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The people of Priene created a small but magnificent city not with wealth but with consummate skill and a common purpose. In very ancient times, in ages when cities were countries, there were places so wonderful that they were considered to be the center of the universe, immortalized by their citizens in legends of heroic founding shepherds.

In the dreams of kings, statesmen, thinkers and travelers, these cities came to symbolize power to some, to others an ideal way of life, exactly like the city of Babylon, ‘Gateway to the Gods’. Or, like cities that seemed to embody the ideas and identities of people who lived in a place very far from here, in a time when citizens had control over their government.

Priene is one of those places. Founded on a steep slope in the Samsun Mountains along the Aegean shore south of Soke (Aydin), this ancient city, with its meeting halls, educational institutions, senate and popular assembly, stands out as a symbol of the age of ancient Greece, the Hellenistic period in particular, when the concept of the state was confined to a small independent world unto itself. For the picture it presents, in its extremely well-preserved houses, streets and quarters, virtually conveys the way of life unique to that world down to the smallest detail.

Thrilled by the view that met his eye, Wiegand, a scholar who carried out excavations at Priene at the end of the 19th century, dubbed it ‘the Pompeii of Asia Minor’. The construction of the houses in the city’s western districts especially and the rich findings recovered from their interiors are like a photograph reflecting life 2400 years ago.

Many valuable monuments, such as banquet and dining rooms with ostentatious decor, walls covered with painted reliefs or drawings, various household furnishings, small statues and fragments of a bronze bedstead take their place among the slices of everyday life brought to the light of day.

Like Pompeii preserved under the ashes of Vesuvius, here too life was suddenly brought to a standstill by natural disaster and, with the exception of a handful of houses, remained in that state for thousands of years.

This famous city, near Güllübahçe, which has attracted attention ever since it was discovered in 1673, in fact since even earlier, is truly impressive despite its diminutive size, particularly in the orderliness it presents to the eye. The Prienians created their city by following a previously sketched out plan, in a way that is astonishing even to people of our day.

The area is divided into islands of equal size, and these islands are further divided into equal plots on which, in particular, houses will be built. Haphazard settlement of any kind is strictly prohibited. The walls that divide the lots uncovered in the excavations are a striking indication of how important planning was for people of antiquity. Likewise the principle of equality.

This texture, woven by the orderly streets that intersect each other at right angles, reflects another striking feature: Hippodamus, originator of the ‘grid’ or ‘checkerboard’ city plan. Hippodamus of Miletus, who is thought to have lived in the 5th century B.C., is said in the ancient sources to have invented this form of settlement.

Although this theoretician, who is mentioned by the famous philosopher Aristotle (4th century B.C,) lived a full century before the founding of Priene, the city put its signature on the ancient world as the oldest and finest example of this system of planning.
But Priene is not merely a model of the grid system of city planning. It also hands down values and traditions in its surviving buildings, inscriptions and other findings. The Prienians so nurtured their culture in all its aspects that one cannot help but think that they once lived extremely well here.

For it is a matter not only of functionality but also of aesthetics, a refinement expressed even in the city’s marble defense walls. More care is lavished on the facades of the houses that face the avenues. Most of the sloping side streets are equipped with steps.

And the water brought down from the mountains is distributed through clay pipes over almost the entire city after being purified in sedimentation pools. The splendor of the fountains is apparent at every turn in a successful harmonization of function and aesthetics.

The agora where the shops stood draws one into the heart of the city. This center, where people came together, is for them both a marketplace and the area where political, commercial and social activity of all sorts takes place.To stroll in some place different, to watch passersby or follow the goings-on in the agora, they climb up to the long, multi-columned ‘sacred Gallery’, which is situated somewhat higher up, opposite the main avenue that passes through the market area.

And if they want to get a view of the Plain of the Meander stretching into the distance and the bay, which is filled in now with the river’s alluvion, they go up to another viewing gallery on an even higher terrace, in front of the temple built for Athena, goddess of cities.

The builder of this temple is Pytheus, architect of the monumental tomb of Mausolus, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Meanwhile, as one of the best preserved sites of antiquity, the assembly building with its 600-person capacity, provides important information concerning the system of government of the period, as does the theater.

It is thought that the popular assembly that passed on the laws also met at this 6500-person theater where tragedies and comedies were acted. The pedestal of the water clock found here and the space reserved for the actors in the stage structure stand out as rare examples of their kind. In the Gymnasium, graffiti such as “This is Alexander’s place” or “This is Apollo’s place”, which are commonly inscribed on the walls of sports and training centers, offer fascinating further insight into the youth of Priene.

Although they were not particularly wealthy, the Prienians, whose economy was based on agriculture, were in no way inferior to the other cities of their time in either splendor or skill.
Their public buildings, where every single detail was worked out with meticulous care, are monumental and quite eye-catching. The names of the citizens who labored on behalf of the city or made financial contributions are honored with statues or plaques. Beyond sponsorship, a condition of being an official, bureaucrat, administrator or priest was that one should underwrite some of the city’s expenses or activities.

Indeed the blatant sale of offices is even observed, in return for privileges such as occupying the seat of honor at the theater, wearing a crown on special days or being hosted at the state guesthouse. Archaeological excavations at Priene today are being conducted by Wulf Raeck of the University of Frankfurt.

One of the new discoveries recently made by the team, which is focusing its efforts on the residential areas and the vicinity of the Temple of Athena, is that the disaster sustained by the houses on the city’s west side was caused by an earthquake.

Meanwhile a subject of particular interest to Raeck, who reports that they have begun to obtain more enlightening information about the city’s development, is where archaic Priene was situated. All that is known is that the Prienians abandoned their old settlements and, coming to Güllübahçe, created their new city here. SOURCE : SKYLIFE 2004 | ARTICLE = NERMIN BAYÇIN | PHOTO = ALI KONYALI
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