A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Welcome to our online tour of Assos! A major metropolis in antiquity, Assos was the site of the Archaeological Institute of America's first excavations, directed by Francis Bacon in the 1880s. Today, Assos is overseen by archaeologist Nurettin Arslan of the University of Çanakkale. Recently, AIA online editorial director Mark Rose toured the site with colleague Şengul Aydıngün and photographer Haldun Aydıngün. Dr. Arslan cordially accompanied them and showed them this extraordinary site, one of best preserved in this region but eclipsed on the tourist trail by Troy to the north and Ephesus to the south. Until you can visit Assos in person, we hope you enjoy this virtual excursion to this spectacular site. For more about the site and the AIA's excavations there, see archive.archaeology.org/assos.
On the Aegean coast of Turkey, facing the sea and overlooking the island of Lesbos, are the ruins of Assos. The ancient city was centered around a prominent hilltop that descends steeply toward the Aegean on its south side. On the gentler northern slope is the little village of Behramkale.
North Section & Bridge
Driving to Assos from the modern city of Cannakale to the north, passing by Troy en route, you cross the Tuzla stream on a modern bridge that runs parallel to the old Ottoman one. On the far side, the road begins to ascend toward Behramkale and Assos. The acropolis of Assos, reaching 238 meters above sea level, is still protected by towers and walls and crowned by the ruins of a sixth-century B.C. temple to the goddess Athena.
The Village of Behramhale
The old village grew on the north slope of Assos, out of sight from the sea, possibly because of concerns about piracy prevalent in the middle ages. Houses throughout the village differ according to the date they were built, creating an architectural mosaic. Behramkale has gained a bohemian reputation from its local arts and crafts community.
Acropolis & Temple of Athena
Atop the acropolis is the temple of Athena, which was built around 530 B.C. The temple is unusual because some elements are of Doric style (the columns), but its decorative frieze is characteristic of the Ionic order. The reliefs from the frieze, which depict centaurs, animals, and human figures are in museums in Istanbul, Çanakkale, Paris, and Boston. Capitals and columns scattered around the site and are in a fairly good state, and enough exist to re-create a corner of the temple. Beginning in 2008, Turkish archaeologists, supported by the AIA, will dismantle the standing columns set-up in the 1980s using modern concrete replacements (see www.sitepreservation.org).
Assos' spectacular layout is apparent from the acropolis, and the view in every direction is stunning. On the east, traces of ancient walls appear above dense shrubs and trees. To the north are the red-tiled roofs of the houses of Behramkale. West and south, the ancient ruins are exposed on a series of terraces below the acropolis. In the distance is the Aegean and the island of Lesbos.
Northwest Wall & Polygonal Wall
Continuing the exploration of Assos, descend back through Behramkale and head toward the west gate. The modern road passes a prominent section of the fourth-century wall with several square towers. The wall is discontinuous here, but farther along, toward the west, one section incorporates part of an earlier, sixth-century B.C. wall, the polygonal masonry of which stands out in contrast to the rectangular blocks of the later one. Remains of this early polygonal wall have been documented throughout the site. Different masonry types can be used to identify different periods and show how structures are re-used throughout the centuries. More recent recycling is seen in the removal of ancient stone blocks to build houses in Behramkale during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Western Necropolis & the Tomb of Publius Varius
The main street on the west side of Assos was lined by burials, and because of this was given the name "Street of Tombs" by the American excavators. Visitors today can walk along its length to the Western gate, through which you'd enter the city in antiquity. Family burial precincts are marked by clusters of andesite sarcophagi. In addition there are a few burials in large ceramic jars or pithoi. Immediately to the left of the gate is the monumental tomb of Publius Varius.
West Wall & Gate
Built around the fourth century B.C., the city's strong fortification walls are among its most impressive remains. In the western section, the great walls can be seen clearly from both the acropolis and as you walk up the Street of Tombs. The west gate is a magnificent sight, with the left tower still standing more than 14 m.
Behind the West Gate: Civic Center
After entering the west gate, the street passes through the civic center of ancient Assos, which was set on a broad terrace below the acropolis and above the theater. Immediately to the left of the west gate was the gymnasium, where the upper class youths exercised and were taught. Little remains here from a second-century B.C. gymnasium that was possibly an alteration of an older gym where Aristotle once taught. Beyond the gymnasium was a shrine commemorating an unknown hero, the marketplace or agora, and the council house or bouleuterion, dated to the second and third century B.C. The agora at Assos was demarcated by stoas--long, colonnaded buildings that would have held shops and offices--on its north and south sides. To the east, are the foundations of the bouleuterion. The view from the agora of the Aegean and the island of Lesbos is stunning. Below, one sees the theater, which also reaps the benefit of this magnificent vista.
The theater of Assos has a spectacular view of the Aegean and Lesbos. Directly below the south stoa of the agora and perched above the harbor, it could hold some 5,000 spectators. Well-preserved in part, sections of the theater have been reconstructed with concrete blocks.
During their excavations in the 1880s, the American crew stayed at the harbor. Francis Bacon wrote of the camels bringing loads of acorns (used for dye) and of making the long hike up to the acropolis several times each day. The harbor today has several small guesthouses and restaurants.
Although little of the eastern section of Assos has been excavated, remains of the eastern wall and necropolis as well as ancient streets can be seen.
The Çanakkale Museum houses a few reliefs from the temple of Athena as well as artifacts from many other sites in the region, including Troy, Tenedos, and Alexandreia Troas.
Haldun Aydıngün manages a textile export company based in Istanbul but is an avid mountain climber and professional photographer. Being married to archaeologist Şengul Aydıngün has added another element to his wide-ranging interests. "In order to excel as an archaeological photographer," he says, "you not only have to increase your knowledge of the subject, but you also need the physical fitness and instincts of a mountaineer." Haldun's photos have appeared in several issues of ARCHAEOLOGY, notably in the feature stories "New Hope for a Forgotten City" (about Assos), "Under Istanbul" (about discoveries made during metro construction), and "Saving a Fabled Sanctuary" (about restoration efforts in Haghia Sophia). His publications also include mountaineering guidebooks and sci-fi novels he has authored. For more, www.aydingun.com.