A raid by Turkish police on March 31, 2022 led to the recovery of a rare and valuable ancient artifact that was about to be sold by smugglers. In Turkey’s western or Aegean province of Aydin, law enforcement officers seized a stolen marble bathtub that had been manufactured in the ancient Hellenistic city of Aphrodisias, a settlement dedicated to and named after the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite.
The massive artifact was approximately six feet (180 centimeters) long and weighed about one ton. The pinkish marble tub was decorated with two lion head reliefs on one side, indicating that it was owned by someone who enjoyed great wealth and power. This individual likely would have been a state administrator or a wealthy landed elite, and would have lived during the time when Aphrodisias was included within the borders of the Roman Empire province of Caria.
“This bathtub, which is about 1,800 years old, is one of the rare examples in the world because it is completely marble,” Aydın Provincial Culture and Tourism Director Umut Tuncer told the Hurriyet Daily News .
“As far as we know, it is the only example in Turkey. There are bathtubs created with various mud layers that have been found in Turkey before, but this completely marble structure actually expresses the wealth of this region and the welfare of the society.”
Tuncer noted that Aphrodisias during the Roman period was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. It is a place where archaeologists would expect to find nearly priceless items made from marble, since Aphrodisias was surrounded by many high-quality marble quarries and the precious stone was used to construct private and public structures throughout the city.
The theater ruins at Aphrodisias, once one of the richest cities in the world. ( muratti6868 / Adobe Stock)
Aphrodisias in ancient times was home to a number of skilled sculptors who worked in marble, making statues and other monuments and markers for wealthy patrons. An expansive sculpture workshop was discovered during excavations in the city, which was known as a major center of art in the late Hellenistic and Roman worlds.
The story of the rescue of the ancient marble bathtub was first reported by Turkish Archaeological News on its Facebook page . The thieves apprehended belonged to a major historical artifact smuggling ring , which has been operating out of Aydin’s Karacusu district. The heavy marble bathtub is now in the possession of the Aphrodisias Museum Directorate, and the current plans are to put it on display for viewing by the public in the very near future.
The marble bathtub, with lion head reliefs. ( DHA)
Rediscovering Aphrodisias, a True Anatolian Jewel
The city of Aphrodisias was founded in western Anatolia by Greek settlers in the fifth century BC. However, archaeological digs have revealed that the site of the city was first occupied during the Bronze Age , or more than 4,000 years ago. The Greeks dedicated their new settlement to their goddess of love, Aphrodite, and the city retained its original name until the sixth century AD, when Christian Byzantine authorities changed its name to Stauropolis, or City of the Cross.
Aphrodisias experienced its greatest prosperity during the Roman Period, which lasted from the first century BC through the third century AD. It was during this glorious time that Aphrodisias gained renown as a political, commercial, religious, and cultural center, with the latter designation being its main claim to fame.
All of the arts flourished in the city, and its marble sculptures were especially in demand by art lovers and collectors throughout the greater Mediterranean region. Pieces produced by those who followed the style of the Aphrodisias School of Sculpture were purchased by collectors from as far away as Spain, Portugal, and Germany, and were popular in both Rome and Constantinople as well as elsewhere throughout Roman Empire and later Byzantine Empire lands.
Some of the marble sculptures at the Museum of Aphrodisias at the site of ancient Aphrodisias in Western Anatolia, Turkey. ( JackF/Adobe Stock)
The city’s reputation as a marble sculpting mecca is also reflected in its architecture. The ruins at Aphrodisias include an astonishing number of still exquisitely-preserved structures, all of which are made from marble. This includes the fabulous Temple of Aphrodite , which was located at the center of the city and was constructed in the first century BC, shortly before Aphrodisias became a Roman city. Several other monuments to Aphrodite were built in the city, many between the first and third centuries AD when the Romans launched multiple construction projects.
The ruins of other notable structures found at Aphrodisias include those of a well-preserved outdoor Roman theater, and the remains of a Bouteuterion (council house) that would have been used for meetings of the city’s administrative council. The entire city complex is still surrounded by a two-mile-long Byzantine wall, which was not constructed until the mid-fourth century AD because the city was such a peaceful oasis that no one thought of building one before that.
The largest and perhaps most impressive remaining structure in Aphrodisias is its immense stadium. This structure is 900 feet (270 meters) long and 200 feet (60 meters} wide and featured enough seating to entertain a crowd of up to 30,000 people. The stadium is in remarkably good shape, looking as if it could still host athletic events and huge throngs of spectators even today.
The ascent of Aphrodisias as a major cultural center in the first millennium AD was no surprise, since Aphrodisias had a temperate climate and was surrounded by fertile soil. It was also located just 62 miles (100 kilometers) inland from the Aegean coast.
Unfortunately, the city was built in a seismically active zone, and in the seventh century it was badly damaged by a tremendous earthquake. The city never regained its past glory following that disaster, although it survived as a much smaller settlement for a few more centuries. Aphrodisias (Stauropolis) was attacked and largely destroyed by the Seljuk Turks in the late 12th century, and it was only then that the once-great city was finally abandoned for good.
Aphrodisias Continues to Produce Surprises
Excavations at Aphrodisias have been ongoing since 1962. The city’s site continues to produce astounding and amazing artifacts and ruins, such as the huge marble tub that was illegally obtained by smugglers.
The spectacular marble tub is the only one of its kind that is known to have come from Aphrodisias. But now that archaeologists know what to look for, they are excited about the possibility of discovering more examples of this type of fine sculpting work there in the future.
Top image: The 1,800-Year-Old marble bathtub from Aphrodisias. Source: Hurriyet Daily News
By Nathan Falde