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Old Smyrna (Turkey)

Classical Greek Site and Possible Home of Homer in Anatolia

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Ruins of Old Smyrna

Andesite block architecture dated to the Ionic period at Old Smyrna Hoyuk

Kayt Armstrong (used with permission)

Old Smyrna, also known as Old Smyrna Höyük, is one of several archaeological sites within the modern day limits of Izmir in Western Anatolia, in what is today Turkey, each reflecting early versions of the modern day port city. Prior to its excavation, Old Smyrna was a large tell rising approximately 21 meters (70 feet) above sea level. It was originally located on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Smyrna, although natural delta buildup and changing sea levels have moved the location inland about 450 m (about 1/4 mile).

Old Smyrna lies in a geologically active region at the foot of Yamanlar Dagi, a now-extinct volcano; and Izmir/Smyrna has been subjected to numerous earthquakes during its long occupation. Benefits, however, include the ancient baths called the Agamemnon hot springs, found near the southern coast of Izmir Bay, and a ready source of building material for architecture. Volcanic rocks (andesites, basalts and tuffs) were used to build many of the public and private structures within the town, alongside adobe mudbrick and a small amount of limestone.

The earliest occupation at Old Smyrna was during the 3rd millennium BC, contemporaneous with Troy, but the site was small and there is limited archaeological evidence for this occupation. Old Smyrna was occupied fairly continuously from about 1000-330 BC. During its heyday in the mid 4th century BC, the city contained about 20 hectares (50 acres) within its city walls.

Chronology

  • Hellenistic period, ~330 BC
  • Village period, ~550 BC
  • Lydian Capture, ~600 BC, after which Smyrna was abandoned
  • Geometric, strong Ionic influence by 8th century, new city wall
  • Protogeometric, beginning ~1000 BC. Aeolic wares, probably a small anchorage of some kind
  • Prehistoric, 3rd millennium BC, first habitation, prehistoric

According to Herodotus among other historians, the initial Greek settlement at Old Smyrna was Aeolic, and within the first couple of centuries, it fell into the hands of Ionian refugees from Colophon. Changes in pottery from monochrome Aeolic wares to polychrome painted Ionic wares are in evidence at Old Smyrna by the early 9th century, and clear domination of the style by the beginning of the 8th century.

Ionic Smyrna

By the 9th century BC, Smyrna was under Ionic control, and its settlement was quite dense, consisting mainly of curvilinear houses packed tightly together. The fortifications were remodeled during the second half of the eighth century and the city wall extended to protect the entire south side. Luxury goods from across the Aegean became widely available, including export wine jars from Chios and Lesbos, and balloon amphorae containing Attic oils.

Archaeological evidence suggests Smyrna was affected by an earthquake about 700 BC, which damaged both houses and the city wall. Afterwards, curvilinear houses became a minority, and most architecture was rectangular and planned on a north-south axis. A sanctuary was constructed at the north end of the hill, and settlement spread outside the city walls up into the neighboring coast. At the same time, evidence for an improvement in architecture with volcanic block masonry, the apparently widespread use of writing, and remodeling of public buildings suggests a new prosperity. An estimated 450 residential structures were located within the city walls, and another 250 outside the walls.

Homer and Smyrna

According to an ancient epigram "Many Greek cities argue for Homer's wise root, Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Ithaca, Pylos, Argos, Athens." The most important poet of ancient Greek and Roman writers was Homer, the archaic period bard and author of the Iliad and the Odyssey; born somewhere between the 8th and 9th centuries BC, if he lived here, it would have been during the Ionian period.

There is no absolute evidence for his birth location, and Homer may or may not have been born in Ionia. It seems fairly likely that he lived at Old Smyrna, or someplace in Ionia such as Colophon or Chios, based on several textual mentions of the River Meles and other local landmarks.

Lydian Capture and the Village Period

About 600 BC, based on historical documentation and a predominance of Corinthian pottery amongst the ruins, the prosperous city was attacked and captured by Lydian forces, led by the king Alyattes [died 560 BC]. Archaeological evidence associated with this historic event is shown by the presence of 125 bronze arrowheads and numerous spearheads embedded in demolished housewalls destroyed in the late 7th century. A cache of iron weapons were identified in the Temple Pylon.

Smyrna was abandoned for some decades, and reoccupation seems to come about the middle of the sixth century BC. By the fourth century BC, the town was a flourishing port city again, and it was "refounded" and moved across the bay to "New Smyrna" by the Greek generals Antigonus and Lysimachus.

Archaeology at Old Smyrna

Test excavations at Smyrna were conducted in 1930 by Austrian archaeologists Franz and H. Miltner. Anglo-Turkish investigations between 1948 and 1951 by Ankara University and the British School at Athens were led by Ekrem Akurgal and J. M. Cook. Most recently, remote sensing techniques have been applied to the site, to produce a topographic map and record of the ancient site.

Sources

Flickrite Kayt Armstrong (girlwithatrowel) has amassed a collection of photos of Old Smyrna.

Berge MA, and Drahor MG. 2011. Electrical Resistivity Tomography Investigations of Multilayered Archaeological Settlements: Part II – A Case from Old Smyrna Höyük, Turkey. Archaeological Prospection 18(4):291-302.

Cook JM. 1958/1959. Old Smyrna, 1948-1951. The Annual of the British School at Athens 53/54:1-34.

Cook JM, Nicholls RV, and Pyle DM. 1998. Old Smyrna Excavations: The Temples of Athena. London: The British School at Athens.

Drahor MG. 2011. A review of integrated geophysical investigations from archaeological and cultural sites under encroaching urbanisation in Izmir, Turkey. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C 36(16):1294-1309.

Nicholls RV. 1958/1959. Old Smyrna: The Iron Age Fortifications and Associated Remains on the City Perimeter. The Annual of the British School at Athens 53/54:35-137.

Nicholls RV. 1958/1959. Site-Plan of Old Smyrna. The Annual of the British School at Athens 53/54.

Sahoglu V. 2005. The Anatolian trade network and the Izmir Region during the Early Bronze Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24(4):339-361.

Tziropoulou-Efstathiou A. 2009. Homer and the So-Called Homeric Questions: Science and Technology in Homeric Epics. In: Paipetis SA, editor. Science and Technology in Homeric Epics: Springer Netherlands. p 451-467.

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