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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Once overrun with hotels and tourist baths, Pamukkale is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This panoramic view gives you a sense of its scale. The ancient city of Hieropolis sits atop the butte and commands a spectacular view out over the travertine terraces and Denizli Valley.
Around 17 hot springs feed the formation. Their temperatures range from a comfy 95° F to an intolerable 212° F. The minerals in the water purportedly heal skin diseases and ease rheumatism. UNESCO volunteers regularly redirect these streams to keep the travertine terraces growing at a rate of about an inch a year.
The thermal springs carry a mixture of calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide to the surface. As the carbon dioxide de-gasses from the water, the calcium carbonate settles out as a jelly that later hardens into travertine. Breathing in small amounts of this carbon dioxide supposedly cured lung ailments (although the stuff proved deadly in large amounts.) And drinking the waters also helped with digestive issues — it’s basically like drinking bi-carbonate soda (water with Alka Seltzer in it).
UNESCO protocol requires that people remove their shoes to prevent destruction of the formation. The hardened calcium feel a bit like sandpaper. Guess I won’t be needing another pedicure anytime soon.
These cauliflower-like formations remind me so much of Mammoth Cave’s Snowball Dining Room.
Geothermal pools are telltale signs of underground volcanic activity. Many earthquakes have hit Hieropolis over the years; the last one leaving it in ruins in 1354 A.D. In this photo, some of the city’s remains can be seen above the travertine terraces.
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.
Construction for the Roman Baths at Hieropolis began in Hadrian’s time (117 – 138 A.D.). These barrel vaults likely led to the caldarium (hot room). The newly roofed portion of the bath (upper right corner) now holds the museum.
A temple frieze in the background shows the crowning of Hiera, the wife of Telephos, who founded the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. The city of Hieroplis is likely named in her honor. In the foreground is a Roman statue of Neptune — an appropriate water god for a Roman bath.
We’re contemplating how to make the best use of our time. Actually, the guy in the traditional Phrygian hat is Attis. He’s more likely contemplating why in the heck he cut off his genitals in a fit of madness when confronted by his hermaphroditic lover and mother, Cybele. (How’s that for some personal baggage?) She’s the god/goddess originally worshipped at Hieropolis’s Plutonium (Gate to Hell) where she resurrected Attis from the underworld. Interestingly, transgender and castrated Eunuch-priests typically tended her temples.
While Cybele was a Phrygian goddess that made the migration into Roman mythology, the legend of Hades (Pluto) and Persephone (Proserpina) comes to Hieropolis from Greece. You know the story, Hades kidnaps Persephone and carries her into the underworld, allowing her to resurface only a few months of each year — as the birth of spring. Hieropolis’s many temples to gods and goddesses of Hell reference the Plutonium, an outlet for volcanic gases located near the hot springs. These heavy fumes frequently suffocated animals and people, which is why the vent was thought to be the gate to the underworld.
The outer ring of Hieropolis contains Turkey’s largest (and most ancient) cemetery. Check out these 1st-century A.D. diadems (crowns) found in some of the graves.
And here’s a photo of one of the diadems as it was discovered in a tomb (it apparently slid off of the skull above it.) The museum is bursting at the seams with incredible artifacts that bring to life the world of those once buried in Hieropolis.
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.
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 (ancient vendors sold the stuff in concession stands similar to ours today.)
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.
Hieropolis possesses Turkey’s most well-preserved ancient Roman theater, which ranks third worldwide. Originally it would have seated around 15,000 people — a little small for a city of 100,000.
Up close, you can see all the details of a traditional theater. In the left corner of this photo, the small half circle in the front row is the equivalent of a skybox; it’s where the dignitaries sat. The orchestra (the half-circle below the stage) could be flooded for water events.
The Greco-Roman carvings along the theater’s scaenae (stage front) are considered to be some of the best in the world. Along with mythological scenes, the frieze depicts the coronation of Emperor Septimius Severus, who refurbished the theater from 193 – 211 A.D.
No spa city would be complete without a Nymphaeum — a sacred fountain honoring the water spirits. These structures are typically U-shaped or organized around a semi-circle and later became the model for early Christian baptistries. (Yep, Christianity borrows a lot from paganism.) This particular Nymphaeum’s facade had two stories studded with niches and statues. The building basically acted as the local watering hole, distributing water via pipes to wealthy households.
The Temple of Apollo sits next door to the Nymphaeum and contains a temple to Cybele. According to Roman legend, Apollo was directed by the gods to import the Phrygian cult of Cybele. (He was bi-sexual, and the priests of Cybele were castrated transgender Eunuchs, so they seemed a natural fit, pardon the pun.)
Along one wall is the Plutonium, meaning the “Gate to the realm of Hades/Pluto.” It got its name because it’s actually a small cave that leads to a volcanic fissure, which emits deadly amounts of carbon dioxide. Priests of the goddess Cybele managed the shrine here and learned the trick of crawling on the floor to inhale pockets of oxygen (C02 is lighter and rises.) When the priests returned from the cave unharmed, they became a testament to Cybele’s resurrectional capabilities. Smart businessmen, these priests sold birds and small animals to worshippers, who could then test the suffocating powers of the fumes on their new pets. Many tourists have died climbing up to peer into the cave, so we kept a healthy distance away. Pardon the bad book photo; mine did not turn out well.
An enormous necropolis (city of the dead) sits on the outskirts of Hieropolis. Tombs and crypts of Greco-Roman Pagans and Christians cover every available inch and give the place a crowded look similar to a New Orlean’s cemetery. My guess is that, since Hieropolis was a center for supposedly regenerative hot springs, it made sense that gods associated with death and resurrection — such as Cybele, Hades/Pluto, Apollo, and Christ — found a home here.
I’m sitting in front of the recently discovered tomb of the Apostle Philip, who retired to Hieropolis with his prophesying virginal daughters and was martyred here in the 1st century. His body was later removed to Constantinople and then to Rome, but the inscriptions found here confirm that this was his original tomb.
Inside St. Philip’s tomb, you can see where his body and probably those of his daughters once lay.
The Martyrium of St. Philip marks the spot where he was either crucified upside down or hung by his heels from a tree (supposedly he continued to preach during this process.) His crime? Converting the proconsul’s wife to Christianity. By the way, does his story of the prophesying virginal daughters sound familiar? It’s likely that he became the Christian substitute for recently converted pagans who at one time worshipped Apollo. Remember the Oracle of Delphi, where Apollo’s virgin priestesses foretold the future? They, too, fueled their visions by inhaling volcanic fumes from a fissure. One final similarity: both Apollo and Philip are said to have killed demonic snakes at the sites where these fumes poured forth.
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.
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.
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?
Nineteen columns of a portico for the Temple to Apollo, Artemis, and Aphrodite have been re-erected here.
I’m standing in the entry to the naos (inner shrine) of the temple, constructed in the 2nd Century A.D.
A more distant view of the temple lets you see the full complex.
The Nymphaeum of Emperor Septimius Severus stood in the middle of a U-shaped, two-story colonnade. Three fountains fed the main pool, and outlets trickled into three bowls that sat almost at street level. (Two bowls can be seen here.)
The exterior wall of “House A” was lined with shops that sat behind a black marble colonnade.
The ancient theater hasn’t yet been excavated, but it gives an evocative picture of the terrific state of preservation for many of Turkey’s Roman ruins.
At the end of the day, the sun’s rays bathe the Roman Baths in light.