Perched on top of a hill above the modern town of Bergama stand the beautiful ruins of Pergamom. The ruins lie across the top and front of the hill, with cliffs on the other three sides giving the sight a very dramatic setting. Huge pillars and a large theatre give you an idea of how impressive the city used to be. The ruins are some of the most imposing and awe-inspiring in Turkey. On the other side of the city are the remains of the Asklepion, which was the second most famous healing centre in the Hellenistic world. People came from across the world to cure themselves here. Today you can follow in their footsteps and visit this amazing place. It’s truly one of the highlights of Turkey.
History of Pergamom
The earliest evidence of a settlement here is from the 8th century, though for centuries it was little more than a town. The area was conquered by the Persians, before being restored to Greek rule by Alexander the Greats invasion of Asia Minor in 334BC. The city first started to really grow in importance after this, especially when the Attalid dynasty was founded in 281BC. After they became independent of the Seleucid empire in 190BC, Pergamom became capital of the powerful Attalid kingdom. This is when some of the first large monumental buildings were built here. During this period the Asklepion also added to the cities fame, with it being a world renowned healing centre.
The city was conquered by the Romans in 140AD. The Romans massively expanded the city, with a 2.5 mile wall built around it. At it’s height in the second century AD the city had a population of over 200,000. The city was badly damaged by an earthquake in 262AD, and was sacked by the rampaging Goths soon after. It never fully recovered from this, and was also sacked several times during the Byzantine period by Arab and Seljuck armies.
Exploring the Ruins
The Acropolis of Pergamom
The ruins of the Acropolis stand on a 335 metre high escarpment between two rivers. To reach the ruins it’s possible to hike up the hill or take a cable car. I opted for the empty cable car and was treated to an exhilarating ride up to the top, with views of the town on one side of the hill and a reservoir on the other.
The most famous site here are the ruins of the Alter of Zeus, which used to be a massive structure that contained a beautiful frieze depicting the war between the Greek Gods and Titans. Sadly the entire frieze was taken and moved to Berlin Museum in the 19th century. While much of the structure is missing, what remains is very impressive. The pillars are huge, walking under them gave me a sense of how massive the original building was. I was also able to climb up some of the reaming walls. The chambers and passageways under the building are well preserved; walking through them felt like exploring a lost ancient Greek necropolis, especially as it was quite dark and the area was empty.
Walking along the ruins on the far side of a plateau is a must, as it offers great views of the surrounding mountains and the reservoir in the valley below. The wind was intense here, adding to the raw, primal feeling of being in this ancient city that had been left to rot atop it’s mountain fastness. Close to here are the shattered remnants of the Library of Pergamom, once the second biggest in the world.
The most impressive surviving building at the site is the theatre, which is the steepest theatre from the ancient world. It had a capacity of 10,000 people. It’s built into the hillside so the steps fall sharply away- I wouldn’t have wanted to climb them after drinking wine all evening. From the top of the steps you can see the remains of Pergamom falling away towards the modern city.
The Red Basilica
The ruins of this large temple lie in the old town near the base of the hill. This temple was built by Roman Emperor Hadrian to honour the Egyptian Gods. It was later converted into a church. The main temple is quite well preserved and you can see the remains of a few statues scattered around. There are two large rotundas (round towers) on each side of temple. One of them is part of the temple and you can go inside it. There is a large underground complex beneath the site, but unfortunately it’s closed to the public.
While these ruins aren’t as dramatic at the Acropolis, they are just as important. They’re also a peaceful place to wonder around and relax in. The Asklepion was built around a sacred spring, and became the second most famous in the classical world.
You enter the site along the remains of the sacred way, where you can follow in the footsteps of pilgrims who came here to be healed. The sacred way leads to the remains of the underground passageway, where water from the springs still comes out. Patients would spend their first night here, and in the morning they would have their dreams interpreted by physicians. They believed the dreams were sent by the healing God Asklepios, and that they held the key to healing a person. Walking through here was a powerful experience, as I could imagine the thousands of people who had come here to be healed.
The site also includes the remains of the temple, a theatre and residential buildings. It’s a very relaxing, contemplative area with few visitors to spoil the serenity. I certainly found visiting here a refreshing experience.
This was one of the most spectacular sites I visited in Turkey. The combination of the ruins and the setting on the hill make the Acropolis a must see. The Asklepion and Red Basilica also make for good visits. The sites didn’t have many tourists, so it makes for a much more relaxing visit. The town of Bergama itself is also very charming with some interesting places.
Admission: Acropolis 35 Lira, Asceplion is 30 lira and the Red Basilica is 6 lira.
Getting there and away: Bergama is about 1.5 hours away from Izmir. I would recommend staying in Bergama for at least a couple of days. All the sites are easily walkable from the centre, though it’s fun getting the cable car up the hill. Cable car is 20 lira one way and 35 lira for a return trip.