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Priene: The Apogee of the Hellenisctic Domestic Architecture in Anatolia 


Lale Ozgenel, Instructor
Middle East Technical University
Department of Architecture / History of Architecture




Western coast of Anatolia was the homeland of the Ionian Greeks who had left numerous architectural monuments. The remains of temples, theaters, gymnasia, agoras, and fountains that once adorned the prosperous Ionic cities, are visible in various sites today. These urban edifices attest not only the wealth of the ancient cities but also the prominence given to urban life and quality. Yet, little is known about the private life of the inhabitants who erected these landmarks. The gap is partly due to the lack of the literary evidence and partly due to the extent of the archaeological survey. The remains of domestic architecture and residential patterns in Anatolia have rarely been thoroughly excavated and integrated into the urban fabric (1). However, an exceptional site is Priene where a large portion of the residential pattern has been excavated. The excavations yielded significant information both about the lifestyles of the inhabitants and also the spatial organization and the quality of the Hellenistic houses in Anatolia. In addition, Priene until now is the only thoroughly excavated site in Ionia and provides a huge body of archaeological evidence that can be used for comparative studies for the domestic architecture found in the other well known sites outside Anatolia. In this sense, Priene contributed much to the studies on the domestic architecture in antiquity like Olynthus in mainland Greece and the island of Delos in Aegean did (2). Therefore, Priene deserves a special emphasis. Hellenistic period (third century BC-first century BC) was a period of prosperity and peace in Anatolia. It was a renaissance of the antique world distinguished with scientific experimentation, intellectual progress and refinement and plasticity in art (3). In terms of city-planning and architecture as well, more progressive, revolutionary and refined designs changed the urban quality of many classical cities exemplified best perhaps by Miletus and Pergamon. In terms of domestic architecture, the Hellenistic mannerism is best reflected in Priene. Quennel (1957) The layout of the Hellenistic Priene dates back to 350 BC though it is known that the site was founded much earlier in the archaic period (4). The town had a single harbor that did not play an active role in the Ionian trade. The settlement then was a moderate sized town, mainly agricultural with little trade. The ruins of Priene visible today belong to the fourth century BC and later. The plan of the city was arranged according to the Hippodamian grid even though the topography was inconvenient for such a geometric layout. The well-preserved buildings and streets provide an opportunity to obtain detailed information both about the actual settlement forms and the life in the city. In the plan the main streets are arranged on the east-west axis while the secondary ones, in the form of steps, cross these on the north-south axis. All the buildings were organized in blocks of equal size, 47.2 m x 35.4 m (5). In general, each block consisted of four houses. The width of the main streets is generally 4.44 m while the others is about 3.5 m The main street passing in front of the stoa however, is as wide as 7.36 m. Drawn from Jameson (1990) and Usman (1955) The residential quarter was situated in the western quarter where the houses are neatly organized in blocks (6). The character of their wall construction and decoration indicate that they are roughly contemporary with the Hellenistic houses at Delos. Among the many different plan types one is significant. In this plan type two distinct elements were combined: the megaron, and the courtyard that is common not only in the Anatolian village houses but also in many Mediterranean houses both in the past and the present. Among the many variations, the standard plan which appears in almost all Priene houses, even in those of the poor class, is as follows: the house is approached by a long narrow passage, presumably covered, with the door set back a little from the street. This passage gives access to a square or rectangular open courtyard. On the north side of the court is the largest and most important room of the house, the megaron unit, approached through a porch with two columns. This arrangement, a megaron oriented towards a courtyard, is identified with the Priene houses and named as a prostas plan. Other than Priene it also appears in the fourth century houses at Colophon located further north (7). Nevertheless, prostas plan is unique to Anatolia and does not appear elsewhere since only in Anatolia was the megaron form continuously revived throughout the prehistoric and the Greek periods. Quennel (1957) Megaron served as the main-room in Priene houses. It was also extensively used as the main-room in the palaces both in Mycenaea in Greece and Troy in Anatolia (8). The preceding porch, usually columned as in Priene and its dominating location within the plan designates the megaron unit as the focus of attention. In Priene the megaron unit together with its columned porch was used as the living-room or the oikos (the Greek name used to refer to the living-room and also to the household) and oriented usually towards south (9). Together with the two adjacent rooms, presumably used as bedrooms, it forms the four-unit living quarter. Unlike Olynthus, an andron (men's quarter), a specific room (identified by u-shaped in-situ benches) used for the dinner-parties of the male members and guests is not visible in Priene houses (10). The courtyard served to satisfy two essential needs: privacy and climate control. The houses not only in Priene but elsewhere in Greece and the Aegean islands also adopted the courtyard that allowed for introvert planning and privacy. Privacy demands were controlled by organizing the accessibility of the rooms. In this sense, two types of rooms existed; those that are directly accessible from the courtyard and those only from the megaron. The courtyards in the Greek houses therefore, were neither front yards nor planted green areas. Instead, they were unpaved open spaces that provided light and air, organized circulation and accessibility and enabled each household to secure a great degree of privacy both from the street and the neighboring houses. On the other hand, the arrangement of the surrounding rooms could provide different spatial qualities ranging from open (courtyard) and semi-open (porch) to closed (room) spaces offering differing amounts of shade and heat. Respectively, a space like that of the porch of the megaron which served as a veranda must have been desirable in such a hot climate. The altars which were used for domestic rituals to protect houses and households and the wells that supplied water were also located in the courtyards. The rooms around the courtyard functioned as service rooms like storage rooms, bathrooms, toilets, and other sleeping chambers presumably including slave bedrooms. The remains of staircases indicate that some of the houses might have a second story. The Hellenistic refinement is also reflected in the construction of the Priene houses. The facades were largely faced with bossed ashlar masonry and the inner walls, at least in the lower portions, were also of masonry of some sort. In the upper parts of these inner walls probably sun-dried brick was used. For the interior decoration the most important novelty is the extensive use of stucco which was applied to imitate marble on lower parts of some of the inner walls. Roofs, at least in the main rooms, must have been pitched since different types of tiles were found on the site. Two expensive materials, bronze and marble were also used in these houses as door-knobs, bedsteads and tables respectively and show the attitude towards luxurious consumption. Though, most of the inhabitants of these houses were families of moderate means like those in Olynthus, a tendency towards achieving a monumental quality in domestic architecture is evident. Emphasizing the core of the house, the main living-room by using a megaron form which also defined the core of the prehistoric palaces and the Greek temples, and the use of stone, marble, and column which were once reserved for the monumental public buildings even in the smaller dwellings demonstrate the monumental quality caught in Priene houses (11). Besides, peristyle which is also identified with public architecture, particularly with temple design, is also used at least in one large house. The design of the houses in Priene does not only indicate the refinement in planning, decoration and construction but also the attention given to the spatial segregation and the control of privacy. Moreover, the regular layout of these houses, the housing blocks, the organization and the hierarchy of the streets in between and the functional zoning of public and private areas also indicate that some of the modern considerations and measures taken in modern urban planning were applied in Priene in twenty-three centuries earlier.



(1) See Ozgenel (1997) for the houses in the Greek period in western Anatolia.
(2) For Olynthus see, Robinson and Graham (1938) and Wycherly (1976:187-192), for Delos Wycherly (1976:194-195), for a general information on the Greek domestic architecture see Jameson (1990)
(3) See Pollit (1986) and Boardman, at el. (1991:309-408) for Hellenistic period and culture.
(4) Akurgal (1993:185)
(5) ibid., 187
(6) For the domestic architecture in Priene see Akurgal (1993:203-205), Schede (1964:96-107), Robertson (1988:298-300), Wycherly (1976:192-15) and Jameson (1990)
(7) Colophon was also a prosperous city in the early Hellenistic period where houses with similar configuration were organized in blocks of irregular size. They also exhibit features of the prostas plan though not as developed and refined as the Priene houses, Holland (1944).
(8) Robertson (1988:20-30)
(9) Jameson (1990:109)
(10) ibid., 99
(11) Megaron is also the main form of the Greek temple, Wycherly (1976:105)

AKURGAL, E. (1993). Ancient Civilizations and Ruins of Turkey. Istanbul: Net.

BOARDMAN, J., GRIFFIN, J., MURRAY, O. (eds.) (1991). Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

HOLLAND, L. B. (1944). Colophon, Hesperia (13), 91-171

JAMESON, M. H. (1990). Domestic Architecture in the Greek City-state, in S. KENT ed., Domestic Architecture and the Use of Space, 92-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

OZGENEL, L. (1997). Antik Donem Evleri ve Sahipleri: Bati Anadolu'daki Iyon Konutlari / Antique Age Houses and Owners: Ionian Residences in West Anatolia, Arkeoloji ve Sanat (78), 14-24.

POLLIT, J. J. (1986). Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

QUENNEL, C. H. AND M. (1957). Everyday Things in Ancient Greece. London: B. T. Batsford

ROBERTSON, D. S. (1988). Greek and Roman Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ROBINSON, D. M., GRAHAM, J. W. (1938). The Hellenic House, The Excavations at Olynthus, vol. VIII. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

SCHEDE, M. (1964). The Ruinen von Priene, 2nd. ed. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

USMAN, M. (1958). Antik Devir Kucuk Asya Evleri / Minor Asia Houses in the Antique Age. Istanbul: Guven Print House.

WYCHERLY, R. E. (1976). How the Greeks Built Cities. London and Melbourne: Mac Millan.










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