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Sardis

Not too many years back, a reader wrote to express his disappointment that Sardis was absent in this guide. So I set about to find out whether Sardis was indeed all that. Let's just start by saying that even if you have absolutely no context of the ancient city in advance of a visit, you will be wowed.

Sardis was the commercial and religious capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, made most famous (or infamous) for the 4th-century-B.C. ruler with the Midas touch: Croesus, who reportedly went about town with his pockets stuffed with gold pieces recovered from the nearby Pactolus River. Hmmm. Announce that there's gold in them thar hills and don't be surprised when the raiding empires arrive. Persian ruler Cyrus wrested control of Lydia from Croesus, and under Persian rule, Lydia rose to become the most powerful kingdom in all of Asia Minor. The kingdom fell to Alexander the Great in 334 B.C., and then was apportioned to the Kingdom of Pergamon after Alexander's death. The city continued to prosper through the Byzantine era (when it was a central diocese and recipient of a solid fifth of the letters to the Seven Churches of the Revelation), until the 14th century when it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

So my question is: Where are the riches? For the most part, they are all gone, stripped away by looters long ago (but short of digging a very deep hole -- I looked). Actually, early in the 20th century, excavations being carried out by Princeton University uncovered a pot of gold and silver coinage, so apparently either we're late or we need bigger shovels. Excavations cosponsored by Harvard and Cornell universities have been ongoing since 1959 and have focused on unearthing the Lydian period, a tall order given that ancient Lydia sits 2m (6 1/2 ft.) below the Roman roadways, which themselves are buried beneath meters of earth sequestered under village residences, chicken coops, and fields of wheat, barley, cotton, and corn. The monumental marble Roman avenue, partially (minusculely, as most of it is buried beneath the asphalt road) excavated on the south side of the site, spanned a width of 19m (62 ft.), more than double the width of the current highway.

In the past 100 or so years of excavations, more than 11,000 artifacts have been uncovered, the more recent and notable of which (found in the Temple of Artemis) was a 1.2m-tall (4-ft.) marble head of what is presumed to represent either Marcus Aurelius or his son, Commodus.

The open-air museum comprises the section of the city that served as the Gymnasium and Bathhouse, a 2-hectare (5-acre) complex that includes the Palestra, Caldarium, and Frigidarium, as well as the largest synagogue of the ancient world, a classically appointed space of geometrical tile mosaics occupying the southeastern corner of the Palestra (gifted to the Jewish community in recognition of its value; synagogues were normally sited on the periphery of the cities). The east-facing monumental facade of the Palestra is believed to be a 3rd-century-A.D. construction of Roman emperors and brothers, Geta and Caracalla.

The colonnaded arcade that flanks the exterior of the Palestra is lined by a extended string of Byzantine-era shops, whose second stories have long disappeared, leaving stone staircases to nowhere. Several of the shops are identifiable by inscriptions on the doorway or on the odd marble basin.

Exiting from the museum and heading to the right across the main village road to the next perpendicular on the left is a road leading to the Temple of Artemis. On your way to the temple the road passes an enclosed excavation that revealed (thanks to the gold dust found in the cracks of pottery found here) the Lydian mint, or the gold refinery where Lydia's renowned coinage was created. A bit farther along the Roman road are the ruins of a 13th-century basilica. The basilica is the only known example in Anatolia with five cupolas.

The temple of Artemis is the fourth-largest Ionic temple of the ancient world, dug out of millennia of landslides and earthquakes. The temple dates to the Hellenistic era inaugurated with Alexander's conquest. The oldest portion of the temple was constructed during this period around a preexisting altar of red sandstone also dedicated to Artemis, and perhaps additionally, to Cybele. In 175 to150 B.C., Zeus was added to the pantheon of the temple.

72km (45 miles) east of Izmir (follow the road through Türgütlü and then Ahmetli; the ancient site of Sardis is located in the village of Sart). Admission 3TL.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.