Unlike so many remains of Greek settlements, Priene has not been turned into a Roman city. What a delightful blessing!
Priene, like neighboring Miletus and Ephesos, was part of the Ionian League, regrouping twelve city-states that existed already before 1000 BC. Around 450 BC, the city was designed by the same architect as Miletus. His name was Hippodamus, after whom the well-known and most popular Hippodamian plan was named and used all over the Hellenistic world.
Priene was occupied in turns by Athens and Persia, but after the death of King Mausolus in 353 BC the city fell under Athenian rule. It is said that Alexander stayed here in 334 BC while besieging Miletus. It is in Priene that he received the embassy led by Glaucippus, a well-respected citizen of Miletus, who suggested leaving the harbor available to both Persians and Macedonians at will. This did not fit Alexander’s purpose; keeping an important port as Miletus open to the Persians was far too dangerous in his eyes. Alexander must have spent several months in Priene which had willingly surrendered to the Macedonian King for Miletus was a tough nut to crack (see: Miletus, Alexander’s first siege in Asia).
Priene occupies an impressive location and can be spotted from afar. It is nestled against the Mycale Mountain, and the location somehow reminds me of Delphi. A steep and stepped road runs upwards to the very city walls, two meters wide and six meters high. The spaced freestanding watchtowers are rather exceptional for this meant that they could easily be rebuilt in case of destruction. The rampart and the city gate is what the visitor sees first after a pretty strenuous climb – impressive!
The main road inevitably leads to the Hellenistic theater built at the same time as the city itself and seating 5,000 visitors spread over 50 rows and resting against the gentle mountain slope. Five marble VIP-seats around the orchestra are still in place and were not removed as usual during Roman modifications. Across from the theater lies the upper Gymnasium from the 4th century BC and several later Byzantine buildings.
Further down the street, one can hardly miss the Temple of Athena with its slender bluish-grey marble Ionian columns pointing to the sky that were reassembled thanks to the many drums lying around. Pytheos, who also was the architect of the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassos, had just started building this temple when Alexander arrived. As a matter of course, the King immediately financed its construction and a dedication to that effect, now at the British Museum in London, reads “King Alexander has dedicated this temple to Athena Polias”. How unique that this testimony survived the centuries for it makes Alexander’s presence almost palpable. The temple measured 19.55x37.20m and had eleven columns lengthwise and six for its width. An altar of Athena Polias including the relief of a Muse from the 2nd century BC has been unearthed and is now on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Pytheos never finished the job and the temple was finally completed by Emperor Augustus who from then onward was worshiped here together with Athena.
In the next city block, we find the remains of an 116 meters-long Sacred Stoa, erected between 130-112 BC. The Stoa’s wooden roof was like so often, supported by two rows of columns, Doric on the outside and Ionic on the inside, splitting the more than twelve meters wide promenade in two. This Stoa, dating from the 3rd century BC ran parallel with the 75 meters-long Agora that was reached by six steps since the square laid about 1.5 meters lower. One end of the Agora was reserved for the fish and meat market and the other end was occupied by a temple dedicated to Asclepius.
Just behind the Sacred Stoa is the Bouleuterion, a square Council Hall seating 640 delegates and the best-preserved building in Priene. The auditorium is surrounded on three sides by rows of benches, 16 on the north side and 10 on either side. In the center of this Bouleuterion from the 2nd century BC stands an altar decorated with wreaths and bulls’ heads. The original columns supporting the protecting wooden roof are still in place also. The adjacent Prytaneum where daily administrative operations were carried out is more difficult to find. The only indication is a stray column with inscription since this was the Sacred Heart of the City that kept the eternal burning sacred fire.
The street running along the Agora ends at the western city gate and is lined with private houses. It is believed that Alexander lived in one of the houses on the left-hand side, probably because a statue of the conqueror was found here; yet there is no hard proof for this theory, however tempting it sounds! The statue moreover dates from the 2nd century BC and can be seen at the Altes Museum in Berlin. The house itself, nicely sign-posted, is not different from its neighbors in the street, except maybe for the sacrificial table found in one of the smaller rooms. Moreover, this street is surprisingly Greek with the gutter running on the side of the pavement, very much unlike Roman roads.
During my very first visit I had not looked into the geographical situation of Priene and standing here high above the vast flat plain below, it instantly occurred to me that this was an alluvial plain created by a river (in this case the Maeander). This means that in Alexander’s days all the land below was sea and that in order to reach Miletus he had to make quite a detour, skirting the eastern foothills. Priene itself never had a direct access to the sea, and its harbor was the nearby town of Naulochos. How strange to be reading history like this. The islands mentioned by ancient writers are now reduced to mere bumps in the landscape as pointed out by Peter Sommer during my next trip.
After Alexander’s victory over the Persians, Priene like all the other Ionian cities widely prospered. A small testimony of its wealth can be found at the Altes Museum in Berlin where we can admire some splendid statues of Dionysus, Aphrodite and of an unknown young man.
Of course, not much of the city dates from Alexander’s days but it definitely is Hellenistic and not “spoiled” by the Romans. This makes it quite a unique place to take in. So much history has been written in Priene and yet only a few tourists bother to stop here, while the city is so filled with past sounds of the Macedonian army and if you listen carefully, the soft breeze may still carry the name of Alexander.