Sardis, where the first coin in the world was struck, takes visitors on a journey back in time through the ruins of numerous ancient civilizations
When I reached the center of this city renowned for its trade, the first thing that struck my eye was a gargantuan structure about 100 meters long. In order to reach it, I first had to pass a row of shops, some rectangular, others square in shape. The first one is the most colorful of the workplaces here, the shop of the paint dealer Yakub, universally loved and respected by the townspeople. Cans of paint in every color of the rainbow from green and blue to red and pink line the shelves along the wall Yakub advises customers who are going to paint their houses: "This shade will make your house too dark," he says, "take one a couple of shades lighter." Next to the paint shop is a scribe's office There's a bustling crowd here, where documents and correspondence of every variety are being written up. A man who wants to sell his house is having a sales contract drawn up; somebody else is having a letter composed to his son who is far from home. In sharp contrast with the crowd in the office, the hardware merchant next door has no business at all. Obviously there is little demand for construction
materials these days, and the proprietor is rolling dice with his apprentice to
while away the time.
SARDIS'S GOLDEN AGE
We're in the ancient city of Sardis, 72 kilometers south of Izmir in Salihli township of Manisa province. And the shops we just described are from the Late Roman period. But the city's history dates back much earlier than this to the 7th century B. C. Sardis, for centuries the capital city of the Lydian League, which put the first coins into circulation, came under the hegemony of several different states from the time of the Lydians up to the 14th century. These lands saw not only the Persians and the Hellenistic Greeks but also the Pergamenes, the Romans and the Byzantines. So this ancient city affords visitors an opportunity to journey back in time.
The road that begins directly opposite the shops is the Roman Way, a thoroughfare dating back to the 4th century A.D. and a short segment of the roads that were built one after the other in stages to provide transit between East and West. At 18.5 meters in width, it is twice as wide as today's modern highway. In its time, this avenue was paved with blocks of marble set with polychrome mosaics. Let us not forget to mention that it was also the beginning of the famous 2500-km-long Royal Way which extended as far as Susa in Iran and was built by the Lydians to foster Sardis' East-West trade. Sardis experienced a century-long 'golden age' under the Lydians. Its rise during the Lydian period when it was ruled by three different dynasties commenced with King Gyges at the end of the 7th century B.C. But its most famous king was Croesus, also known as Karun, the first person in world history to strike coins of both gold and silver. While we're on the subject of the fabulously wealthy, I should point out that this king is also the origin of the expression 'as rich as Croesus'. This ruler, whose wealth remains the subject of legend to this very day, owed the major portion of his treasury to the river Pactolus (Sart) which originates on Mt. Tmolus and in those days was filled with particles of gold. During the reign of Croesus, local workshops began extracting the gold carried by the river's alluvial sands, and the world's first coined money soon appeared in the shape of a bean. The gold workshops along the road leading to the Temple of Artemis, which we will visit shortly, did not of course only coin money. Valuable jewelry in the form of gold rings, earrings and bracelets as well as silver bowls, ladles and spoons were also created by its highly skilled artisans. Some of these priceless items are on exhibit today in the Manisa Museum
AN AMERICAN IN THE GYMNASIUM Following the road we proceed to the synagogue, accompanied by two fellow-travelers. A pair of tortoises! As if to mock their slow pace, time now flows swiftly backwards. The calendar shows the 3rd century A. D. The pavements are decorated with colorful mosaics. The only sound audible is the voice of the chief rabbi, preaching to a packed congregation. The people are hushed, hanging on his every word. Immediately next to the synagogue is the structure we noticed upon entering Sardis, the
'gymnasium', built in the time of the Romans. Someone is standing in its
marble-paved courtyard, but he doesn 't look anything like a Roman! We
introduce ourselves. He is none other than Crawford H. Greenewalt, American
archaeologist and director of the excavations under way at Sardis today.
Greenewalt, who teaches archaeology and art history at the University of
California, first came to Sardis in 1959. "As soon as I got my Ph.D. from
Harvard, I came to Sardis... as a photographer. I've been spending two or three
months a year here ever since, because I fell in love with Sardis. It's a
stunning site from the standpoint of nature. A myriad of cultures also lived
here in harmony over the centuries. The culture I'm
most interested in is that of the Lydian civilization, though we come across more Late Roman and Byzantine remains in our excavations. Our research is ongoing." Greenewalt, who says that great banquets in honor of the Roman emperors were once held in the gymnasium, explains that the broad green area in front of the building was a training ground for athletes in antiquity. Immediately behind the gymnasium meanwhile are the hot and cold water pools.
STILL MAGNIFICENT AFTER ALL THOSE YEARS
Sardis is not limited to the 23,000 square meter area we've just toured. But the entire area covered by the ancient city has not yet been precisely determined. "For the time being the boundaries ofSardis extend for 1 km east-west and 1 km north-south.
If we could find the cemetery, we could get a better idea about the size of the
city," says Greenewalt. Explaining that they have now identified a theater
and a stadium in the area east of the city center between the highway and the Temple
of Artemis but have not yet excavated them, the archaeologist invites us to the
Temple, one kilometer to the east.
Crossing the Sart, whose alluvia still contains gold, we head straight for the temple. The sun is directly overhead, but a cool refreshing breeze helps to relieve its blistering heat. An aged man on a slow-moving tractor is probably heading for his field. And the elderly woman bearing savory pastries is perhaps invited to her neighbors' for five o'clock tea. One of Sardis' most important monuments, the Temple of Artemis was built during the Hellenization of the city in the 3rd century B.C. The temple, which was built on the site of an altar with steps, thought to have been dedicated to Cybele and to have stood here since the 5th century B.C., underwent continuous restoration and use in the Roman
period. Today only two of its columns are standing. The others, succumbing to
the weariness of the centuries, lie horizontal, only half exposed to the light
of day... But the Temple of Artemis is still so magnificent as to cast a spell
over all who behold it. Meanwhile, in the southeast sector of the temple the
ruins of a church with a double apse, built in the time of the Roman Emperor
Constantine, have been unearthed. Many more monuments lie buried in the depths
of Sardis. "Actually the earth is a good preserver of monuments,"
says Greenewalt. "But it's our job to bring them up." As he also
points out, these monuments need to be carefully protected and preserved. When
the Persian king Cyrus captured the Lydian king Croesus and his city, he
declared gleefully, "Look, Croesus, I'm burning your city to the ground!"
And Croesus answered the great king as follows: "It used to be my city,
it's yours now. It's your own city you are destroying!"