A panoramic hilltop with a 360 degree view, abundant stone quarries and a natural harbor made Assos a great stop in the times when people used to live on trade and needed raw materials. Excavations confirm that the earliest habitation on this land starts from Bronze Age and foundations of a city dates back to 7th century BC, laid by Greek colonists. It is uncertain exactly who the pioneers were, but is likely they were colonists approaching from Mytiline. Ultimately, they created a settlement that has survived uninterrupted until this day.
Throughout its history, Assos was ruled by numerous civilizations, tasting independence only after the victory of Greeks against Persian in 477BC resulted in the The Delian League, a union of 175 independent Greek cities, in 477 BC.
Around this period one notable ruler of Assos was Hermias, a former student of Plato and Aristotle, back in Athens from Plato’s Academy.
Hermias invited, welcomed and encouraged Aristotle to found his own philosophy school in Assos. In the 3 years Aristotle spent in Assos, it is assumed that he worked on his Politics and on the lost essay on Kingship. He also spent time in Lesbos. This period in his life is referred as an awakening from Plato’s profound influence. Along with bringing out his own new understandings on philosophy he carried his observations on biology in the Aegean Sea.
An excerpt from his work ‘The History of Animals’ conjures an image of him observing the nature here…
The octopus is a stupid creature, for it will approach a man’s hand if it be lowered in the water; but it is neat and thrifty in its habits: that is, it lays up stores in its nest, and, after eating up all that is eatable, it ejects the shells and sheaths of crabs and shell-fish, and the skeletons of little fishes. It seeks its prey by so changing its colour as to render it like the colour of the stones adjacent to it; it does so also when alarmed. By some the sepia is said to perform the same trick; that is, they say it can change its colour so as to make it resemble the colour of its habitat. The only fish that can do this is the angelfish, that is, it can change its colour like the octopus
So this was Aristotle’s sojourn on these grounds before he was called back to tutor Alexander the Great.
Assos then, was under the reign of another student of Aristotle: Alexander the Great. Alexander crossed the Dardanelles in 334 BC and this was the beginning of his dominance in Asia Minor and over the rest of the old world map that lasted until his death. His expeditions and his life ended but the influence of the Greek culture on the non-Greek civilizations lasted much longer than a life of this conqueror. The life style, ideas and the language of the Greek continued to impact the rest of the world, fertilizing today’s “western civilization”. Trade links were established as far as east India and China; thus was created a new world economy. Wealth brought eastern and western cultures into contact, creating the Hellenic world, that brought new understandings in the fields of philosophy, medicine, art and mathematics and so changed the course of the human history.
The post-Alexander period for Assos meant almost 60 years of Gaul predominance and afterwards, it was ruled by the Kingdom of Pergamon.
At this time, the expansion of the Roman Empire was changing the political map of the day. The Romans knew the importance of Asia Minor because it formed a natural land-bridge between East and West in terms of trade routes, military, culture and agriculture. In 133 BC, King Attalus III of Pergamon, having no heirs to succeed him, willed his kingdom to Rome, opening Asia Minor to the Roman control.
The Asia Minor capital of The Romans was Ephesus. Aphrodisias, Perge and Aspendos were the other major cities, which are on the must-do lists of millions of tourists who visit Turkey.
The magnificent Roman roads connected these cities to each other and to Rome. Many temples, libraries, fountains, sewage systems were built by the architects of the empire. Assos had its share from these developments. Most of the Greek constructions were restored, the gymnasium was rebuilt, and additions like baths were made in this Roman period.
With only a few followers at that time, a new religion was gaining ground and one of its first missionaries; St. Paul was visiting Assos in around 53-57 AD. This was his third missionary trip and unlike his companions who took a boat trip from Troas, he had preferred the 20 mile walk.
Approximately 250 years later, Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, took over the throne.
Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople the division of east and west became permanent in 395 AD and Assos stayed under the reign of the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantine period the city was called Makhram; rumor says this was the name of a notable Byzantine officer. It is believed that the name Behram, used today derives from Makhram.
Byzantines were followed by Ottomans as is the case for many other cities in Asia Minor. The Ottoman Bridge and the Murat Hudavendigar Mosque are constructions left from the Ottoman period in Assos.
The founder of the Archaeological Institute of America, Charles Eliot Norton, already famous as one of the first translators of Dante’s Divine Comedy into English, was looking for America’s first hands on, classical archaeology experience and it was he who initiated the first official excavations in Assos. Today excavations are run by 18 Mart Canakkale University with the direction of Prof. Nurettin Arslan.
Other outstanding characteristics of Assos:
*The only Doric Style temple in Asia Minor resides in Assos and is made of a local volcanic rock type called andesite.
*Assos is one of the first western Anatolian cities that converted to Christianity.
*The famous square in Venice, St. Marco hosts two columns imported from Assos.
*A school day in Assos, unlike today, started at sunrise and ended at sunset.
*On the grounds of gymnasium, students spent the first half of their day throwing discus, javelin, practicing long jumps; their afternoon classes were grammar, lecturing, geography, mathematics, philosophy and music.
*Ancient dry cleaning was available with an instrument called striglis. As students were rubbing their body with olive oil before the beginning of sport classes, at the end they were quite messy. Striglis was helping them, wiping the dust and sand stuck on their skins.
* Assos was paying an annual tax to the Delian League. The annual tax was calculated 1.50 Drakhmes per person, excluding women, children and slaves. Assos was paying 6000 drakhmes to the Delian League; so, its total population during this period is estimated to be around 4500 to 5000. During the last elections in November 2015 approximately 500 people voted in Assos. So the village is not as crowded as it was in ancient times.
* The highly regarded lessons were sports, mathematics and music. If they still were as appreciated as in the ancient Greek schools, maybe, the world could be a different place. What do you think?