Aphrodite’s temple at Knidos

Aphrodite’s temple at Knidos – Turkey

Richard Hodges

Knidos is a mariner’s city, situated at the end of a long spindly Turkish peninsula jutting out towards the Dodecanese islands of Cos, Nicyros and Telos. It is renowned for its wine, vinegar and above all for Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite. The statue has long since disappeared, but the elegantly proportioned podium of the round temple in which it stood was discovered twenty-five years ago. The temple was built in the fourth century BC to Aphrodite Euploia, the Aphrodite of fair voyages. It was a merchants, temple. the cathedral of a city whose rationale was commerce.

The temple dates from the foundation of Knidos in about 360 BC, when its citizens moved their city from an inlet surrounded by fertile lands at Datca, fifty miles to the east, to this barren, waterless, but dramatic headland known as Cape Crio. The Knidians, then under Persian hegemony, understood the promise of this unlikely site. When the meltem, the strong northwest wind, blows, ships sailing from the south are unable to round the cape. Obliged to shelter for days at a time in the great commercial harbour constructed by the Knidians, wayfarers were compelled to contribute substantially to the port’s revenues.

Aphrodite’s temple was the symbol of this new venture. It was circular with eighteen Doric columns which supported a cupola. The altar, on which sacrifices were made to the goddess, faced the temple’s main entrance, located on the east side. Here stood the remarkable statue made by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles (active c. 370-300 BC). It is known that in about 360 he had made two versions of the goddess. The clothed version was purchased by the Coans, while the other, portraying the goddess in naturalibus, was chosen by the Knidians as the principal ornament of their new city. Why the great sculptor made these two works remains unknown, but it was the Knidian Aphrodite, which over the subsequent millennium was the subject of profound appreciation as well as prurient voyeurism.

Pliny the Elder tells us that this marine Venus stood `in a shrine which allowed the image of the goddess to be viewed from every side’. A fuller description exists in a dialogue known as the Erotes (love Affairs), ascribed to the second-century AD satirist and philosopher, Lucian of Samosata. The account is almost certainly the work of a later imitator of Lucian, but conveys why the Aphrodite, of Knidos became the standard against which all subsequent representations of feminine beauty were measured:

In approaching the sacred enclosure we were fanned by the most delicious breezes; for within, no polished pavement spreads its barren surface, but the area as suited to a sanctuary of venus, abounds with productive trees … canopying the air around … In the centre (of the temple) stands the goddess, formed of Parian marble – a half-suppressed smile is on her mouth. No drapery conceals her beauty, nor is any part hidden except that which is covered unconsciously as it were by the left hand. Charicles [Lucian’s companion] cried aloud … and springing forward … he repeatedly kissed the statue.

The American archaeologist, Iris Cornelia Love, uncovered a round temple, precisely where it should have been at the westernmost end of the site, on the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The temple occupies the freshest spot in summer, where, looking out to Cos, it would have been conspicuous to sailors passing from Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) to Rhodes. Love used dynamite to blast away the great fall of scree above the platform.

Armies of Turkish peasants wearing goggles to protect their eyes from the dust billowing in the prevailing summer breeze excavated the remains. on the intermediate terrace below the sanctuary four parallel rows of theatre-like seats with at least two stepped aisles were uncovered. A section of a frieze of dancing girls suggests an Ionic building, perhaps an associated shrine. Directly behind the round temple other buildings were found, one of which was probably the treasury. By any standards this complex was of modest size, but the vestigial remains indicate that it was majestic in design.

The ancient city of Knidos was effectively rediscovered in the eighteenth century. James Caulfield, fourth Viscount Charlemont, visited Knidos on Sunday November 9th, 1749. Trapped by adverse winds he rowed himself ashore, and recalled Horace’s Ode `Who holds Knidos and the gleaming Cyclades, and visits Paphos with yoked swans’. Soon after him the Society of Dilettanti took a serious antiquarian interest in the ruins, and in the 1760s put it on the Grand Tour map. But a further century was to pass before Knidos gained wide renown.

In the 1950s the acting consul of Rhodes, Charles Newton, unearthed great tracts of the metropolis. Newton’s ambitious project won support from the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, to search for the sculptures and other antiquities on behalf of the British Museum. Parliament voted him 2,000 [pounds] as well as the corvette H.M.S. Gorgon, 150 sailors and a band of sappers for these purposes. His meticulous reports attest to a military campaign that established Newton (later Professor of Archaeology in the University of London) as a renowned archaeologist. Meanwhile, the engineers prepared the first large-scale survey of any classical city, emphatically demonstrating the quality of ancient metropolitan planning. Newton’s great excavations, however, were outstanding but far from comprehensive. A hundred years later Iris Cornelia Love was drawn to Knidos in search of the celebrated `Aphrodite, that Newton, not for want of trying, had failed to find.

Knidos may be remote, but its situation is stunning. The geographer Strabo described Knidos as a theatre, rising up from the Aegean. A thin isthmus of land joins the main city to Cape Crio; either side of it are harbours – the trireme harbour looks westwards towards Cos, the commercial harbour south towards Rhodes. Its origins are contentious, Iris Love found remains of a Minoan port belonging, to c. 1500 BC. But it was the distinguished architect, Hippodamos of Miletus, who designed a new city on a grid plan approximately three kilometres long and one kilometre wide. Long, straight, paved, parallel streets traversed the hillsides, with numerous stepped cross streets, either side of which were monumental ashlar buildings.

Today, it is a wonderfully emotive place to visit. Untended though the remains are, from the podium on which Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, stood there is an ethereal panorama of the deep blue seaways to the north, out towards Cos, and then the entire span of the city from Cape Crio with its nineteenth-century lighthouse, across the harbours, and back along the tobacco terraces of tumbled rubble where the ancient stoa (roofed colonnade) lay, and beyond it, the theatre.

From Aphrodite’s temple the ancients would have confronted a metropolitan panorama as dense and diverse as any in the world today. It belonged to an age of commoditisation, a fact plainly evident from the potsherds – the tin cans of the day – which form the rusty-coloured aggregate of the soil. It belonged to an age of European urbanisation and commerce that linked Scandinavia to the Sahara, Spain to the Urals.

Today the view from the round temple could not be more different. This is a shrine to an unspoiled oasis where seascape and landscape meet without the interruption of modem concrete. Urbanisation and commoditisation have been swept away from the changing axes of the global economy. Today’s sailors are on vacation, pausing in the safe waters of the commercial harbour to lunch at one of the makeshift cafes beside the shore. No spectrum of ruins better conveys the decline of a civilisation, and the changing rhythms of our European history. Iris Love never found the statue. The adoption of Christianity almost Certainly compelled the cult of the goddess to be pursued in secret. Then, one Byzantine source asserts, the statue was taken to Constantinople where it perished in a fire. Iris Cornelia Love herself claimed that a battered sculpture despatched by Charles Newton to the British Museum was in fact Praxiteles’ masterpiece. More probably, like so many inscriptions and statues, it was used as building material in one of the many early Christian churches that distinguish Knidos, as all great classical cities, in their Indian summer before the cataclysmic economic collapse of the seventh century.

That this haunting beauty is missing, we might conclude, further heightens the spirit of the place. Aphrodite’s round temple – once the heart of Knidos – contains a secret that, across a millennium of city-life, and al further millennium of abandonment – makes this an unforgettable place to visit.

Richard Hodges, formerly Director of the British School at Rome, is soon to take up a professorship of archaeology at the University of East Anglia.

COPYRIGHT 1996 History Today Ltd.

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