Turkey: Pamukkale, Hieropolis, & Laodicea

March 24, 2016.  How’d you like that mouthful of a title for my post?  Kind of an alphabet soup.  You’ve probably never heard of any of these ancient sites, unless you’re a fan of Roman history or the New Testament.  To be honest, they weren’t big on our sightseeing priority list, either — until we watched an NRK program about Hieropolis a couple of months ago.  With phantasmagoric hot-spring formations, a necropolis (city of the dead), and a Roman Plutonium (a “Gateway to Hell”), it sounded like the perfect vacation spot.

A short flight on the fifth night of our Turkey trip brought us within range of our archaeological goals … but not quite as close as we’d thought.  When we asked directions to the airport shuttle bus, a young man pointed the way, then offered to have a friend drive us directly to our hotel for a mere $90.  We of course rejected his seemingly exorbitant proposal, so he waved us onto the bus and climbed in after us.  Since he appeared to be leading a Turkish tour group, we assumed he’d simply been attempting to help a buddy make some cash.

It turns out that Turkey is the world's largest exporter of TV drama, after the U.S. The show we watched, "Kurtlar Vadisi," has been quite controversial, inspiring multiple copycat vigilante-justice murders across the country.
It turns out that Turkey is the world’s largest exporter of TV series, after the U.S. The show we watched, called “Kurtlar Vadisi” (Valley of the Wolves), has been quite controversial. It has inspired multiple copycat vigilante-justice murders in countries that have featured the program.  Had I known more about its sometimes anti-American themes, I might have been more nervous on the bus.

However, once aboard, we began to get other clues that our trip to the nearest city of Denizli wasn’t the short jaunt we’d anticipated.   First, folks settled in and pulled out bags of food.  Then the driver activated the bus’s TV screens and began playing a night-time soap opera.  While the show was fairly fascinating — featuring the equivalent of a Turkish mafia godfather facing off against some sort of law enforcement agent (the unifying theme being tying people into chairs and beating the crap out of them) — we became concerned that we’d just inadvertently joined our young friend’s tour.

Upon daylight inspection the next morning, the Denizli plain revealed itself to be breathtakingly gorgeous and much less threatening than the night before.
Upon daylight inspection, the Denizli Plain revealed itself to be breathtakingly gorgeous and much less threatening than the night before.  It boasts about half of the country’s most fertile farmland.

Matthew marched up to the bus driver to confirm our destination.  The man pointed straight ahead, saying “Yes, Denizli, Denizli.”  What could we do?  The surrounding plain appeared to be vast, empty, and pitch-black.  Not a particularly hospitable environment to get dropped off roadside in the middle of the night.  So we hung on and hoped that at least we’d end up near civilization.  Forty minutes later, we were still driving through the darkness.  The only non-Turks on the now silent bus.

Finally, distant lights predicted an approaching town.  The bus pulled up to a terminal, and we prepared to get off.  “No, no!,” insisted the young man.  “Your hotel is Konakk; next stop is much closer.”  We’d gone this far, so we decided to trust the guy one last time.  Fifteen minutes later, he announced, “We’re here!  Now, you take taxi to your hotel.”  Huh?  All that, and we still needed a taxi?  But he was true to his word; another five minutes by cab and we’d arrived.  In the end, we saved around $40, but I think the anxiety took at least a month off our lives, so the value is somewhat questionable.

The Konakk had surprisingly spacious rooms for an incredibly affordable price. And the staff bent over backwards to take care of us, even providing us with a meal long after the kitchen had closed.
The Konakk’s surprisingly spacious rooms come at an incredibly affordable price. And the staff bent over backwards to take care of us, even providing a meal long after the kitchen had closed.

We stumbled into the Konakk Residence Inn where we were greeted by the night manager, who showed us to our room and then worked with us to schedule the next day’s expedition.  To our pleasant surprise, he’d beefed up our agenda with the addition of Laodicea, an ancient city we hadn’t realized was on the way to the airport.  The full-day excursion would cost a mere $125 by taxi — after our earlier experience, the deal sounded like a steal.

Details confirmed, the manager led us to the dining room for a late-night meal, then sat down to chat with us while we ate.  He spoke of the economic hardships Turkey faced with the increasing acts of terrorism.  And he talked of his dream of moving to America, where perhaps he didn’t have to carry two jobs and work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, to feed his family.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that minimum wage has left many Americans stuck in this same rut (myself included, once upon a time).

It's hard to get a sense of scale, but the thermal springs have encrusted the entire flank of a huge butte with calcium deposits.
Thermal springs have encrusted the entire flank of a huge butte with calcium deposits. Click on the image, then check out the houses along the pond to get a sense of scale.

At the end of our conversation, he thanked us profusely for visiting despite current scares.  And the next morning, the plan he’d set in place came off like clockwork.  The taxi driver took us to our initial stop, where we alighted for our first look at Pamukkale.  Its infinitely appropriate name means “Cotton Castle.”  Mineral-rich hot springs have left behind towering formations of lumpy white travertine that closely resemble Yellowstone’s Mammoth Falls — but multiplied by ten in size.

The formations definitely look like big cotton balls up close. They're so blindingly white and reflective in the sun that I had to wrap my scarf around my head to avoid going blind and getting burned.
The formations definitely look like big cotton balls up close. They’re so blindingly white and reflective that I had to wrap my scarf around my head to avoid getting sunburned or being blinded by the light.

For thousands of years, folks have traveled to Pamukkale to bathe in its healing waters.  The Phrygians (an ancient society you might remember from stories of Troy, the Gordian Knot, and King Midas of the golden touch) established a temple here in the 3rd century B.C.  Eventually, the Romans took over, turning it into Hieropolis — a spa and retirement destination for worn out military men, kind of like Florida’s Sarasota Springs.  Nothing better for old bones than hanging out in a hot tub.

The day was a bit chilly, but this little boy jumped right in and lay down in the warm pool for a good soak.
The day was a bit chilly, but this little boy jumped right in and lay down in the warm pool for a good soak.

To experience the phenomenon up close, we took off our shoes as instructed and began the long hike up the chalky hill.  The seemingly fluffy landscape turned out to be surprisingly hard and sharp on bare feet.  Soft, clay-like silt, freshly deposited along the bottom of each pool, provided the only respite.  Some folks who had worn bathing suits hunkered down in the knee-deep pools, but a brisk breeze discouraged us from doing the same.  So we concentrated on capturing the beauty of the place on film, as seen in the gallery below.

Typical Roman bathing gear included mirrors (the round discs) and strigils (the curved blades -- these are used to scrape off sweat and oil from bathers.)
Typical Roman bathing gear included mirrors (the round discs) and strigils (the curved blades — these are used to scrape off sweat and oil from bathers.)

We could have lingered on the terraces for hours, photographing the lunar landscape.  But time was a-wastin’, so we trekked up to Hieropolis’s Roman Baths, which sit on the lip of the formations.  Originally built in the 3rd Century A.D., the structure also housed a gymnasium and library, and later became a basilica, but today it acts as the site’s museum.  It’s filled with fascinating statues, sarcophagi, grave goods, and ephemera used by bathers.  Touring the museum gives a nice conceptual overview, but personally, I’d read up beforehand and save a visit for any remaining time at the end of your trip.  A lesson we learned the hard way.

A rendering of Hieropolis gives you an idea of its size, spread out atop the Pamukkale hot-springs formation. You can see the big theater in the center and the square Agora (marketplace) on the left. But seeing this stuff on a drawing, and then finding it hidden in the grass and spread out over a mile of ruins is another matter entirely.
A rendering of Hieropolis gives you an idea of its size, spread out atop the Pamukkale hot-springs formation. Note the big theater in the center and the square Agora (marketplace) on the left.

Truthfully, we spent far too much time in the museum, not understanding the scope of the site.  Once we headed outside and got our bearings, we realized our mistake.  Hieropolis spreads out seemingly for miles.  Why I hadn’t guessed its potential scale when the city once housed 100,000 people is beyond me.  Needless to say, panic set in, and we proceeded to race up and down the ancient boulevards like beheaded chickens.

The theater at Hieropolis has been partially reconstructed, providing the perfect opportunity for pretending to be an ancient Roman spectator at a performance of a classic tragedy.
The theater at Hieropolis has been partially reconstructed, providing the perfect opportunity for pretending to be an ancient Roman spectator at a performance.

Sadly, our sightseeing degenerated into ticking items off our “to-do” list.  The necropolis?  Check.  St. Philip’s Martyrium?  Check.  Triton’s Fountain.  Check.  I positively hate traveling this way, and after an hour or so of frenetic scrambling, we realized there was just no way to cram it all in during the scant half hour we had remaining.  So we simply sat in the theater for awhile, imagining what it would have been like to kick back on the stone stadium seats and take in a Classic tragedy or gladiatorial fight, all while sipping a glass of wine (vendors sold the stuff in concession stands similar to ours today.)

I borrowed this image of the watermill saw to show you what you might see if you're better than I am at finding the sarcophagus of Marcus Aurelius Ammianos.
I borrowed this image of the watermill saw to show you what you might see if you’re better than I am at finding the sarcophagus of Marcus Aurelius Ammianos.

In the end, we simply couldn’t locate some of the biggies, like the circular tumulus crypts with phallic tombstones, or the 3rd-century sarcophagus of Marcus Aurelius Ammianos.  This last one advertises the earliest known depiction of a gear train, crankshaft, and connecting-rod mechanism. All are attached to a waterwheel being used to drive a double-bladed frame saw in the act of slicing slabs of marble.  The progressive technology is pretty impressive, so clearly we’ll have to come back someday to admire it in person.   But lest you think we missed all the good stuff, check out the gallery below.

How awesome is this? Getting to frolic and swim amongst the ruins?
How awesome is this? Getting to frolic and swim amongst the ruins?

We saved just enough time to take a quick dip in the “Ancient Pool,” a separate facility with its own admission fee — it’s the only remaining public hot springs situated amongst the ruins of Hieropolis.  I was prepared for a serious tourist trap, but the place had a nice little cafe, book store, and best of all — the coolest spa pool I’ve ever encountered.  Roman columns, capitals, and other architectural bits lay poking up from the bottom where they’d fallen during the last earthquake in 1353.  We spent about an hour floating in the silky water and perching on top of these ancient monuments like turtles on a log.

I took this photo from inside where the "castellum aquae" (water distribution tank) once sat. Each of the tank's four side had strainers like this that were connected to terra cotta pipes, which ran to the city's fountains and elite homes.
I took this photo from inside the “castellum aquae” (water distribution tank). Each of the tank’s four sides had strainers like the one pictured here. These were connected to terra cotta pipes that shunted water to the city’s fountains and elite homes.

But Father Time once again became a buzzkill, forcing us to hop into our cab and zip off towards Laodicea.  You might remember this city from the New Testament.  In Revelations, the Laodicean church gets called out for its complacency as “neither hot nor cold … but lukewarm.”  Kinda funny, as nearby Hieropolis was known for its hot springs, while the neighboring city of Colossae was known for it’s cool, pure, drinkable streams.  Poor Laodicea’s water, however, was considered undrinkable, so its citizens had to import their supply from far-away via an aqueduct.

The main street leading east-west to Ephesus is lined with colonnades for shops and temples.
The main street leading east-west to Ephesus is lined with colonnades for shops and temples.

Despite its sullied Christian past, Laodicea’s white marble buildings lit up like beacons against dramatic dark skies during our visit.  As we walked the city’s paved boulevards, rutted from the wheels of Roman carts, we got the feeling that we’d just missed the toga party.  But all too soon, we had to head for the airport.  Not nearly enough time to see it all — our constant refrain on this trip.

And that’s my advice to you:  Spend at least two full days, maybe even three, exploring Pamukkale, Hieropolis, and Laodicea.  Soaking in their ambience can’t be rushed, and isn’t relaxation what these ancient spas were all about, anyway?

 

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