Lying at the foothills of Mount Tmolus on the banks of the Pactolus River, Sardis was one of the great cities of Asia Minor. Today its ruins are located about 80 kilometres west of present-day İzmir in western Turkey. As the capital of the flourishing Lydian kingdom of the 7th century BC, Sardis achieved fame and wealth especially under the last Lydian king, Croesus, before succumbing to the Persian conquest in the mid-6th century BC. Sardis fell in turn to the Athenians, the Seleucids, and the Attalids until it was conquered by the Romans in 133 BC. The city flourished under the Roman peace and became an important centre of Christianity and was home to a significant Jewish community. Sardis was one of the Seven Churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Sardis was capital of the Kingdom of Lydia in the 7th and 6th centuries BC when a dynasty of kings from Gyges to Croesus conquered western Anatolia. King Croesus, who ruled Lydia from 560 to 546 BC, was the first person to issue gold and silver coins. Croesus’ legendary wealth lead to the expression ‘rich as Croesus’.
Sardis was located on a major route connecting the Aegean coast to inland Anatolia. Its wealth and prosperity can be attributed to its strategic location, ideal for trade and commerce, and to its abundant source of water and mineral resources, most notably the legendary Pactolus, a little river that contained gold dust. The Persians brought the Lydian monarchy to a final and dramatic end when Cyrus II, King of Persia, invaded Sardis in 547 BC.
Under the Achaemenid Persians (547 – 334 BC), Sardis was the capital of a major satrapy (province) of Anatolia, and formed the end station for the Persian Royal Road which began in Susa in present-day Iran. During the Persian occupation, the inhabitants of Sardis engaged in industry and commercial trade, making Lydia one of the richest kingdoms of the period. Sardis remained under Persian domination until it surrendered to Alexander the Great in 334 BC.
After Alexander the Great’s conquest, Sardis was incorporated into the Hellenistic kingdoms and formed the western capital of the Seleucid empire when it acquired status as a Greek city-state. The monumental temple to the goddess Artemis on the site dates to this period. The theatre of Sardis, now sadly in ruins, was also built during this period.
In 133 BC, Sardis came under Roman rule when the last king of Pergamon, Attalus III Philometor, died and bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans. The city became the metropolitan capital and centre of judicial administration of the Roman province of Lydia. The city was rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 17 AD. According to Tacitus (Annals 2.47), Tiberius awarded ten million sesterces for its reconstruction and agreed to waive all taxes due from Sardis and the other cities for a period of five years after the earthquake. Hadrian visited Sardis in 123/124 and in 128 AD as a “new Dionysos” whilst an inscription seems to mention a Hadrianeion (temple of Hadrian).
Excavations in Sardis have uncovered more remains of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine city than of the Lydian town described by Herodotus. Since 1958 the universities of Harvard and Cornell have sponsored annual archeological expeditions to Sardis. As part of these works, the major Roman bath-gymnasium complex has been exacted and restored. The synagogue was also discovered in 1962. Some of the important finds from the archaeological site of Sardis are kept in the Archaeological Museum of Manisa in Turkey.