By the 8th century BC Priene was a member of the IonianLeague. The League’s central shrine, the Panionion, lay within the city’s boundaries, making Priene an important holy city.
Priene was sacked by Ardys of Lydia in the 7th century BC but regained its prosperity in the 8th. Captured by the generals of the Persian king Cyrus around 540 BC, Priene took part in several revolts against the Persians (499–494). The city was subject to the Persians until the time of Alexander the Great.
The ruins seen today date from when the city was rebuilt around 350 BC after frequent attacks by the Persians. Priene was originally a port city, but the continuous silting caused by the Meander River had by this time blocked the city’s access to the sea. The new city was thus built farther inland, on the present site.
The new city’s main temple, of Athena Polias, was dedicated by Alexander the Great in 334, who stayed here during his lengthy siege of Miletus. Another famous resident of Priene was the philosopher Bias, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, who was born here.
In 129 BC Priene was added to the Roman province of Asia Minor. It was sacked by Mithridates, King of Pontus, in 88 and 84 BC, but regained its former wealth and prosperity under the Emperor Augustus. The cult of the Roman emperor was performed in the Temple of Athena and the Sacred Stoa.
The little city grew slowly over the next two centuries and led a quiet existence. Unlike its more well-known neighbors, Priene’s population was limited and probably never exceeded 5,000. This was probably due in part to its cliffside location. Priene is not mentioned in the Bible, but it is likely that the early Christians of Miletus had contact with the city.
Priene had a substantial Christian community during the Byzantine period and was the seat of a bishop. Four of Priene’s bishops are known: Theosebius, present at the Council of Ephesus (431); Isidore, who was living in 451; Paul, present at the Council of Constantinople (692); and Demetrius (12th century).
Priene gradually declined due to its increasing distance from the sea, and it was abandoned after passing into Turkish hands in the 13th century AD. Excavations of the site began in the 19th century.
The ruins of Priene are well worth a visit. They are in a peaceful, sheltered location and feature a number of unique side streets and structures. Its well-preserved remains are a major source of information about ancient Greek town planning.
Long stretches of the Hellenistic city wall have remained intact, in some places 6 feet wide and 18 feet tall. Inside, the city’s remains lie on successive terraces that rise from a plain to a steep hill, upon which stands the Temple of Athena (see below).
Priene was laid out in an orderly grid plan, unlike the more sprawling arrangement of most ancient cities. Six main streets run east-west and 15 streets cross at right angles, all evenly spaced. The town was thus divided into about 80 blocks, or insulae, each averaging 150 by 110 feet (46 by 34 m). This impressive layout can be appreciated from the vantage point of the nearby cliffside.
About 50 of the insulae are devoted to private houses. The better-class insulae had just four houses apiece, but most had many more. A Priene private house usually consisted of a rectangular courtyard enclosed by living quarters and storerooms and opening to the south onto the street by way of a small vestibule. Ruins of several houses can be seen today, including the “Alexander House.”
Five columns (from the original 66) of the great Temple of Athena Polias still stand. Built on the orders of Alexander the Great around 333 BC and designed by Pythius, architect of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (one of the wonders of the ancient world), the Temple of Athena is considered a classic example of the pure Ionic style. The temple enclosed a smaller (23 ft/7 m) high version of the statue of Athena that was in the Parthenon.
Near the temple in the center of town is the agora, stoa and theater. Theaters are common around these parts, but this one boasts a set of five armchair seats, some with lion-paw armrests. The stage buildings of Priene’s theater are also more intact than most. Originally built in the 4th century BC by the Greeks, the theater was expanded by the Romans in the 2nd century AD to hold 6,000 spectators.
Other ruins at Priene include the well-preserved seating and altar of the 2nd-century-BC bouleuterion (city council chamber, which could hold 650 people), more temples, the stadium (2nd century BC; 190 m long) and a Upper and Lower Gymnasium.