The Theatre at Aspendos, Turkey

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The ancient city of Aspendos (modern city of Belkis, ancient city of Pamphylia) is located on Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast forty-seven kilometers from the modern city of Antalya.
Its spectacularly well-preserved theatre is one of the best examples of Roman theatre construction in the world. While there was probably an earlier ancient theatre on the site, it was completely obliterated by the Roman theatre, which was built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). A statue of the building's architect, Zeno, stands in the south parodos. The inscription under the statue records the thanks of the people for the gift of the theatre and says that Zeno was given a large garden near the stadium for his work. Inscriptions in Greek and Latin on either side of the skene read that the wealthy brothers Curtius Crespinus and Curtius Auspicatus built the theatre and dedicated it to "the Gods of the Country and the Imperial House."
 
In the 3rd century AD a parapet was built between the orchestra and the cavea to protect the audience from gladiatorial and wild animal shows. The theatre continued to be used through the Byzantine era and into the Seljuk Turkish period. The Seljuk leader Alaeddin Kaykabat I renovated the theatre in the 1200s AD, decorating it with painted tiles and turning it into a palace. The Seljuks built the tower-like entranceway over the central outer door of the skene, which remains today.
 
The theatre at Aspendos is without doubt the best-preserved example of "eastern" Roman theatre construction in the world. Bieber identifies distinctions between "western" and "eastern" Roman theatres citing the straight, multi-storied scaenae frons with a higher, seven foot, stage as characteristic of "eastern" theatre construction techniques found at Aspendos, Priene, Miletus, and Termessos. These Hellenistic influenced theatres in Asia Minor are in contrast to the "western" theatres of Italy, Spain, France, and Africa which have recessed niches for the doors in the scaenae frons and a lower, four-foot high stage.
 
In addition to the distinction of being a prime example of "eastern" Roman theatre construction, Aspendos is further distinguished by being the only example of purely Roman construction in Turkey with the cavea completely and seamlessly joined to the skene. Although influenced by the Hellenistic practice of building a horseshoe-shaped cavea against a hillside, the barrel-vaulted substructures supporting the upper levels of the cavea are purely Roman. Both the upper and lower levels of the cavea are made of near-marble quality limestone and are separated by a single diazomata. The forty-one rows of seats in the cavea are subdivided by ten radiating staircases in the lower seating section and twenty-one staircases in the upper section. A barrel-vaulted tunnel provides architectural support for the upper cavea and runs behind the sole diazomata that separates the two seating levels. Surrounding the uppermost row of seating at the top of the cavea is a colonnaded gallery with fifty-nine vaulted arches. This sheltered walkway with its impressive array of arches serves as a convenient access to the various seating sections and also contributes to the excellent acoustics evident at Aspendos. The colonnade is thought to be a later addition to the theatre, and brickwork still present in the gallery is the remains of Seljuk repair work. The first row of seats in the cavea was reserved for senators, judges, and ambassadors, and the second row was reserved for other notable figures. A number of the seats, especially in the upper rows of the cavea, bear the inscribed names of theatre patrons. Various sources indicate that women sat only in the upper rows of seats. The seating capacity of the Aspendos theatre was once estimated at 10,000 to 15,000, but recent attendance at the Aspendos Culture and Film Festival has shown that it can hold over 20,000.
 
Two tower-like buildings (the versura) flank the stage and connect the skene to the cavea. Doors at the orchestra level of the versura (the aditus maximus) served as side entrances for performers as well as the audience , and doors at the stage level provided entrances and exits for actors. This architectural feature served to enclose the Roman theatre and the covered parodoi provided two significant platforms for seats of honor (the Tribunalia). The Tribunalia, or seats of judgment, were reserved for magistrates and priestesses of Vesta and, in the event of gladiatorial games, victors would receive recognition from the praetor who sat in these seats. The Tribunalia overlooked a seven foot high stage (possibly of wood) that extended from the scaenae frons and connected the two versura. This stage no longer exists but evidence of five small doors in the face of the stage are considered part of a later Roman sub-stage corridor leading to holding areas for animals used in blood-sport events.
 
The versura also served as the main entrance to the cavea seating at Aspendos. Passageways within the structure (ininera versurarum) and a series of staircases led to entrances at the stage level and also to the diazomata above the first level of cavea seating and the upper arcaded gallery above and behind the highest tier of cavea seating.
 
The skene, which is as high as the cavea, is made of regular blocks of conglomerate, except for window and door frames in limestone. The scaenae frons has two levels, each with twenty free-standing columns arranged in squares of four around niches for statuary. The columns of the lower level are Ionic, while those of the upper level are Corinthian. Five doors open from the scaenae frons onto the stage. The central door, the porta reggia, is the largest; the two doors on either side of the porta reggia are the smaller porta hospitales. At the top of the second level the columns support a triangular pediment, at the center of which is a frieze of Dionysus with scrolls of flowers. Only those parts of the scaenae frons that were attached to the skene wall have been preserved. A wooden roof over the stage sloped backwards towards the skene wall and served to improve acoustics and provide protection from the elements. Additional water runoff was directed outside the theatre by means of a series of drainage channels such as can be seen surrounding the orchestra and in the floor of the Tribunalia.
 
The outer wall of the skene has four rows of windows, three of square windows and one, the second row up from the bottom, of arched windows. The molding that runs between the arches is at the same level as the diazomata of the cavea. The outer wall mimics the interior of the theatre in other ways; for example, five doors, the largest in the middle, open onto the street behind the theatre. A tower-like structure was built in the Seljuk period around and over the central door. Corbels, rectangular projections of stone pierced by round postholes, surround the windows in the topmost row of the outer wall of the skene. It has been proposed that the corbels held poles for a linen awning, or velum, that partially sheltered the audience.
 
Ancient performances at Aspendos were funded by civic institutions and admission was charged for attending plays and competitions. Tickets, made from bone, ivory, metal, or fired clay inscribed with row and seat numbers, were issued to patrons. Performances continue at Aspendos today in the form of music concerts, opera, and ballet, most notably the International Opera & Ballet Festival which opened its tenth annual season with a production of Aida in 2003. In 2001, in the article, "Bad Vibrations Worrying Turkey," The Washington Post reports that the Culture Ministry of Turkey encourages the use of historical sites for cultural and art activities: "This practice contributes significantly to better recognition of our antique treasures, cultural tourism and the artistic improvement of our country." However, Archeologists as well as a few ministry officials have questioned the impact of high decibel, amplified music on the ancient structure and are questioning the continued use of the theatre as a popular modern performance space. "We don't need to wait until the stones start falling," said Nevzat Cevik, an archaeologist and professor at Mediterranean University in the nearby southern coastal city of Antalya. "It's already clear … when 10,000 people are jumping at the same time, it's an earthquake."
 
 
- Author: Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant), Whitman College. 2003

Bibliography:
 
Aksit, Ilhan. Antalya: Southern Coast of Turkey. Trans. Robert Bragner. Istanbul: Ak?it Kültür Turizm Sanat Ajans Ltd., 1998.
 
Akurgal, Ekrem. Ancient Civilization and Ruins of Turkey. 9th ed. Istanbul: Net Turistik Yayinlar, 2001.
 
Atila, I. Akan, and Sabri Aydal. Aspendos and Perge: A Traveller's Guide Through Ancient Pamphylian Cities. Trans. Turhan Aysezen. Antalya, Turkey: Necmi Çetin, 19??.
 
Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1939.
 
Dinsmoor, William Bell. The Architecture of Ancient Greece: An Account of its Historic Development. Reprint of 1950 rev. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1975.
 
Dörtlük, Kayhan. Perge, Aspendos, Side. Trans. Hayriye Buyan. Istanbul: Kaskin Color Kartpostalcilik Ltd., 1996.
 
McDonagh, Bernard. Blue Guide Turkey. London: A&C Black, 2001.
 
Ozgür, M. Edip. Aspendos: A Travel Guide. 3rd ed. Istanbul: Net Turistik Yayinlar, 1990.
 
Robertson, D.S. Greek and Roman Architecture. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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Copyright © 2004 Thomas G. Hines, Department of Theatre, Whitman College. All Rights Reserved
Last Update: 3/5/04