the debris of winter floods. Miletus is a wasteland. Haunting and momentous, but a wasteland nonetheless.

Youthful rebellion

This shattered, neglected landscape dates back at least four thousand years. The Hittites - ancient rulers of Anatolia - documented a town Milawata, which may have stood here. Scholarly squabbles about the origins of the Greek city began with Strabo, who maintained Cretans colonized the coast, and Homer, who credited the indigenous people, the Carians. Most modern archaeologists straddle the fence, asserting that a mix of settlers and locals founded this important Mycenaean city in the 11th-century BC.

Whatever its origins, the community suffered its first setback quite quickly. An army led by Neileus, son of King Codros of Athens, captured the region. The conquerors slaughtered the men and married their wives. The Miletian women boycotted the dinner table to protest this high-handed treatment, according to legend. Under duress, they would wed the Ionian invaders - but not break bread with them.

Domestic disputes soon faded into the background and the city flourished. Though surrounded by lush farmland, Miletians preferred to range far afield in ships, trading throughout the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Marmara Sea. Colonies helped them grow strong and wealthy.

The pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales, was born in this cultured city in 625BC. Considered the "father of science", he numbered among the Seven Sages of Greece. He argued that all life sprang from water "not the whims of the gods" becoming the first thinker in western culture to shun supernatural explanations.

Thales, a well-travelled man, also used geometry to calculate the height of the Egyptian pyramids and the distance of a ship to shore. He forecast an eclipse on May 28, 585BC, which ended the war between the superstitious Lydians and the Medes.

This philosopher (and mathematician and astronomer and physicist) passed the torch to pupil Anaximander. He too theorized about the world's essential substance, rejecting water in favour of primal chaos. A cylindrical earth sprang from this shapeless, eternal mass, he claimed.

Humans, according to Anaximander, were mutations of some other animal, probably aquatic. Many hail him as the original evolutionist for this idea. He also introduced the sundial to ancient Greece. Anaximenes, his slightly younger colleague improved this technology, as well as arguing that air was the building block of life.

Other famous Miletians include the scholar Hecataeus, first to apply the word "history" to reseach, He wrote a book chronicling the Greeks, plus a travel memoir. Town-planner Hippodamus invented the oft-copied urban grid here. One thousand years later, his fellow architect, Isidorus, went on to glory as designer of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, now Istanbul.

Savvy, smooth politicians negotiated treaties to keep the city safe, first from the Lydians, later from the Persians in 546BC. But foreign rule chipped away at their trading empire, especially the high custom charges. An ambitious leader, Aristagoras, attacked the island of Naxos to boost the flagging civic coffers.

The attempt failed horribly, after four months of fighting. To deflect attention from this blunder, Aristagoras encouraged a revolt against the Persians. He fancied himself liberator of the Ionian people, as the neighbouring cities joined the cause.

The rebellion started well, but help never arrived, despite pleas sent to Athens and Sparta. Six years later, the Persians crushed the Ionian fleet - ending the revolt. To avenge such impertinence, they sacked and razed Miletus, then enslaved its citizens.

Alexander the Great swept aside the Persians in 334BC. He captured the town (held by a satrap) and graciously forgave the people, who were allowed to rule themselves. Miletus revived quickly, even expanding its trade routes to the east.

Swamp of despair

The city blossomed again, as part of the Asian province of the Roman Empire. But high taxes once again destroyed the peace in Anatolia. Irate over tariffs and pirate attacks, the cities challenged Rome in 129BC, egged on by Mithradates, King of Pontus. They killed every Roman citizen in the region, some 80,000 people, in one day.

The rebellion was short-lived. Rome and Miletus even managed to work together in 63BC, defeating the off-shore marauders. This goodwill led to the city's independence in 38BC and the metropolis boomed once more. Leaders - like Augustus and Hadrian - lavished money on monuments.

Three hundred years later the party ended when the River Meander clogged up the harbours. The rich farmland surrounding Miletus disintegrated into marsh. Malaria cut a swathe through the population.

The Byzantines struggled to resurrect the town. They built a small castle on the hill for the archbishop. Such efforts failed and the ruins became a pirate haven.

Seljuk Turks traded with Venice through the diminished port in the 12th-century AD. The town, now called Balat, was finally abandoned under the Ottomans, five hundred years later. The final inhabitants were moved off-site in 1955, when an earthquake toppled their homes. The entire village was resettled south of the ruins.

Miletus ended with whimper, not a bang. But the ancient glory is visible, among the sludge and scrub. The theatre remains one of Anatolia's best preserved. Built in the 4th century BC, it held 25,000 spectators after Roman refurbishment. Flanking it are the imposing baths, sponsored by Faustina, the wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the Seljukian caravanserai (imperial hostel for traders). This 15-century building lost much of its character in modern restoration.

Don't miss the mosque of Ilyas Bey, near the southern Agora, tucked among the trees. Elongated tombstones list wildly in the courtyard. Storks nest above the shaggy dome. Yet inside, the splendid stone work still dazzles.

The site's most compelling relics, however, are hidden by the gorse. Watch for Ibrahim, a weather-beaten shepherd roaming the grounds. He lures visitors across the plain with wild gesticulations, shuffling along in a flapping coat and peaked cap. With a gap-toothed grin, he reveals the two Hellenistic lion statues, which once flanked the most sheltered bay. They now wallow in silt: one submerged to the breastbone, the other a misshapen head concealed under a bush.

Ibrahim's delight is obvious. "Guzel, guzel," he exclaims. "Pretty, pretty!" Ill-content with the joy on hand, he takes a walk down memory lane. Two stacks of photos emerge from his stained jacket. They are waterlogged, contoured to his chest. Each one shows tourists posed around the lions, astride one of the rusty ponies or - in the case of attractive women - being smooched on the check by this impromptu guide.

This is modern Miletus: an eccentric shepherd, standing guard over nearly-obscured ancient statues; a few lacklustre souvenir stands; a jumble of once glorious buildings, swamped by history and river mud. The result should be off-putting, but it's not. Somehow, the city's dignity survives. And the cradle of western philosophy shines again, ever so briefly, under the Ionian sun and fluttering Turkish flag.

Getting there

Fly from Athens to Izmir Adnan Menderes Airport on Turkish Airways for 387 euros roundtrip (19 Philellinon, Athens; 210-322-1035: The terminal has rail links and a shuttle bus (havas) runs into the city centre every 20 minutes. Bodrum Milas Airport is closer, but a touch more pricey at 407 euros. Arrange transport, as the bus stop is several kilometers from the terminal and taxis are expensive. The outstanding Turkish bus network is surprisingly affordable. The 9.5-hour trip from Istanbul to Kusadasi, the region's transport hub, costs around 20 euros. Shared taxis - known as dolmuses - run along the coast, but scheduling can be erratic. All services from Altinkum, Akkoy or Balat pass the site, now called 'Milet'. Ferries also connect the Greek island of Samos to Kusadasi. A return ticket runs about 30 euros, depending on the line. Book through Meander Travel (+90-256-614-7344; Hire affordable wheels at Hermes Rent-a-Car in Selcuk (4 Ugur Mumcu Sergi Yolu; +90-232-892-6717;

Where to stay

Avoid the festering tourist trap of Kusadasi on the coast. Head inland to Selcuk, an excellent base for Ephesus as well. Enjoy a five-course meal on the Hotel Nazar rooftop terrace, overlooking the castle, stork colony and bustling gypsy quarter (+90-232-892-2222; The gracious owners provide site shuttles and Samos ferry bookings (10 euros double room, breakfast 1.50, dinner 2.50).

The Emin Apart Hotel-Restaurant rents self-catering flats in nearby Altinkum. Two weeks accommodation costs 210-392 euros per person, including airport transfers. The pleasant beachfront hotel runs scuba courses and daily diving boats during summer (+90-256-813-1505;

Where to eat

The last village, Balat, is 2km from the ruins. A handful of bland eateries cluster at the base of the Miletus amphitheatre. Grit your teeth and bolster the flagging local economy - or bring a picnic. The ticket kiosk cafe sells chilled drinks. Visitors based in Selcuk shouldn't miss the excellent Ephesus Restaurant (Efes Koftecisi). Lounge outside at a rug-draped table, savouring bulgar pilaf, white bean salad and aubergine-yoghurt spread (2 Kemal Caddesi; +90-232-892-326).


The plum archaeological finds are in Istanbul and Berlin, so the museum closure - until 2005 - isn't too heartbreaking. The archaeology site is open daily (+90-256-875-5038). A wealth of companies offer tours of Priene, Miletus and Didyma, the three great Ionian cities clustered together. Travellers report that the pace is brisk - too brisk, in fact, for anyone with an archaeological bent.

If time is limited, try Travel Ephesus's eight-hour package, departing from Selcuk or Kusadasi. The substantial 30 euro price tag includes transport, admission fees, a guide and lunch (Wednesdays and Saturdays; +90-256-6143712;