Uncovering Ancient History in Bodrum: 4 Stories from Halicarnassus

With its turquoise water and alluring beaches, the Bodrum district in Turkey is one of the most popular summer destinations along the Aegean coast. But don’t be mistaken, there is more to Bodrum than just cocktails and sunshine. One thing that many vacationers don’t realise is that the district has an incredibly rich history. Back in ancient times, Bodrum was the Greek city of Halicarnassus, the main port of the Kingdom of Caria. As long as you look closely enough, the traces of this bygone era will slowly reveal themselves to you. In order to uncover the ancient history in Bodrum, I will guide you through 4 hidden myths and stories from Halicarnassus.

Ancient history in Bodrum

The Myth of Hermaphroditus in the Woods of Caria

As a true icon of ancient androgyny, many of us will have heard of the myth of Hermaphroditus. The story began in the caves of Mount Ida, where a group of naiads were raising the young Hermaphroditus. The naiads were female nymphs that lived near fountains, springs and other bodies of fresh water. When Hermaphroditus became a teenager, he decided to travel to Lycia and Caria. Then, in the woods of Caria, he met Salmacis the nymph in her pool. This place in the Carian woods belongs to present-day Bodrum.

Salmacis was attracted to the boy and tried to seduce him, but Hermaphroditus was not interested. He waited to enter the pool until he thought she was gone. Salmacis, however, was secretly hiding behind a tree. She suddenly jumped in and grabbed Hermaphroditus, calling to the gods to let them be together for all of time. The gods listened and the boy and nymph merged together into one, a body of both sexes.

Ancient history in Bodrum

Panorama view of Bodrum

The Bronze Age Mystery of the Uluburun Shipwreck

Not many people know about this story, but the oldest shipwreck that was ever discovered was actually found in the Aegean waters of the southwestern coast in Turkey. The Bronze Age wreckage dates all the way back to the late 14th century BC, even before the age of Halicarnassus. On a summery day in 1982, a sponge diver named Mehmed Çakir made a sketch of a wreck he had spotted while diving. Mehmed was born in a village near Bodrum, a region that is known for its incredibly skilled sponge divers. Many excavation missions took place in the 80s and 90s, which revealed the ship’s royal order. The findings are now on display in the Museum Of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum.

The ship may have been heading to one of the Mycenaean palaces in Greece, since there were so many valuable items on board. The cargo included  jewels, musical instruments and even the golden seal of Queen Nefertiti.

Since the ship sunk so long ago, many parts of the story are still a mystery. After extensive excavation, researches are now quite sure that the ship must have set sail from a Cypriot or Syro-Palestinian port. The final destination will forever remain a secret, but it is likely that the ship was sailing to an unknown port city along the Aegean coast. One possible explanation is that the ship was headed to one of the Mycenaean palaces in Greece, since there were so many valuable items on board. The cargo included almost 20000 artifacts, like jewels, musical instruments and even the golden seal of Queen Nefertiti of Egypt.

The underwater museum in Bodrum

Bodrum shoreline

The Amphitheater was the Heart of Halicarnassus

Along the road between Bodrum and Gümbet you will find the amphitheater of Bodrum, one of the best-preserved structures from Halicarnassus. This is where up to 13.000 spectators would watch tragic plays, as well as fierce gladiator fights. The amphitheater dates to the 4th century BC, when King Mausolus reigned in the Carian region. Amphitheaters were crucial gathering places to the ancient Greeks, since storytelling through plays was their main method of communication.

Nowadays, the amphitheater is much quieter, but there are still regular concerts and performances in the evenings, especially in summer. During the day, you can visit the amphitheater and climb the old stairs all the way to the top. Some of the seats still have names inscribed into them: traces from ancient citizens who helped pay for the theater. From the upper levels, you have an extraordinary view of the Caste of Bodrum, the marina, and sometimes even the island of Kos in the distance. The best time to climb the theater steps is just before sunset, so you can watch the sun slowly sink into the Aegean Sea.

Bodrum amphitheater

Bodrum Amphitheater

The Macabre Tale of the Original Mausoleum

Have you ever wondered where the word Mausoleum comes form? Well, it technically came from ancient Halicarnassus. Above-ground tombs had been around for much longer in many cultures around the world, but the word Mausoleum stems from the original one in Bodrum. The 45 m (148 ft) structure was an impressive sight to behold, even to the point that Antipater of Sidon named it one of the seven wonders of the ancient world in the 2nd century BC. Today, however, all that remains at the site is ruins and rubble. The mausoleum completely collapsed after numerous earthquakes in the Middle Ages.

 The sacrificial ritual also involved many dead animals, spread all over the stairs of the tomb. The stairs were then filled up with stones, so nobody could ever access the mausoleum again.

The mausoleum in Halicarnassus dates back to the 4th century BC. The monument was a tomb for both King Mausolus and his sister-wife Artemisia II of Caria. Mausoleus died two years before Artemisia, but, eventually, loyal servants put both of their urns inside their tomb. The sacrificial ritual also involved many dead animals, spread all over the stairs of the tomb. The stairs were then filled up with stones, so nobody could ever access the mausoleum again. After completion, there were dozens of intricate sculptures on all four sides of this enormous building. I looked at a few artist depictions and drew a sketch to give you a rough idea of what the mausoleum looked like.

Mausoleum of Bodrum Sketch

I visited Bodrum in collaboration with the Bodrum Chamber of Commerce and the Bodrum Peninsula Promotion Foundation. Thank you for the invitation!


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