Amanda Castleman
The Cradle of Western Philosophy

Posted with special permission of Athens News

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.

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.

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.

(Posted originally November 2004; reformatted February 2007)

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