There is no doubt that visiting ancient sites as part of an excursion is both a fun and enlightening experience. The goosebumps you feel when you are exposed to such environments are often inexpressible but are only sensible episodes. Standing on vast fields once inhabited by the first residents of Izmir, gazing at the same aeolic columns which perhaps was touched by Homer himself, and passing through the same marble gate once passed by the great magistrates of Rome are only a few of the instances you would encounter. In one’s mind, such sceneries inevitably create a time-travelling effect, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to state that there aren’t myriad activities in our daily lives that genuinely make us feel like we are travelling in time. In Izmir, you can take this time-travelling effect one step forward. Within merely a single day and in the very same city, one can relive 8500 years of history. You may think that this statement sounds quite bold, and that is understandable, yet, this is indeed the reality of Izmir. This article will provide you with a glimpse of this reality. From the neolithic settlement of Yeşilova Mound to Old Smyrna, and from Helleno-Roman Smyrna to the modern one, the four historical faces of Izmir will be chronologically and briefly conveyed here. So buckle up and prepare yourself for a journey of 8500 years!
A Humble Beginning: Yeşilova Mound
Everything has a start, and Izmir’s is in Yeşilova Mound. Archaeological evidence suggests that around 6500 BCE, the first residents of the city flourished in this specific area; within the historical period called the Neolithic Age. The general advancements in this period may briefly be summed up in two principal aspects. These are transitioning to permanent settlements from hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle and domestication of animals and plants. Wouldn’t you agree that they found the perfect spot to finally give up moving around? A location that directly opens up to the Aegean Sea was undoubtedly as mesmerizing as it is today and was definitely an ideal place for maritime and trade-related developments. Naturally, their decision to settle here shaped their daily diet as well. Even though they didn’t have the top-notch seafood restaurants that we have in the Izmir quay now, they never ceased to consume seafood. According to the stratigraphic data, bream, sea snail, bivalve mollusk, and tower snail were just a few of their favourites.
In the fertile green plains surrounded by mountains, they lived in small oval and rectangular huts made of stone walls and mud-coated organic materials. Although these weren’t monumental structures, they were in harmony with the environment. Archeologists note that due to the prehistoric builders choice of material and architectural manner, their huts remained cool during summers and warm in winters. Their craftsmanship is apparent in the handiwork they produced as well. In their atelier-like spaces, they practiced weaving, stonework and pottery. For instance, a motif of a special and beautiful animal known as the Anatolian Leopard can be seen on a few of the potsherds. The question of why they decorated their pots with this fierce predator is open to interpretation, but it is highly possible that they considered leopards sacred. We bet you wouldn’t think of a better choice for a sacred animal; what’s cooler than a leopard, right?
In the Yeşilova Visitor Centre, an award-winning building located in Bornova district, you may thoroughly experience and observe how the first residents of Izmir lived. In case you are wondering, yes, you can go into the neolithic huts constructed faithfully using similar materials with archaeological evidence in mind. Beware of the leopards though!
The City of Myths and Legends: Old Smyrna
The journey of Old Smyrna began as early as the Bronze Age (3000 BCE), but archaeological data regarding these early stages is not as rich as later periods. Both ancient literary sources and archaeological findings present that the city began to distinguish itself during the Iron Age (1100 BCE - 750 BCE) and reached its golden days in the first half of the Archaic Age. You may be wondering why Old Smyrna specifically began to prosper in the 10th century BCE and onwards; that is because the migration waves of Greeks from mainland Greece to Asia Minor occurred intensively around this century. Thus, Old Smyrna was initially founded by the Aeolians—who were one of the major Greek tribes—and with their touch, the city took shape its current archaeological form as the remains point. As a consequence of its ideal location, which is the foothills of Mount Yamanlar—a rich material deposit— that opens up to the gulf, the city established extensive commercial relations with nearby settlements and erected monumental structures such as the Temple of Athena.
There are many myths and legends regarding where the city’s name originated from. Some scholars say that it took its name from a famed Amazon and others indicate that it came from the mythological figure Myrrha whose handsome son Adonis infatuated the goddess, Aphrodite. Besides the interesting story of how the city's name came to be, there is something greater about Old Smyrna; Homer himself. With his two epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey, he became the most important figure for western literature. Although no one truly knows where he specifically lived, Old Smyrna comes forward as one of the strongest candidates for Homer’s hometown. Various ancient literary sources suggest the same, and the fact that these epic poems were recited and written mostly in Aeolic and Ionian dialect is surely another giveaway. So when you are strolling around the Temple of Athena surrounded by olive trees, close your eyes and be sure to listen to the sound of the winds that may bear the utterance of Homer, who might as well be watching over you.
A Helleno-Roman Wonder: Smyrna
Throughout its lifespan, Old Smyrna was sieged by both the Lydians and the Persians. In the 4th century BCE, a significant part of the city's population was dispersed, and the heyday of the settlement was long gone. In these dire circumstances, someone who rerouted the destiny of the Smyrnians appeared. Now think about one of those superhero movies where the two sides clash, and in a specific moment when one side is getting overwhelmed, a great character comes forward and repels the dominant side. For Smyrnians, that figure was Alexander the Great, except that Alexander did not arrive at Smyrna through one of Doctor Strange’s magical portals. With the magnificent armies that he inherited from his father—Philip II—Alexander began his conquest of Asia, and in circa 333 BCE he arrived at Smyrna. Under his guidance and with the help of his generals, Smyrnians were settled and found their new city at the foothill of Mount Pagos overseeing the entire gulf and region.
Fast-forwarding to the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE, the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pergamon—which Smyrna was part of—was bequeathed entirely by its last king to the Roman Republic. Thus, the city became part of Rome, and the region that encircled Smyrna was annexed as the Province of Asia. From that moment on, the city only answered to the Roman senate and its consuls. Romans were master builders, and when their sense of architecture was merged with the former Hellenistic architecture, Smyrna became a city that was a delight to look at. When describing Smyrna in his writings, the Greek geographer Strabo stated, "their city is now the most beautiful of all."
Roman Emperors showed a great interest in the city, so much so that Smyrna was given the title of neocorate twice, first by Tiberius and later by Hadrian. It was an honorary title earned by cities that established good relations with the Emperor by building a temple exclusive to his cult. Hadrian, one of these emperors, visited the city with his entourage. In other words, Smyrna was a city that was worthy of the emperor's visit. You may ask why this is a big deal? Well, think of it as Drake visiting your hometown for a concert, except that he doesn’t rule the entire Mediterranean. You get the idea. Therefore, be sure to follow the steps of Emperor Hadrian, one of the Five Good Emperors, so that you will get the chance to walk on the same paths once walked by him.
A Contemporary Beauty: Izmir
And here we are, the last stop on our journey. The one and only Izmir. You didn’t think that 8500 years could conclude without the current, did you? With her everlasting cultural heritage, she embraces innumerable travellers every year and leaves her unique mark in the minds and hearts of those who visit her. No matter what street you are on and which view you are gazing at, there is remarkable historicity about it. All of the layers, Hellenistic, Roman, Ottoman and the Modern Republic were melted and amalgamated in a single pot; hence, modern Izmir came forward as an exquisite mosaic where every piece has a prodigious and distinct characteristic. Expectedly, such a multi-cultural structure shapes the fabric of social attributes. It’s not a coincidence that Izmir is one of the most welcoming cities of Turkey. Coexistence was and is what Izmir is all about.
So, whether you are walking around in one of the largest open-air bazaars in the world, Kemeraltı, or planning to spend your night at its famous quay, don’t be a stranger because we bet you will easily find a corner that will speak to your soul. Of course, your soul is not going to be the only thing that will be spoken to in Izmir, your tastebuds and ears will get their fair share of delightfulness as the city’s traditional dishes and music-filled streets mesmerize you. Let Izmir unfold her modern beauty and values before you, for that is the only proper way to complete your 8500 years of journey.
Author: Erol Degirmenci