Sardis in antiquity was one of the great cities of Asia Minor. As the capital of Lydia (a kingdom located in western Turkey, inland from modern Izmir), Sardis achieved fame and wealth especially under the last Lydian king, Croesus, before succumbing to the Persian conquest in the mid-sixth century B.C. Sardis lies at the foothills of Mount Tmolus in the valley of the Hermus River, a natural corridor that connects the Aegean and Anatolia. The city’s wealth and prosperity can be attributed to its location, ideal for trade and commerce, and to its abundant source of water and mineral resources, most notably the legendary gold-bearing sands of the Pactolus stream.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Lydians were the first people to mint coins. Although the exact date of this invention is in dispute, coins of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, apparently came into use at the end of the seventh century B.C. According to Herodotus, King Croesus, who ruled Lydia from around 560 to 546 B.C., was the first person to issue pure gold and pure silver coins. Systematic exploitation of the region’s rich mineral resources made Sardis a leading producer of gold in the eastern Mediterranean from the mid-seventh to mid-sixth century B.C., briefly lifting the kingdom to the world stage of economic and social history. Even today, a memory of that wealth lingers in the expression “rich as Croesus.” Evidence for a gold refinery has been discovered near the Pactolus stream, where also stands a stone altar most likely dedicated to Cybele, the patron goddess of Sardis.
In 546 B.C., the Lydian empire was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great, who made Sardis the chief western terminus of a major administrative route that originated at Susa in Iran. During Persian occupation, rulers and a class of entrepreneurs engaged in industry and commercial trade, making Lydia one of the richest kingdoms of the period, with a lifestyle famous for its splendor and luxury. Persian rule ended in 334 B.C., when Sardis surrendered to Alexander the Great. However, the archaeological record has revealed the impact of Greek and other cultures from as early as the Archaic period, long before the conquest of Anatolia by Alexander. One of the most important sculptural pieces from Sardis is a stone shrine to Cybele that depicts the mother goddess standing in an Ionic temple. Datable to the sixth century B.C., it is one of the earliest known representations of the Ionic style of architecture.
The city was for many centuries a significant point of juncture between the Greeks of the Aegean and the Persians. Traders and caravans, laden with riches of every description, must have passed through Sardis, and so it is little wonder that the Lydians acquired an international taste. During the Hellenistic era, which followed Alexander’s death, Sardis was much coveted by the Seleucid dynasts and the kings of Pergamon. In 282 B.C., the city became a Seleucid capital, during which time it acquired status as a Greek city-state. The monumental temple to the goddess Artemis on the site dates to this period.
In 133 B.C., Sardis came under Roman rule and was distinguished as the principal city of a judicial district that included twenty-seven or more Lydian and Phrygian settlements. By the end of the first century B.C., it had become an important center of Christianity and home to a significant Jewish community. The synagogue at Sardis, discovered by chance in 1962 during excavations by Harvard and Cornell Universities, measures over 300 feet in length—the largest of its kind. Originally, the floors were paved with ornate mosaics and its walls covered with multicolored marble revetment, into which were set marble panels of floral and animal designs. After the sixth century A.D., Sardis declined in importance and size, although its prestige lingered for another 500 years. As late as the thirteenth century it was the site of a summit meeting between the Byzantine emperor and the Turkish sultan.