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A Goddess Clothed
Independent, August 2003

Lucian was here before us – some two thousand years before us - with his wise cracks and casual impieties. Such a well-travelled man, such an amusing and prolific writer – he was so much talked about and quoted during our exploration of the ruins that he now seemed part of our party. We felt certain that his ghost approved of the seaside taverna that stands on the ruins of Cnidus. For we were as earnest about lunch as archaeology.

The taverna table was groaning with plates of meze and dressed with chilled bottles of Villa Doluca (the ubiquitous vin de table of Turkey). Perched on a chair in the welcome shade I looked around. One travelling companion was sketching, another was reading Gibbon, and a third was texting Washington DC while his wife dutifully tested herself on classical Arabic root-forms. My two daughters were rolling in the dust with six puppies and a cherubic Turkish boy. Melissa and Rose were checking out the fish in the kitchen. They returned triumphant. The eyes were bright and the gills were red: A grade fresh. The first batch was put on the charcoal brazier and without a word the nine chairs around our table were filled.

Lucian had travelled to the city if Cnidus with just two friends, Charicles and Callicratidas. I felt sure that if the ghost of Lucian was here, so was that of Charicles, a notorious womaniser, who would have found the wooden yacht full of Italian students – cool women in skin tight charcoal grey tea-shirts and impenetrable dark glasses – an irresistible attraction. Callicratidas, who swung the other way, would have found his attention straying towards the only other boat in the harbour, an all-male, French group with their bleached eyebrows, mahogany pecks and Gautier-like naval sweaters.

The three of them had come to Cnidus – just as we had – drawn by the fame of the world’s most celebrated statue of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. They had a rather easier time of it than we had. Cnidus was then on the crossroads of the world’s shipping routes. The city breathed trade and travel, stuck out into the Aegean on Asia’s westernmost promontory, with its double harbour open whatever the sailing conditions. This easy access featured in one of the favourite nicknames awarded to the Aphrodite of Cnidus - Europlia “she of the fare winds”. Cnidus was also right in the middle of the Pausanias-guide-book-clutching Roman tourist route. You could tick off three of the wonders of the world from here in almost as many days. The Colossus of Rhodes was a day south, the great, steep-stepped pyramid of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus just a day’s sail north, while beyond it beckoned the temple of Diana at Ephesus. That would make the neighbours sit up when the traveller returned and told his tale.

We had made rather more of a meal of the route. A cramped package flight to Rhodes followed by a few days unwinding on the island, a ferry journey to Turkish Marmaris, a night drive to a hotel, a failed attempt to reach the city by hire car the next day, ending with a stop-over in a pension. Today we had chartered a boat. It was clearly the right way to arrive at Cnidus. As you approached the harbour, its ancient walls and towers suddenly emerged into clear focus out of a backdrop of same-coloured limestone. Our captain pointed out the great rock-cut ledge whence, in the 1850s, the British had taken the great lion of Cnidus that now dominates the Great Court of the British Museum. They had also carted away the half-exposed cult statue of Demeter from her hilltop shrine in one of the several hundred cases of statuary labelled for Holborn.

Once ashore we scrambled across the ruts and trenches left by more than a hundred years of archaeological digs. Hopping across fallen blocks of masonry, dancing over asphodels, we were continuously distracted from finding Aphrodite’s temple by Byzantine apses.

Lucian, Charicles and Callicratidas would not have been so encumbered. The city of Cnidus had been laid out on a regular grid of streets, with great staircases climbing up the formal terraced slopes. Strabo records the city glittering like a giant theatre that reached up to the fortress on the Acropolis. Where we saw the Agora as a thistle field Lucian, with his barrister’s eyes, would have seen a magnificent marble playing field for oratory, a vast, column-enclosed piazza at the centre of the city. He would have known how it looked on high days, packed with citizens in their best dress for the election of magistrates and the passing of decrees. He would also have known how it buzzed during great hiring fairs in February, when agricultural labourers and boats crews renewed their contracts.

The Agora had been designed when Cnidus was a green-field site. The old city had been two days row further down the coast. It was burdened with a troubled legacy of political ghosts: autocratic Kings, tyrants, greedy aristocrats and lost battles. So somewhere around the middle of the fourth century BC the citizens, having just won themselves a democratic constitution, decided on a fresh start. They moved, lock, stock and barrel, to the headland site with its twin harbours. The only things they needed to take with them were their women, their slaves, their ships and of course their Gods.

To put new Cnidus on the map and honour the Gods, they were in the market for the very best art that money could buy. It was, by happy coincidence, the perfect time for prestige acquisitions. The ateliers of all the great masters of Hellenistic sculpture, Praxiteles, Scopas and Bryaxis, were in full production. The city of Kos had commissioned an Aphrodite from Praxiteles, who shocked their ‘committee of taste’ by sculpting the first ever, naked goddess of love. They rejected it out of hand. Cnidus jumped at the chance. They got a great work at a bargain price, plus a publicity campaign thrown in for free. As Pliny tells us, people began to sail to Cnidus simply to see the statue. An innovative round temple was erected so that the naked Aphrodite could be admired in the round. This revolution in Greek architecture was copied, painted and talked about throughout the classical world. A king of Bithynia offered to pay off the city’s entire debt in exchange for their statue of Aphrodite. Cnidus refused even to think about it.

It was the naked goddess that bought Lucian, Charicles and Callicratidas to Cnidus. The hillside shrine is perched on a corner, above the city but also right beside a sea cliff. Sea winds, especially the melteme, blow across this headland. They would have ruffled the famous gardens that surrounded the sanctuary not to mention the scarlet robes of the temple servants. Around the shrine clustered dozens of votive altars raised by admirals, Emperors and lovers in honour of the goddess, who was said to be able to both still the waters of the sea and arouse the sleeping heart.

Lucian reports that Charicles rushed up to embrace the goddess on the lips, though Callicratidas remained coldly unaffected. It was only when they found and tipped an old guardian who agreed to open the back door and allow the three friends a back view of the Goddess that Callicratidas became inspired, “By Hercules” he exclaims, “What slender hips! How delicately moulded the buttocks! How sweetly they smile!”

All we could see was the paved floor of the shrine, which had been excavated in 1969. A fallen capital and a fragment of column were the props with which to rebuild the round open-air sanctuary in our imagination. From Pliny’s account it seems that a screen of doorways (such as that which was opened for Lucian and friends) stood between the columns. The statue has not been seen for 1,500 years. Rumours abound: that it was shipped to Constantinople, that it was burned by Christians in a lime kiln, or that it was reverently buried underground by the last priestess in 430 AD.

Reverence was not an emotion that Lucian indulged in. Shortly after leaving the temple he and his two friends settled down to discuss which was purer: the love of a man for a boy or the love of a man for his wife. They all agreed that man’s love for women was fatally compromised by the animal desire to procreate, while love of a boy was closer to a pure friendship. It was not a decision likely to flatter Aphrodite. I often wonder what sort of wind conditions she provided for the next stage of the voyage.

We were granted a fair passage. But then the Goddess seems to have smiled over our table. Given a gap in the conversation, my four-year-old daughter will often bring up that lunch at the taverna, when the Turkish boy sat on her lap and laughed. “When can we go back and play with him again?” she asks.

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