History of Miletos

TheatreThe Theatre of Miletos from the South by Alan M. Greaves

Miletos, located near the village of Balat on the western coast of Turkey, was one of the most important cities of the ancient world. It was originally situated on a peninsula in the Gulf of Latmos, though due to silting of the Maeander river (modern Büyük Menderes) it is now 7km inland.

The site has been inhabited since the Late Chalcolithic period (4th Millennium BCE). It was settled by Cretan Minoans in around the 2nd Millennium and Mycenaean Greeks from c. 1500 BCE. Miletos appears in Hittite archival tablets as Millawanda and was apparently subject to the king of Ahhiyawa, a Mycenaean kingdom located in the Aegean or mainland Greece.

After the destruction of this settlement around 1300 BCE, it was resettled by Ionian Greeks. While this ‘Ionian Migration’ is thought to have occurred around 1050 BCE, it remains little understood. Literary accounts describe settlement from Attica and Pylos in Greece, but these bear the hallmarks of later invention. Miletos was by no means a homogenous settlement, large numbers of native Carians were resident there and Anatolian cultural elements remained strong.

The Archaic period (700-500 BCE) saw Miletos’ cultural and political apogee. It became famous for trade and founded overseas settlements from Egypt to the northern Black Sea. Many of these colonies such as Sinope, Apollonia (modern Sozopol) and Pantikapaeum (modern Kerch) became important cities in their own right. Intellectual culture also flourished producing notable early thinkers such as the Thales, Anaximander and Anaximanes.

During this time, Miletos gained control of the surrounding area, incorporating the neighbouring towns of Assesos, Panormos and Teichioussa, as well as the islands of Lade, Ikaros and Patmos. Its chora included extensive low lying agricultural land with large areas of upland scrub and maquis where sheep and goats could be pastured, fueling the famous Milesian wool industry.

Undoubtedly the most important site in the Milesian chora was the sanctuary of Branchidai-Didyma situated on a plateau to the south of the city. Here was the temple and oracle of the Milesian patron deity Apollo. Didyma gained fame across the ancient world receiving dedications from such luminaries as the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II and Croesus of Lydia.

Didyma,_Front_portal_Temple_of_Apollo,_Turkey_-_panoramioHellenistic Temple at Didyma. By David Broad, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54315746

By the sixth century BCE, Miletos was under increasing pressure from the Lydian then Persian empires. By 546 BCE it was officially incorporated into the Persian sphere and the administration of the city was placed in the hands of a tyranny. Around 499 BCE, the Ionians revolted from Persia under the leadership of the Milesian tyrant Aristagoras, resulting in the complete destruction of Miletos and Didyma after defeat at the Battle of Lade in 494 BCE.

Resettlement of the site began shortly thereafter, but little archaeological evidence survives from the Classical period (500-322 BCE). In the aftermath of the Greek naval victory over the Persians at nearby Mykale in 479 BCE, Miletos was an on and off member of the Athenian Empire, before being returned to Persian dominion as part of the Peace of Antalcidas in 387 BCE.

Alexander the Great besieged the city in 334 BCE in the early stages of his campaign against the Persian empire. Following its surrender, he proceeded to help rebuild the city, reconsecrating the Didymean oracle which had lain silent since the Persian destruction over a century and a half previously. Subsequently, Didyma remained an important site throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but Miletos’ preeminence in western Anatolia had been irrevocably eclipsed by Ephesus and Pergamon.

2000px-Miletus_Bay_silting_evolution_map-enSilting of the Maeander. By Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user Sting, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7187209

While the Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE) saw several large construction projects at Miletos, much of the extant monumental remains, such as the theatre and baths of Faustina, date to the Roman era (31 BCE-500 CE). Throughout this time, the city remained a regional centre of some importance and the archaeological remains indicate a high standard of living.

By the Byzantine era (c.500-1200 CE), Miletos had been renamed Palatia, and the alluviation of the gulf of Latmos had advanced to such an extent that its importance as a port had faded. The thirteenth century CE witnessed the decline of Byzantine authority and by 1425 CE the city was in Ottoman hands. Miletos (now known as Balat) remained at the conjuncture between caravansary routes and the Mediterranean but the site itself was now several kilometres inland.

The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) began systematic excavations at Miletos between 1899 and 1931 under the aegis of Theodore Wiegand. In 1955, an earthquake leveled the village of Balat, overlying the ancient site. It was subsequently reconstituted to the south allowing archaeologists complete access to the remains. The DAI has continued excavations to the present day, though annual flooding of the Maeander and the high water table present a significant challenge.

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