Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape shows remains of the Hellenistic Attalid, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
It became the capital of the new kingdom of Pergamon which Philetaerus founded in 281 BC, beginning the Attalid dynasty. The Attalids ruled until 133 BC and became an ally of Rome. The city of Pergamon expanded greatly during this period. Later the city became capital of the Roman province of Asia known for its Asclepieion healing centre.
The sculptural frieze of the Great Altar at Pergamon was removed by German archaeologists in the late 19th century, and was put on display in the specifically built Pergamon Museum at Berlin's Museum Island in 1901.
Map of PergamonLoad map
To be such a late inscription Pergamon is an impressive, diverse and large site. And hordes of tourists haven’t yet discovered it which makes it enjoyable site to visit. Compared to Pamukkale and Ephesus, which are surrounded by tourist villages, Pergamon is an authentic city that lives its own life. There were some tourist groups in the Acropolis but otherwise the sites were quite empty. I visited Pergamon on my exploring of four classical sites of Western Turkey on October 2019.
Getting from Izmir to the city of Bergama is quite easy. The only reasonable public transport option is bus. Mini buses depart every hour from the second floor of the main bus station. Note that only the mini buses go to the center of Bergama. The terminus of mini buses at Bergama is so called Soma Garage. Long distance buses stop only at the main bus station of Bergama which is located seven kilometers from the city center.
The World Heritage Site of Pergamon has ’Multi-Layered’ on its name. The different layers belong to the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantium and Ottoman Periods. Although this site is diverse, the monumental Kale Hill with the Acropolis is a clear centrepiece. Kale Hill dominates the landscape of Bergama and it can be seen from kilometers away. Kale Hill is composed of two parts: the Acropolis on the summit, and the Lower City on the southern slope.
The setting of the Acropolis on a steep hill 200 meters above the city center is simply stunning and dramatic. It almost seems inaccessible. From the bus terminus is one kilometers walk uphill to the cable car station. It is also possible to take a taxi to the Acropolis but there are nice views from the cable car so I prefer that. You can roam around the Acropolis easily for two or three hours. There are two structures which get the majority of attention: Theatre and Trajaneum. I have seen numerous Greek and Roman theatres but the Theatre of Pergamon is special. It has a distinctive shape and it is the steepest theatre of ancient world. And its location with the city landscape of Bergama on the background makes it such a great sight. The Temple of Trajanus or Trajaneum is nowadays the best preserved building of the Acropolis. The white marble columns on the summit are only a small part of this complex. There is a huge vaulted supporting structure under the temple.
Some people know Pergamon only from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin where the Great Altar is the main attraction. Certainly the Great Altar in its original location near the theatre would make the Acropolis more impressive and complete, but it is nowadays a part of another WHS far away from its original location.
The Serapeion or ’Red Basilica’ is located comfortably just beside the bus terminus so it is easy to visit. So called Red Basilica (Kızıl Avlu in Turkish) is a part of former huge Serapis Temple complex or Serapeion. Archaeological findings prove that the temple was used to worship Egyptian gods, especially Serapis and Isis. Also the St. John Church, one of the ’Seven Churches’ of Early Christianity is believed to be in Red Basilica. On both sides of the main temple are rotundas or round towers, the other of which is nowadays a mosque. Red Basilica used to be encircled by 10 meters high Egyptian statues, the caryatids. Today there is a reconstructed caryatid on the south side of the main temple and it looks striking. Even though partly in ruins the walls of the Red Basilica are in good condition and I find it a very beautiful and impressive building.
After visiting the Red Basilica I walked three kilometers along the the Selinos River to the Asclepion. I recommend this route for having a better understanding of the Ottoman city and its winding streets. The Ottoman neighbourhood on the riverside is surprisingly nice at some places with colourful small houses on the hillside. Also noticeable are three beautiful Ottoman bridges. Still, the most famous bridge is the Pergamon Bridge which is one of the largest Roman bridges ever built. It is 200 meters wide. Basically all you can see are two arched openings on both ends, but it is a much bigger and more important structure than one would think. The whole Serapeion temple complex and the central blocks of Bergama are built on a huge platform which lies on top of Pergamon Bridge.
On my route I stopped at Roman period Amphitheatre and City Theatre that are located on the edge of the city. Only a small part of the curve of the Amphitheatre can be seen. The City Theatre is unexcavated pit in the middle of residential area. Beside the City Theatre is an access arch (Viran Kapı in Turkish) to the former one kilometer long covered road that connected the city of Pergamon to the Asclepion.
Asclepius Sanctuary or Asclepion is an ancient healing center which is devoted to the cult of Asclepius, the god of medicine. The stand out feature of Asclepion is the circular treatment building and the underground corridor, the cryptoporticus, that leads to the building. Also the theatre is in a very good condition with some nice details at the ends of the rows. I find Asclepion an interesting and complete little archaeological site. But after visiting the Acropolis it seem not that impressive. I had Asclepion almost for myself because I was maybe one of three visitors.
Just as the previous reviewer told I also had a problem with time. Half day was not enough to cover all the components. There is so much to see. I didn’t have time for Tumuli, Aqueduct and Kybele Sanctuary. As its name indicates, Pergamon is a large WHS with many cultural layers. There are clear highlights like the Acropolis, Red Basilica and Asclepion. In some other country or circumstances these could even be a WHS of their own. But some the nuances of this WHS are ’hidden’ and it needs a bit of searching to reveal all of its gems.
The remains of the ancient Greek city of Pergamon are famous both for their location – notably its Acropolis superbly situated on the top of a steep hill near the modern Turkish town of Bergama, and for the fact that the Pergamon Museum in Berlin holds the magnificent orginal Altar of Zeus removed from the site in 1871. However the inscription of “Pergamon and its Multi-layered Cultural Landscape” shows the site to be a bit more complicated than this!
In fact it consists of 9 locations - the major area which includes not only the Acropolis and the Askeplion healing centre situated a few kms apart but also Roman and Ottoman remains between and a Roman aqueduct to the north. A few kms further away is the Kybele Sanctuary - a rock cut shrine dating originally to pre Hellenistic times and then 7 scattered tumuli . All this was packaged together with its grandiose title. ICOMOS was not convinced and recommended deferral for a number of reasons but primarily to “Refocus the nomination on the Hellenistic and Roman periods to justify the value of the property as the Hellenistic capital of the Attalids and its subsequent inclusion in the Roman Empire which allowed Pergamon to extend its role as a cultural centre”. The WHC overruled ICOMOS on this one and the site was inscribed as nominated!
We too had a problem – just not enough time to cover all the locations! The Tumuli can be seen from the Acropolis and, we were told, have nothing on view to see anyway. It could have been interesting to follow up the Kybele Sanctuary – Cybele being thought to have “descended” from the Anatolian “Mother goddess” (possibly the very goddess represented in the famous figurine from Catalhoyuk we had seen in the Anatolian museum in Ankara?), reaching Greece and then Rome via Phrygia. But it was a few kms outside town and it wasn’t really clear what there was on show. Within the town area the most interesting aspect appeared to be the “Red Basilica” – a Byzantine Church (now partly a mosque) built within a 2nd C Roman temple to the Egyptian god Serapis. Bergama is one of the 7 Churches of Asia Minor mentioned in the Book of Revelation. “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges” etc etc (see Revelation 2:12 - 17!) It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that the “Church” referred to in Revelation would have been a “congregation” not specifically a “building” though such Christian church building as would have existed at the time would have been located here
For better or worse we decided to concentrate on the Acropolis, the Asceplion and only take a quick external look at the Red Basilica. (We picked up a bit on the Ottoman town during the previous evening and on our drives across town - it seemed pleasant enough but nothing “special”). It is worth mentioning that each of these has separate entry fees. So the Acropolis cost 25TL pp and the Asceplion 20. A visit to the former is going to need at least 2 hours and the latter another 2 taking into account getting to it. The Red Basilica will be passed as you descend from the Acropolis - I didn’t discover its entry fee. It is under significant reconstruction.
We had a car to drive up to the Acropolis but many will take the cable car at 12TL. It would be quite a long walk as the road circles the hill. Obligatory parking at the Acropolis and at the Asceplion will add another 5TL at each – though the latter could easily be avoided by parking a few hundred metres away. Both sites are firmly on the “Tourist Bus circuit” as Bergama is within easy day trip reach of Turkey’s Aegean resorts. Although the site opens at 8 am we didn’t enter until about 9.45 because of our hotel’s late breakfast hours (unfortunately as in most Turkish hotels!) but the groups were reasonably well spread out and not too much of a hassle. As with most Turkish sites the bilingual signboards were excellent as regards their English content and there was little extra to be gained from our 2 guide books and print downs from the UNESCO site. The site of the infamous “Altar of Zeus” is visibly a platform surrounded by a jumble of stones but quite small and diminished by the trees growing on it. I found it quite difficult to imagine the large 3 sided structure with its friezes, steps and columns I had seen in Berlin actually in situ (and, as the on-site models show, it was only a part of a larger total structure). The Theatre at Pergamon is something special – and we were getting a bit “theatred out” on this trip as every site we visited seemed to possess one. It is very steep and narrow with amazing views out to the countryside. The rest of the site contains the sorts of pillared structures you would expect in a Greco-Roman ruin – The Traianium is quite fine. The Roman aqueduct which extends the WHS some distance to the North is clearly visible from the site and is indeed quite a feat of engineering. Notably, the modern authorities haven’t been able to pipe enough water in to provide toilets within the site - perhaps they should learn something from the Romans!!
We then moved on the 2+kms to the Asceplion, passing the Red Basilica for a quick view. Among the interesting aspects that we did take in there were that the Romans built the original Serapion temple on a series of “tunnels” known as the “Pergamon Bridge” since, as they are not underground, they are in strict terms actually bridges and, at almost 200m wide, among the largest such ancient structures in the World. The road you will use still runs on the bridge to this day!
The Asceplion requires yet another entrance fee but I would regard a visit there as essential. Most people reading this are likely to visit these sites under their own steam but it might be worth mentioning for anyone thinking of taking a “tour” from the coast that not all tours to Bergama include the Asceplion (let alone the Red Basilica) and concentrate solely on the Akropolis - they have to fit in such things as lunch and souvenir shops (!) – so, if you are thinking of taking one of these, check what is included. The Asceplion is perhaps the world’s most famous ancient “medical centre” and the place at which Galen (131-210AD) practiced, developing both his knowledge of anatomy and his philosophy. I noted that his main job was to tend to the wounded Gladiators! I also rather liked the idea that it was approached by a long covered sacred way (whose base is still visible) - but, at the start, intending patients were interviewed by priests who determined whether or not they could “benefit” from the treatment on offer! No doubt they didn’t want too many dying on them! The most interesting parts to us were the sacred springs from which visitors were still taking water and the treatment/sleeping areas. The excellent signs describe the treatments on offer, which covered a whole range of psychological aspects (sounds of music and running water as well as praying and interpretation of dreams), through diet, bathing, blood letting, purging and (sometimes) surgery. All in all, an interesting site showing a different “take” on ancient life from the majority of ancient sites - though it does also still have a ruined theatre!
2014 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised Deferral
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