Sardis lies in the territory of Lydia, at the foot of the Tmolus Mountains and overlooking the Hermus River plain, where evidence has been found of human activity as early as the Palaeolithic period (ca. 50,000 B.C.). By the late second millennium B.C., a modest community existed at the foot of the acropolis.
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the “sons of Herakles” founded a dynasty that remained in power for “505 years, son succeeding father from generation to generation till the time of Candaules” (from ca. 1185 to ca. 680 B.C.). By the early 7th century B.C., Sardis was the capital of a growing empire, with a distinct archaeological record. Suring the Mermnad dynasty (ca. 680-547 B.C.), the empire reached its greatest geographical extent, stretching from the Aegean Sea to central Anatolia.
Herodotus credits the Lydian kings with the invention of coinage and the construction of the great royal burial mounds at Bin Tepe, some 6 miles to the northwest of the acropolis. Kings Gyges and Croesus were particularly renowned for lavish gifts dedicated in Greek sanctuaries. In 547 B.C., Sardis was sacked by Cyrus the Great and remained under Persian control until 334 B.C., when it was captured by Alexander the Great.
The city continued to flourish during Hellenistic and Roman times, when ambitious construction projects were initiated, including the temple of Artemis and bath-gymnasium complex. A section of the bath-gymnasium complex was later remodeled to accommodate a synagogue. This synagogue, now partially restored by the Harvard-Cornell Expedition, is the largest early synagogue yet excavated in the Mediterranean world.