In 1964 the Turkish Armenian photographer visited Geyre, south of Nazilli, and took astonishing pictures of villagers living in and around the remains of the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias, so named because of the cult of Aphrodite that was so important to it. Those images are haunting reminders of a life that was about to change completely because the villagers were soon moved away to Yeni Geyre, freeing up the site for archaeologists to excavate it.
For those who love archaeological sites the evacuation of the site was probably wise and for many visitors Aphrodisias offers strong competition to Ephesus as Turkey’s finest site. But at the same time something was undoubtedly lost as is made clear at the small gallery that shows off some of Güler’s pictures in what was once a village coffeehouse. For me, the most unforgettable image is the one that depicts two men casually seated on a fine marble bench left over from Roman times. As they chat they seem completely oblivious to the great age of their seat.
But although Güler undoubtedly brought Aphrodisias to the world’s attention it was not exactly unknown before. Not surprisingly, Gertrude Bell had visited it in 1907 when en route to work on the Byzantine churches at Binbirkilise. She took the train from Aydın to Kuyucak, beyond Nazilli, and then rode down to the ruins, picnicking amid the remains of the great Temple of Aphrodite that had been converted into a church in Byzantine times.
But neither Gertrude nor Güler saw what have since become the greatest glory of Aphrodisias: the carvings that once adorned the Sebasteion, a great temple to the imperial cult that was only excavated in the late 1970s. These are now displayed in a purpose-designed gallery in the museum on the site where they quietly make a powerful argument for the return of the Elgin Marbles by showing how helpful it is to be able to look at the carvings just metres away from the building to which they once belonged.
Today Aphrodisias is a major tourist attraction. But Gertrude’s travels in the area also took her to some far less well-known sites, including Blaundos, a site near Uşak so little visited that none of the local taxi drivers could even find it on a map.
None of the structures surviving at Blaundos is a patch on what can be seen at Aphrodisias. But, oh, the location! Stepping through what had once been a gate in the city walls I found myself standing on a ridge rather like the bigger one at Ani, near Kars. Where the ridge at Ani is fringed by rivers, Blaundos has only deep ravines but these give the setting an almost matchless drama. Looking down into them and imagining Gertrude arriving on horseback I felt as envious of her as I had felt of Güler while looking at his picture of the two men.