Theater and theater fortress
Today, the large stone theater on the southern slope of Kaletepe is by far the most prominent and largest ruin in Miletus. Modern visitors to the site first see the impressive remnants of the Roman seating section, the cavea. Approaching the building from the south, you also see the mighty fortification walls towering centrally above the theater. They belonged to a Byzantine fortress. These walls gave Kaletepe, the “castle hill,” its name.
Photo: Miletus dig in 2022
The theater of Miletus seen from the south in the spring of 2022.
Photo: Miletus dig in 2021
The theater fortress of Miletus seen from the north in the summer of 2021. The caravanserai and the museum of Miletus are visible in the background.
While attentive visitors will be able to draw conclusions about the end of the theater from the current state of the ruin, tracing the initial construction of the building is much harder. Today, we know that it must have been erected around the fourth century BCE, in the Hellenistic period. The building as it is today is the result of many conversions and reconstructions of an originally Hellenistic building that would have had a capacity of 5,300 people. Unlike in the Roman period, they were spread across only two galleries. The Hellenistic city wall to the south of the theater was clearly built with the site on Kaletepe in mind. Its selection as the location for the building is best explained in geographical and topographic terms: the slope had a hollow in which the theater was built. Today, this hollow is barely noticeable as it has been covered almost entirely with built structures. The architects of the original building, then, picked a place that favored the shape of a Greek theater—a common approach at the time. This adaptation to the natural topography of the area also explains why the theater departs from the orthogonal, i.e., perpendicular street grid of Miletus.
The theater was first modified during the reign of Emperor Nero (54–68), when a detailed, novel type of facade was added to the stage area. It was a tabernacle facade facing the seating sections. A tabernacle facade is a structure, usually spanning multiple stories, that divides the view of the building front using cornices, columns, and niches. Visitors could enter the stage area through a new portico with a view of the sea. During a second round of renovations in the second half of the first century, the Hellenistic seating area was demolished entirely and rebuilt with three galleries. From this point, the theater of Miletus had a capacity of about 15,000 people and became one of the largest theaters in Asia Minor, i.e., western Turkey. The seating area was accessed through two vaulted hallways, one to the east and one to the west, which also led to the massive cellar and the chambers inside it. It appears that the Neronian stage area was renovated and redesigned during the large-scale refurbishment, too. Instead of the previous tabernacle facade, which was very airy and had a partially open back wall, there was a closed, three-story building. The overall internal structure of the tabernacle facade was retained in a simplified form, however. The rear of the stage area was also extended: alongside a few rooms adjoining the stage area, the rear facade facing the bay gained a row of double-stepped arches that visually relaxed the walls.
Long after the last dramas and comedies had been enacted at the theater of Miletus, the building once again came to play a significant role for the city’s residents. During the Byzantine Empire, its former cavea (interior room) contained a small settlement of houses and a chapel, whose owners had taken advantage of the easily defensible position of the site. Instead of a stage area, a wall was built to block off the inside of the building to the south, effectively turning the theater into a fortress. Over time, further similarly far-reaching modifications were made. As we can still see today, the third balcony was removed to provide building material for the fortress, which, along with the theater itself, was used as a refuge for the late Byzantine settlement on Kaletepe from the eleventh century onwards. The remnants of this Byzantine fortress stand in the middle of the Roman theater, overlooking it like a crown. Its subterranean passages and chambers remained in use. Despite the many earthquakes of the past centuries, they are still accessible to this day, which impressively shows the stability of the theatre’s construction. From the late Byzantine period, the theater and Kaletepe were part of the settlement of Palatia and, later, Balat.
Text: Fabian Sliwka
F. Krauss, Das Theater von Milet. Das hellenistische Theater, der römische Zuschauerbau, Milet 4,1 (Berlin 1973).
P. Schneider, in: P. Niewöhner, Milet/Balat (Istanbul 2016) 31–37.