The Greek history of Asia Minor stretches back into the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. Its cities and peoples feature in the great histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. And later the Greek writer Pausanias would record the places and people of the Greek world in his travel guide.
Many modern travellers will be aware of the great Greek settlements on Asia Minor’s Aegean Coast such as Ephesus, Pergamum, and Miletus. But little-known Erythrae was once of the most important of these cities. Its antiquity dates from the 10th century BCE and while the Ionian settlers of the region hailed from Athens, legend attributes Erythrae’s settlement to the Cretan leader Erythrus who gave it his name. It formed part of the powerful Pan-Ionian League and played its part in the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. It remained a Greek city throughout the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, only to suffer the devastation that be-fell the Greeks of Asia Minor in 1922.
Recently I journeyed to the remains of the city, driving along the peninsula from the town of Cesme. As I approached the outskirts of the modern village of Ildira, the former Greek village of Lithra, the outlines of this once powerful settlement became clear.
On the left of the road, towards the bay, lie the remains of a Roman-era villa. This stands testimony to the fact that under the Roman Empire Erythrae, with its beautiful views and abundant hinterland, thrived as a sought after resort town with luxury villas. Walking among the remains – many half buried due to the suspension of excavations due to a lack of funding – you get a clear impression of the size and luxurious nature of the villas that once dotted the area.
Leaving the villa and returning to the road, we venture further into the village itself. Near the village cafe lies a Hellenistic-era mosaic floor featuring griffins. I take the laneway east that leads to the remains of the main public centre of ancient Erythrae itself.
Erythrae’s authority once extended over the surrounding hinterland and the whole Cesme peninsula. No doubt reflecting the excellent climate noted by Herodotus, the city was famed for its wine and fine flour. The citizens enjoyed warm springs and baths which were “highly esteemed throughout Ionia for their medicinal efficacy” according to the Greek writer Strabo. And the nearby river had special healing properties according to the Roman writer Pliny.
It was a spiritual centre too. Pausanias writes that Erythae’s Temple of Athene Polias was entered by an approach of white stone statues representing the Graces and Seasons, while inside a great wooden statue of Athene held a staff with the universe at her head. The city also contained a Temple of Heracles, named the Herakleion, displaying a famed image of the Greek hero won from Chios by a rope made from the hair of the Thracian women who resided in the town. To view the image was “to gasp” as Pausanias wrote. Here too resided renowned Sybils or prophetesses, including Hierophile and Atheneas, the latter of whom is recorded as having foretold the divinity of Alexander the Great. The city would honour Alexander with solemn games.
A traveller in the 18th century wrote of the ruins of the deserted ancient city. But archaeological excavations carried out in the 1960s have revealed the immensity of Erythrae’s remains. One cannot but be impressed.
Walking through the small avenue of trees and remains of the walls of the city, we come upon the large amphitheatre of Erythrae, built into the northern side of the hill upon which the citadel of the ancient city rests. It is quite impressive even though only partly excavated.
The way it looks it seems to emerge out of the earth, from the past. The entrance to the amphitheatre is littered with various stone relics which no doubt formed the columns, walls and buildings of the surrounding structures.
I imagine the people of the city assembling to witness performances of their favourite plays. And as the wind rustles through the trees, I wonder if I hear the echoes of the laughter of the audience as they respond to a comedy by Aristophanes. And maybe as citizens of a city that had sent its sailors and ships off to war they had sat here solemnly taking in Aeschylus’ 5th century BCE drama The Persians with its lesson of the terrible human cost of war.
Walking up the central steps, you can see the great bay to the west and the abundant fields to the east which once supplied the wine and flour for which the city was famous. Continuing on through the trees one enters a plateau and the remains of a Byzantine-era church. While the roof of the church is long gone, a large part of the walls of the great basilica remain, its central arches and stout walls testament to the builders of the era. This is the Church of St Marona. I am always fascinated with the stone remains of such structures. I imagine the stonemasons carving the stones from which the church will be built, the grooves of their instruments evidence of their labours is clearly visible.
Wandering further on, I come upon the site of the remains of the Temple of Athene Polias and Erythrea’s Acropolis. Long gone is the statue of Athene and indeed not much remains to help us envisage this great temple apart from a few stone footings and wall fragments. Yet standing on the summit and gazing at the magnificent view as the sun began to wane, I appreciated why the Greek settlers of the city chose this spot for their great Acropolis and their Temple. And where they channelled their ancestors from Athens, whose descendents had similarly erected a magnificent temple to Athene on their very own Acropolis!
Later I would travel to nearby Chios and visit its Archaeological Museum – and it would bring me back to Erythrae. For within its collection is a stone stele, erected by the people of Erythiria, setting out the laws and justice system of the city.
It’s quite amazing to be standing before this stone, with its carved letters communicating with us from the distant past: and only a day before I was standing in the acropolis and amphitheatre of the very same city. I had walked the paths of those who had carved and erected this important legal marker.
Gazing across the bay from Erythrea, to Chios and beyond, the strong Hellenic connections of this region flood across me. And indeed the people of Erythria and Chios once spoke the same dialect.
I have stood in the ruins at Deplhi, the stadium at Olympia and that of Ancient Messenia. But it is somehow just as moving to be standing here in the ruins of one of the great Greek cities of Asia Minor.
As I look across to Chios I imagine the scene I would have witnessed in July 1770. For this bay saw a mighty naval battle, where the grant fleet of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great engaged and defeated the Ottoman fleet in one of the greatest naval battles ever to take place in the eastern Mediterranean. As a Scot, I have to mention that among the officers serving with the Russian fleet on this day was one Captain Samuel Grieg, a Royal Navy officer born in Scotland! The battle of Cesme would be celebrated in a famous painting which hangs in the Hermitage at St Petersburg and which was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The Russians would go on to take control of the port of Cesme, occupy Lemnos, Lesvos, and Tenedos, and blockade the entrance to the Dardanelles. And on Lemnos I have seen the two memorials to these events.
Yet modern history has taken its toll on the region. The tragedy of the Asia Minor catastrophe and the population exchanges that followed has left their mark. As the tragedy unfolded in 1922 the Greek Army retreated across the Erythrean peninsula towards the embarkation port of Cesme, leaving little choice for the Greeks of Lithra but to try to escape the advancing Turkish forces by leaving for Chios and beyond. Those who escaped would found a new town, New Erythrae, near Athens and build a new Church of St Marona.
Two of those who fled from the nearby village of Reisdere to Chios and Lemnos were the mother and father of my travelling companion, Chris Mingos. It is a sad reminder of these days that the current residents of the region are themselves descendents of other expulsions from northern Greece. As we left the region we took with us gifts from these residents – lemons from the village of Chris’ father, for his family now in Greece.
From ancient Crete to the Temple of Athena Polias on the acropolis of Erythrea, from the ships of Catherine the Great’s fleet to the tragedy of the Asia Minor catastrophe, the Greek history of Asia Minor is rich and deserving of exploration.
* Jim Claven is a historian and freelance writer and the secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He has completed classical studies at Melbourne’s Monash University, researched the Hellenic link to Australia’s Anzac tradition and led commemorative tours of Greece. He can be contacted at [email protected]