17 Jun 2014

The Lion and Goddess of Knidos

There was something intriguing about the ancient city of Knidos although no one ever lost track of it like, say, Angkor or Machu Picchu. For centuries the ruins of Knidos lay exposed like the bleached bones of some dead beast, visible to anyone who ventured to the tip of the Datça peninsula on Turkey's south-east coast. Nor was there any great mystery over the origins of Knidos, it was founded by settlers from one of the city-states on the Greek mainland. Which particular city-state is in question and the actual date of its founding is unknown but the same can be said of other Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean. The story of Knidos is incomplete despite brief and intriguing references to it by Herodutus, Strabo, and Thucydides amongst others. The city's name even appears in the Bible. And so, we know little of a city that in its heyday must have been as lively and cosmopolitan as any in the classical world. Today Knidos is most often associated with two celebrated pieces of art, both statues. One of which still exists but in a much damaged state. The other is long lost but is considered a key piece in the history of Western art.
It was mid-morning when Tomac, our chartered 45-foot sloop, slowly motored out of Datça harbour and once clear of the approaches we hoisted sails. Aboard for a two-week long cruise were two other couples, my wife and I and our six-month old daughter. Getting away from Datça and from land was a relief, the air was cooler and fresher. We had spent a day moored stern-to the wall along the waterfront of the old town, and under the constant gaze of strolling crowds it had been claustrophobic. The weather in the latter half of August had added to that feeling. During daytime it had been sweltering with temperatures well above 30 degrees but while the cool nights provided welcome relief it was still muggy. The daytime heat had been so intense that my wife and I had considered abandoning the cruise for the sake of the little one. Frequent swims in the sea and a small inflatable boat filled with water so our daughter could sit and bath in the cool water had made the difference. There was another gloomy note during our cruise because some days the sun cast an odd yellow light as it penetrated through a persistent smoke haze the result of several forest fires along the Turkish coast. But, out on the water, away from land and with the sea breeze it was more bearable, even pleasant.
About seven kilometres south from Datça, at Cape Ince, the coast turns west and we altered course to run parallel with it. Tomac was now close hauled and sailing upwind, but with the sea relatively flat it was a comfortable passage. Viewed from the boat a couple of kilometres offshore, the land looked harsh, mostly hard rock and covered with sun-burnt shrubs and bushes in shades of brown and khaki. Here and there occasional olive trees that keep their colour even during the summer dry season added touches of green but still the land looked tired and worn. A ragged ridge, in places rising up to a 1000 metres, ran the length of the peninsula. From the boat it was an uninviting and sparsely populated wilderness but it had not always been so. Two millennia ago the Datça peninsula had supported extensive agriculture and a substantial population.
It was mid-afternoon when out of the haze Cape Krio became gradually visible. The height of the ridge fell as it neared the tip of Datca peninsula but just off the end of the mainland appeared an island. The harbour of Knidos was in the bay formed by the end of the peninsula and the island. Motoring into the harbour we had to take care to avoid a pair of ancient partially submerged piers, or rather breakwaters, that provided the roadstead with some protection. We anchored amongst a dozen or so boats, most of them wooden gulets that cater to the charter trade. At the head of the bay forming the harbour there was dock with several other sailboats tied to it. The water in the harbour was an intense indigo and looking down into its depths brought to mind Homer's “wine-dark sea.” And, it enticed the crew with the promise of a cooling swim. For me a couple of laps around the sloop were enough and once back aboard, with a beer in hand, I contemplated our surroundings.
To the north of the harbour the land sloped up to the ridge, still about 200 metres high at that point. Low lying vegetation covered the slopes but scattered all about were the ruins of Knidos—terraces, broken foundations and piles of building stone—testament to how important and prosperous the city had once been. At the foot of the slope facing the harbour were the remains of a relatively intact amphitheatre. To the south rose the island of Krio but which since antiquity had been joined to the mainland by an artificial isthmus that formed the head of the harbour. In fact, Knidus has two harbours. The smaller of which, known as the trireme harbour, was on the other side of the isthmus but ages ago it had silted up and could now only be used by shallow-draft vessels. The “island” was also steeply sloped and it too was covered with ruins. Near its western tip, and straddling the ridge, was the Cape Krio lighthouse. Even after two millennia Strabo's description of the city was still valid: “with two harbours, one of which can be closed, can receive triremes, and is a naval station for twenty ships. Off it lies an island which is approximately seven stadia in circuit, rises high, is theatre-like, is connected by moles with the mainland, and in a way makes Knidos a double city, for a large part of its people live on the island which shelters both harbours.”
It was late afternoon by the time we were settled in after our arrival and there was only time for a brief outing ashore. I rowed the dinghy to the dock with my wife and daughter aboard. With the little one in a frontpack the three of us strolled along what had been the ancient waterfront over to the lower parts of the theatre. It merited close inspection and formed the plan for the following day. It was remarkable that the structure had survived to the extent it had because once Knidos had been abandoned it was pillaged for its masonry and stonework. We returned to the boat and did our share of preparing for the evening meal.
Round midnight a three-quarter moon appeared and as it rose up the ruins of the city were bathed in a soft ghostly light. There was just a hint of wind, the boat barely tugging on the anchor rode. What must it have been like 2,500 years ago under moonlight when Knidos was home to thousands of people? One could imagine oil lamps faintly twinkling from hundreds of windows scattered up and down the slopes on either side of the two harbours that would have been filled with triremes and cargo ships. The murmur of the sailors' voices drifting across the still waters could almost be heard.
It is easy to forget that during antiquity's classical period what is now known as Greece also included the shores of Asia Minor. Neither was it a cultural or economic backwater of the Greek world. The classical scholar Robin Lane Fox wrote that, “Ionia and the eastern Greeks in the eighth to sixth centuries [BC] would have made mainland Greece seem decidedly drab and unsophisticated.” Knidos was one of several city states on the Carian coast that made up the so-called Dorian federation. Ancient sources on the origins of Knidos are vague and contradictory but the city was probably founded around 900 BC by Dorians from mainland Greece. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the city was originally located near the town of Datça and was relocated to the tip of the peninsula sometime early in the 4th century BC. According to Herodotus the city was founded by the Lacedaemonians from the southern Peloponnese. The much later Hesychius of Alexandria, however, states that the first settlers were called Limodorians, or “Ravenous Dorians,” so perhaps they were escaping a famine on the Greek mainland.
Herodotus famously relates that around 550 BC the Knidians under threat of attack by the traitor Harpagos, who had sided with Cyrus and his Persians, started to dig a canal across the narrow isthmus that links the Datça peninsula to the mainland. At that time the city reigned over an area that extended over the 80-kilometre long Datça peninsula and part of the adjacent mainland. The intention was to turn the peninsula into an island and thus make it more defensible. But the men digging in the hard rock were constantly injured by the flying chunks of stone. When the oracle at Delphi was consulted the Knidians were told to stop digging and they gave up their city to the Persians without a fight. Several days before we had anchored near the narrow neck of the isthmus and walked part of the terrain that the canal would have traversed. It was obvious that it would have been a prodigious feat if the Knidians had succeeded in building the canal.
During our two days at Knidos I walked amongst the ruins several times. I usually went alone but on one outing my wife, daughter and I went for a long walk up the slopes to the east of the harbour. We had been worried about the heat and its effects on the little one but that day the temperatures had moderated somewhat and there was a cooling breeze coming off the sea. We walked slowly through the ancient streets picking our way through trails that wandered all about crossing and recrossing the ancient street grid. We took turns carrying the baby. Stepping and climbing over walls that had delineated what was obviously a house seemed like we were somehow trespassing. How different it must have been when the city was at its height two millennia in the past. The buildings would have provided some shade and instead of the wind sighing through the bushes of rosemary and thyme there would have been the sounds of voices, children playing in the streets and the clip-clop of donkeys along the streets and alleys.
It is reasonable to infer, from the extent and concentration of the ruins, that the city must have been home to tens of thousands of people. The city's economy was based mainly on its strategic location astride important trade routes between Greece, the northern parts of Ionia, the Middle East and Egypt. Knidos did, however, produce an important trade commodity and that was its wine. In antiquity Knidian wine was famous and exported throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The city was also an important religious centre and for a time after the 4th century BC at important centre for science especially medicine and astronomy. Why had it not survived into the modern era like its sister city of Halikarnassos, the present day Bodrum? Knidus and Halikarnassos were the two most important cities of the Dorian federation that also included the islands of Kos and Rhodes. Of the cities in the federation Knidos is the only one that was abandoned. I suspect that the same reason that led to its rise, its location, had something to do with its demise. It may have been an advantageous location during times of relative peace but later when the Mediterranean fell into chaos its exposed position may have been cause of its undoing.
We climbed higher up the slopes. Just below the ridge stood the acropolis, of which little now remains. A lit way below the acropolis are the ruins of a second and larger theatre which is now almost unrecognisable. However, even amongst the ruins of houses, shops and temples the outline of a street grid is still discernible. Wandering about the about the ruins one finds bits of carvings most of it architectural in nature, broken columns, chipped and scratched jambs, shattered lintels and broken pavements. The ruins were covered in fragrant thyme, oregano and rosemary, but it was like walking through a ghost town. If, however, there are ghosts they are more likely to be found beyond the eastern edges of the city amongst the ruins of an extensive necropolis. While returning to the dock we came across a group of archaeologists working below a retaining wall. We paused to watch them but they seemed too weary working under the hot sun to pay us much attention. A couple of them looked up as they scraped the earth with their trowels and brushes and then turned to their work.
Even after Turkey became a major tourist destination the ruins at Knidos remained relatively unknown especially when compared to other Greek cities in Ionia such as Ephesus or Miletus. Those tourists who go out of their ways to visit Knidos are on their own—there is no museum, no visitor centre, not even toilets. In the early 1950s the British explorer and writer Freya Stark visited—she also arrived by boat. At that time almost the only visitors were the goatherds wandering the slopes and fishermen seeking shelter before trying to round Cape Krio. Stark found peasants using the ruins as terraces on which to raise corn. Even today the difficulty of access, over 20 kilometres of rough unpaved road, is enough to keep the tourists thin on the ground—not a bad thing in itself. Still I find the relative obscurity of Knidos strange. Perhaps it was because in the ancient world the city seems to have been more concerned with commerce than war and so merited little attention from historians.
From the Bible's accounts of St Paul's travels we know that he passed near the city on at least three occasions. In Acts 24 Paul says that, “we came with a straight course into Cos, and the day following onto Rhodes.” On such a trajectory Paul would have at least glimpsed Knidus from his vessel. He must have passed close to the city on two other occasions including on his last fateful journey to Rome. On that passage, sometime in late autumn of 60 AD, Paul was part of a group of prisoners being sent to Rome. Leaving from Sidon the ship coasted eastward along the Turkish coast and stopped at Myra. The late autumn was not the best time to sail against the contrary winds and it must have been a difficult passage. Paul tells us in Acts 27 what happened after leaving Myra: “and when we had sailed slowly many days, and scare were come over against Knidos, the wind not suffering us, we sailed under Crete, over against Salome.” It is not much of a claim to fame but that is the extent of Knidos's appearance in the Bible—a fussy editor would have crossed out the reference. At the time of St Paul's near misses the city was past its prime but it must have still been an impressive sight shining in the sunlight out on the tip of the windswept peninsula.
Today, if Knidos is known, by other than a few historians or classicists, it is for two statues. The less famous of these has survived to be pre-eminently displayed in the British Museum. Entering the Great Court through the main entrance from Great Russell Street and turning to the left one comes to a colossal statue of a reclining lion placed on a pedestal so that it sits above the throngs of visitors. During my visits to the museum few visitors have paid the lion much attention but it does have an interesting story to tell. Although much damaged, missing its tail, chipped and pitted, with empty eye sockets that were probably originally inset with coloured glass, it is still an imposing piece. It would have been even more so in its original placement. The Lion of Knidos is carved from a single piece of marble three meters long and weighs six tons. The stone came from the same quarry near Athens that supplied material for the Parthenon. At the time it must have been a prodigious feat to load such a massive stone aboard an ancient cargo ship and sail it across the Aegean Sea. The Royal Navy certainly had some difficulties when it recovered the lion and shipped it to London in the 19th century.
The Lion of Knidos was discovered 1859 by Richard Pullan an architect and member of Charles Newton's 1857-59 expedition to Asia Minor. Newton had been working across the Ceramic Gulf in the ruins of Halikarnassos now buried under the modern town of Budrum. After two seasons the difficulty of excavating in a working city led Newton to switch his efforts to Knidos where he undertook another season of excavations. While working at Halicarnassus Newton had recovered some lion statues. A Greek visitor on seeing the lions mentioned that there was an even larger lion statue just to the east of Knidos. Newton's expedition shifted to Knidos at the end 1858. That winter, however, was so long and harsh that it was not until the following May that Pullan was sent to look for the lion amongst the ruins of the necropolis. About a mile along the shore from the city is a promontory whose steep sides rise 60 metres above the sea and looks out over the approaches to Knidos harbour. On the top of the headland Pullan found the remains of a severely ruined monumental tomb. The Lion of Knidos lay on the rubble just to the east of the tomb's remains. The conjecture is that the lion had been originally placed on the top of a massive 18-metre high tomb. To my disappointment I never got out to the promontory.
The other Knidian statue of note holds an important place in the history of Western art in particular with respect to the female nude. And, it made Knidos famous throughout the classical world of Greece and Rome. Around 350 BC Praxiteles, the greatest sculptor of his day, and possibly the greatest of antiquity, was commissioned by the citizens of the island of Kos to carve an Aphrodite. When the representatives of Kos saw the statue they were taken aback by the goddess's nakedness especially by its uninhibited posture and they opted for another statue that was clothed. A delegation from Knidos was more adventurous or open minded and bought the nude statue for their city where it was supposedly displayed in a small circular temple, open all round so that the statue could be properly appreciated.
The Aphrodite of Knidos was revolutionary in its day as the first monumental female nude but it was also famous for its beauty. In the introduction to her book on the statue, art historian Christine Havelock wrote that, “It was an innovation of great significance and with major consequences. Not only did Praxiteles introduce the naked Aphrodite as a subject into classical Greek art; it is accepted that his work inspired later Greek versions of the goddess. These in turn were adopted by Rome, which disseminated them far and wide. In this way the female nude as a subject for the plastic arts entered the mainstream of the West.” It seems odd, given that we are so accustomed to its portrayal in Greek art, that the female nude had not been treated in such a manner prior to Praxiteles but every movement must have a beginning.
From the numerous copies of the Aphrodite of Knidos, sometimes called the Knidia, and also from its depictions on coins we know how the original would have looked even if we cannot directly appreciate Praxiteles' artistry. By all of the accounts that have come down to us he was an artist of great skill. The Knidia's pose is somewhat reminiscent of the goddess in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, with one arm held before the breasts and one hand held in front of the pubic area. Perhaps Botticelli drew his inspiration from a copy of the Knidia that he may have seen. Praxiteles depicted the goddess as if she had just stepped out of her bath. There is a tradition that the artist used his mistress, and famous courtesan, Phyrene as the model for the statue. This, however, may be a later embellishment to the story of the Knidia. What is certain is that travellers made a point of visiting Knidos to see the statue reinforcing the city's position as a religious centre. A cult associated with the goddess grew from that association. It was the statue's fame that caused it to be copied throughout the Greek and Roman classical period. The emperor Hadrian commissioned a copy of the statue and housed it in a reconstruction of the circular temple on the grounds of his villa in Tibur.
During my last walk amongst the ruins of Knidus I climbed up the steep slope to the high ridge just before it drops off to the sea. There located a few feet below the ridge were the remains of the circular temple said to have housed the Knidia. All that was visible were the building's foundations and there was nothing to indicate the significance of the site to anyone who might have wandered by. The structure was obviously a temple, there is no other possible use for it, and it may have housed the Knidia. The ruins were discovered in 1969 by the appropriately named Iris Love an American archaeologist and wealthy socialite who had specifically set out to find the temple based on her interpretation of the ancient texts. Love's excavations were the first at Knidos since Newton's efforts in the 1850s. From Pliny's account she surmised that the building had to be circular. Despite some deprecation on the part of some archaeologists—which may be nothing less than professional jealousy—Love's find seems to match the descriptions in the ancient texts. I found the view from the temple to be spectacular, the goddess must have of approved. Despite the hazy conditions, I could look out across the Aegean Sea to the west and to the south-east towards Rhodes. The twin harbours were laid out below and I could see Tomac at anchor. The lighthouse stood bold out on the point of Cape Krio. For a while I watched one of the high-speed hydrofoils racing from Rhodes to Kos as it rounded the cape.
Although the temple housing the statue may have been found the statue itself has been long lost. It remained in Knidos at least until the early Christian era. Lucian a Roman writer of the 2nd century AD visited the city with two friends and saw the statue, although his description of the temple and its surroundings conflicts with Pliny's account. Lucian's comments are perhaps more famous for his description of the reactions to the statue by his two male companions of different sexual orientations. It is not implausible that five centuries after first arriving in Knidos the statue had been moved about and installed in various buildings. Certainly when the pagan gods fell to Christianity under the eastern Roman empire, or Byzantium, there was a house clearing. The 392 AD decree to close pagan temples throughout the empire led to the moving of the Knidia along with other statues of pagan gods with artistic merit to the Lauseion palace at Constantinople. Byzantine sources tell us that the Knidia along with other statues were destroyed in a fire that raged through the palace in 476 AD.
What of the city itself? Little is known of the end of Knidos but its decline was probably gradual. The archaeological record is incomplete but there is no evidence of a major catastrophic fire or of war damage. Under the Romans especially during Diocletian's general shake up of the Empire's provincial governments in the fourth century it must have suffered the fate of other Ionian cities—centralization, standardization, bureaucracy and loss of privilege. There is some archaeological evidence of a major earthquake at some point. Most likely the city so exposed on its prominent location was subject to attacks following the rise of Muslim pirates after the 7th century. And, like so many other Mediterranean seaside locations, it was abandoned. Invasion and neglect had already destroyed many other ancient and noble cities. Later still, even its ruins suffered the indignity of being pillaged by the Ottomans who used the masonry to build a palace in Egypt.
After two full days in Knidos we got under way one morning after breakfast. We hauled the anchor up from the inky depths, as ever the water as dark as wine. Tomac weaved slowly past the other boats still at anchor and out past the breakwaters. The weather had changed at last, the air was cooler and clearer, but it was a fine feeling to once again get away from the dusty and parched land. The wind out of the west was in our favour because once clear of the harbour approaches we hoisted sail steered for the head of the Gulf of Syme. Looking up at the slopes and their scattered ruins as we sailed out, Knidus retained some of its majesty and it was obvious that the gods had once smiled down on it. We sailed past under the promontory where the great lion had been found but from seaward there was nothing visible to indicate the presence of the necropolis. For some time I kept looking back toward Knidos until eventually the haze and mist blanketed it from view.