CE 200

The Ancient City of Smyrna

The Ancient City of Smyrna

Outgrowing its early settlement in Bayraklı, Smyrna was moved to its new location during the Hellenistic Period. Rapidly developing into a trading hub, the town reached its highlight during the Roman Empire. By the second century CE, Smyrna was a Roman city extending from Kadifekale to Konak, from Eşrefpaşa to Halkapınar, whose remains can be found even in the Çankaya neighborhood of Konak district.

The Ancient City of Smyrna Documentary

Reestablishment of the City

The Dream of Alexander the Great

Smyrnians who settle in the foothills of Pagos Hill (Kadifekale) near the Sacred Meles Stream will be four times happier than before.” This passage is an oracle of a dream of Alexander the Great, leading to the reconstruction of Smyrna during the late fourth century B.C. around Kadifekale-Kemeraltı. According to ancient writings of Pausanias, Alexander was exhausted after hunting on Mount Pagos and fell asleep under a great plane tree in a sanctuary of Nemesis.

In his dream, two Nemeses appeared and bade him to found a city on the Mount Pagos, where he fell asleep. When awake, Alexander the Great consulted the well-known oracle of Claros, the Sanctuary of Apollo (İzmir, Ahmetbeyli Village) to interpret his dream. The above oracle eventually led to the foundation of a new town on the hills of Pagos. After Alexander the Great left İzmir, Antigonus Monophthalmus, a general in Alexander’s army, followed by Alexander’s successor Lysimachus, led the reconstruction of Smyrna in its new location on the hills of Kadifekale. In the following centuries, the rejuvenated Smyrna would compete with the great Western Anatolian cities of Ephesus and Pergamon, eventually surpassing them in wealth and size during the Late Roman Period.

Büyük İskender'in rüyasını betimleyen sikke, Smyrna Antik Kenti
The coin depicting the dream of Alexander the Great.

Lysimakhos and Eurydikeia

As Smyrna was moved to the hills of Pagos, the new city flourished with new structures. Monumental public structures such as town walls, ports and temples were constructed. Macedonian King Lysimachus, an important figure in the urbanization of the town, intended to follow the common Hellenic tradition of naming cities after royal family members. Subsequently, he renamed Ephesus, known as such for centuries and also moved to a new location at the time, Arsinoeia after his wife. Smyrna, so called for thousands of years, was renamed Eurydiceia after his daughter. However, these changes were not sufficiently accepted, and both Ephesus and Smyrna retook their previous names upon the death of the king.

Smyrna in the Roman Period

With the Hellenistic Period, Smyrna became one of the most popular Hellenic cities. Geographer Strabo's 'now it is the most beautiful of all cities.' Smyrna, which he defines as the following form, owed its charm to its architectural structures and city plan.

Smyrna Antik Kenti Roma Dönemi Kent Planı
Ancient City of Smyrna, City Plan in Roman Period, Smyrna Excavations Archive.

City Plan

Referring to the sunny streets of İzmir similar to today, Aristides points out that Smyrna has all of the city walls, stadiums, hippodromes, theaters, temples, harbors, gymnasiums, baths, fountains and agora structures and a large number of them. All of these structures, which are referred to as indispensable for Hellenic cities by ancient writers, appear in a certain order in Smyrna.

Smyrna was built on a grid plan with monumental structures on intersections and the agora at the intersection of main avenues almost at the heart of the city, which represents the urbanization approach of its time. The ancient town wall extending from Pagos (Kadifekale) in the east to Kemeraltı (old harbor) in the west, Altıntaş-Değirmentepe in the south and Basmane-Çankaya-Pasaport in the north is still preserved at places. The agora, which housed various cultural, political and commercial activities, was the heart of Smyrna, as it was to all ancient cities. The first town port was located in Kemeraltı, while the second port was in the Pasaport-Montrö Square direction. A town theater and stadion were constructed on the sea side of Kadifekale, enjoying a panoramic view of the bay.

177 Earthquake, Aelius Aristides and Marcus Aurelius

Smyrna suffered from a massive earthquake in A.D. 177-8. The town healed from the earthquake thanks to Aelius Aristides, a famous orator of the time, born in Mysia/Hadrianoutherai (close to modern Balıkesir). Having spent most of his life in Smyrna, Aelius Aristides employed his oratory skills to convince the contemporary Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to help the town. Financial support from the Emperor Marcus Aurelius resuscitated Smyrna. Smyrnians, in turn, constructed a bronze structure of Aeilus Aristides in the agora in his honor. They also placed portraits of Marcus Aurelius and his wife Faustina upon the double arched gate to the Agora as a sign of gratitude to the noble family.

Smyrna Antik Kenti Agora Giriş Kapısı Üzerindeki Faustina Portresi
Agora of Smyrna, Faustina relief on the keystone of Faustina Gate, Area Müzecilik Archive.


The heart of all towns in the Age of Antiquity, the agora, undoubtedly, was the most significant public building in Smyrna. Smyrna Agora was initially a reserved area for commercial and administrative use during the reconstruction of the town in the early third century B.C. In line with the grid plan of the city, it sat on a rectangular area. The agora is the heart of administrative, political, commercial and cultural life in the city, therefore, it can be defined as a “state agora.”

By the second century B.C., during the reign of the Kingdom of Pergamon, stoas were constructed on four sides of the previously reserved area. Stoas are covered walkways around the agoras, with columns on the side facing the square, that provide both shelter against weather such as rain and the sun, and a suitable area for commercial activities. During the early first century A.D., increasing trading activities prompted renovations and expansions to the agora.

The agora courtyard exhibited monuments honoring prominent townspeople, significant dates and conventions, sculptures, and marble exedrae (benches). Altars for gods and goddesses for townspeople to present offerings during religious events were also within the agora.

The monumental Basilica was completed in the late second century A.D. in the north of the agora as a space for exchange and judicial affairs. The basement of the two-story basilica contained galleries of carved and painted writings on walls dating back to the second through the fourth century A.D., reflecting daily life of the period. However, in addition to storage purposes, the four-gallery basement was also used by small retailers with counters for jewelry, bone items, textile, and sandals. The upper two levels were allocated to traders and merchants, while the lower floor also served judicial purposes. A variety of marbles in the agora structures, originating from quarries all across Anatolia and the Mediterranean, reflect the wide trading network of the town.

Excavations in the vicinity of the agora unearthed a City Council (Bouleuterion) adjacent to the Western Portico, a public building called “Mosaic Room,” a bath, and a gymnasium. Furthermore, writings on an architrave suggest the presence of a nearby Temple of Nemesis or West Portico being dedicated to these goddesses. Faustina Avenue that begins at the Faustina Gate adjacent to the West Portico and towards the port and Kemeraltı, Agora North Avenue that passes by the Basilica, and Bouleterion Avenue that connects these two avenues surround the agora. Once a location of everyday activities for Smyrnians, the agora began to lose popularity over time. By the seventh century A.D., the building fell out of use entirely as the city shrunk, eventually becoming a cemetery. A second agora is believed to exist in Smyrna, likely closer to the port, enabling primarily trading activities, though its exact location is yet to be discovered.

Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna

The three-story basilica on the north of the agora is one of the ancient world’s largest structures with an approximate size of 160x30 m. One of the most striking characteristics of the structure are the wall writings in the basement, which are almost like the fingerprints of ancient Smyrnians.

Of the four basement galleries, the two in the south contain carvings and painted writings on the wall. Writings and drawings on the plastered gallery walls and the bottom of flying buttresses were painted in with iron oxide and oak charcoal.

These carvings and painted writings and drawings include prayers, riddles, word plays, names of people, illnesses, and town names. Reflecting the competition between Smyrna and Ephesus, one writing reads, “Best City of Asia,” thought to have been written by a Smyrnian. Someone, possibly an Ephesian, responded, “Ephesians” in smaller writing. Other writings indicate Sardis and Tralleis joining in the competition.

Some of the other writings include the names of supported athletes, possessives like “Joe’s place,” prayer and offering texts, code names, and expressions of love. For instance, the statement “I love a woman whose number is 1308,” likely refers to the code name of a woman called Tykhe. Another group of writings mention eyes and eye health. There are also statements related to Christianity.

Large commercial vessels and warships, as well as depictions of Priapos, God of Fertility, are the most striking drawings. Leading gladiators of the period were depicted, with the names of some written above their depictions. Other drawings include birds, fish, possibly ordinary people, temples, a double-headed axe (Labrys) and a number of geometric designs and plants.

Such vast variety and uniqueness in graffiti present a portal to daily life in Smyrna. These graffiti designs are unique as they provide an opportunity to immerse into the lives of ordinary Smyrnians.

Roman Baths

Aristides lived in the second century A.D., and mentioned the numerous baths and gymnasiums in Smyrna to compliment that one cannot even begin to choose one of these beautiful baths. Excavations have revealed three of these baths. Our knowledge on the bath in Basmane remains limited to a vault structure and a few architecture components of marble. The second bath is located in the northwest of Smyrna Agora, at the intersection of North and Bouleuterion Avenues based on the town plan.

Two large parallel archs of the main bearing system, as well as caldarium (hot room) and tepidarium (warm room) with hypocaust (underground) heating in the east wing, and a large apse with marble floor and walls were discovered. The bath is built entirely on vaults to balance out the uneven topography. The third bath was discovered in Kemeraltı and is assumed to have served customers who arrived by sea.

Smyrna Theatre

The Smyrna Theater located on the hill between the Agora and Kadifekale has been recently excavated. According to current findings, the theater was constructed in the first century B.C. or sometime earlier, and was renovated twice following two major earthquakes, in A.D. 54 during the reign of Emperor Claudius and in A.D. 177-8, respectively. Ancient author Vitruvius praises the theater, and it was considered exemplary to other towns with its functional nearby portico.

The portico was either an independent structure or was a part of the adjacent sacred area. Regardless, it provided shelter from rain to audience and theater equipment. Another ancient writer, Aristides, only mentioned the theater in the list of town structures. Ongoing excavations reveal that the theater is one of the largest in the Mediterranean, with a capacity of 21,000 people.

Kadifekale (Akropolis)

Previously known as the Acropolis of Smyrna, Kadifekale was assigned the heart of town security and the most sacred location during the early Hellenistic Period when the town was first established, and it was surrounded with defensive walls. Multi-functional as a citadel, Kadifekale was surrounded with a wall of rusticated blocks, three-meters in width, and further strengthened with round or rectangular watchtowers. Kadifekale walls survived until the Republic of Turkey thanks to renovations and expansions during the Late Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Periods. Epigraphic evidence on wall parts supported by watchtowers indicate that the towers were named after gods and goddesses.

Kadifekale Kartpostal

City Wall

We currently lack further information on town walls, with the exception of two locations in the modern Basmane district. However, we can trace the path of walls as a result of the town planning efforts, particularly in the 19th century. The watchtowers were named Artemis, Leto, Herakles or such as a blessing against attacks. Smyrna town walls are known to have been renovated prior to the social unrest in the empire during the Late Roman Period and Late Antiquity, and before Muslim Arabs reached İzmir.

Port of İzmir

By 129 BCE, Rome was reigning on Western Anatolian civilizations, including Smyrna. While autonomous, Smyrna was still a Roman province and the war of thrones in Rome during the first century BCE affected the city. As Roman politician Cicero affirms, as “one of the most deeply devoted to Rome and one of its oldest friends”, Smyrna lived up to this appraisal and had stood by then superpower Rome since the second century BCE.

The Port of İzmir was on the Mediterranean trade routes during Hellenistic and Roman Periods. That was evidenced by a variety of items unearthed during archaeological digs, originating from different regions from Egypt to Greece, Italy and North Africa.

During the Byzantine Period, when the empire shrunk back to the Greek and Western Anatolian coasts and when Istanbul was conquered by the Crusaders (1204-1261), İzmir remained the empire’s most important military port and shipyard. It was one of the four major ports of the Eastern Mediterranean during the 19th century. Archaeological excavations have unearthed ceramic items from almost all corners of Western Europe.

Temples ve Homereion

As Homer’s popularity increased, many ancient cities claimed him for themselves and many claimed that Homer’s birthplace was their city. Smyrna is one those of cities. However, ancient writer Strabo affirms the existence of a structure dedicated to Homer, called Homereion, in Smyrna. This wasn’t enough for Smyrnians, though. They stamped Homer’s face on their coins and built sculptures of him.

While currently lost, it is known that the town had Zeus, Olympos, Dionysos, Apollon, Asklepios, Mother Goddess (Metroon), Rome and Augustus Temples, and all other Roman and Greek deities were sacred as well.

Smyrna in the Late Antiquity

Constantine I (Constantine the Great) (A.D. 305-337) ordered the construction of a new city on top of the Greek Byzantion and named it after himself before declaring Constantinople the new capital of the Empire. In the meantime, Theodosius I literally divided the empire in two, with the western half at Honorius’ reign and the eastern half at Arcadius’.

During the reign of Emperor Arcadius (395-408), some of the walls of Smyrna were rebuilt by Proconsul (Governor) Anthypatos Anatolios and named after the emperor. The unrest caused by the Goths who served as mercenaries in the Eastern Roman army in the 4th century AD, and the plunder and damage caused by the Goths settled in Inner West Anatolia, and the security problems caused by the uprising of the Isaurians living in the mountainous region between Pisidia (Lake Region) and Pamphylia (Antalya Region). It caused Anatolios to quickly review the walls of Smyrna.

In the 5th century AD, the Church of Smyrna, which was home to the oldest community of Christianity, has now gained its independence, and the Bishop of Smyrna, which is affiliated to the Ephesus Church, was recognized as an independent archbishop at the Nikaia (Iznik) Council. As a matter of fact, it is possible to understand from the numerous examples of ampulla (pilgrim oil bottles) found in archaeological excavations that the Christian faith was respected in all layers of the population in Smyrna in the 5th century.

Eastern Roman/Byzantine empire faced anarchy and civil war upon the assassination of Emperor Maurice and the crowning of Phocas. Sasanian King Khosrow Parviz (Khosrow II) claimed vengeance on the assassination of Maurice, who helped him take over power. Khosrow II’s armies are known to have crossed Anatolia in A.D. 609 towards Sardis and Ephesus, looting and rampaging these cities. We have no information concerning Sasanians having reached or harmed Smyrna. Yet an inscription discovered in Basmane during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641) indicates the walls of Smyrna were still standing in defense.

Following the Sasanians, Smyrna was conquered in the second half of the seventh century by Muslim Arabs who aimed to conquer Istanbul, in 654 by Mu'awiya I, the governor of Syria, and in 672 by an Arab navy led by Muhammad Ibn Abdallah. Then the Muslim Umayyad Arabs spent the winter of 672 in Smyrna, and sieged Istanbul for five years beginning in 673. When they failed to conquer the city, they withdrew from Istanbul and Smyrna. It is possible that burnt dwellings discovered in the Altınpark Archaeological Site are correlated with these conquests in the seventh century.