“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck
When we visited Pamukkale, I said “This is going to be one of my favorite things we do in Turkey”. Seven weeks later, it is holding up as one of my top experiences of the entire trip.
The town of Pamukkale itself isn’t anything to write home about. It is one of those places that exists in order to support a major tourist destination. In this case, the travertine terraces. I’ll get to those in a moment.
High above the town of Pamukkale lies the remains of a huge 2nd century BCE town called Hieropolis. Hieropolis was an ancient city of healing dedicated to the god Apollo, built upon the dozens of hot springs so prevalent in the area. Many people skip the city in favor of going straight to the terraces, but this is a grave, GRAVE error. There are so many things to commend this city, but let me give you my top three.
1. The Theater
We had just been to Ephesus which boasts two pretty impressive theatres. I wasn’t sure I needed to see a third. And it was a looooong, hoooooot, steeeeep walk to this one after we entered the gates of the city. Our guide said it was worth it. Ok. I’ll be a trooper.
I mean, seriously, just shut the hell up. This put the theaters in Ephesus to SHAME! It was dedicated to Dionysus, god of wine and theatre, of course, but the statues of Hera, Artemis, Athena and Demeter that graced the stage were stunning. And the acoustics were marvelous. Worth it indeed!
2. The Nymphaeum
Water was an important theme in the city where people came from all over the world to be healed in the waters of the springs. There were huge bath houses positioned at each of the two gates of the city and visitors weren’t allowed in until they had visited the baths. In the center of the town, was the nymphaeum, a fountain sacred to the water nymphs, where the townspeople came every day to collect their water for drinking, bathing, cleaning and cooking. If you were rich, conduits would bring this water right into your home. If not, you came here several times a day to collect fresh clean water and the latest gossip.
3. The Necropolis
It is a sad fact that many people who came to Hieropolis for healing were not destined to survive so many many people died here. For this reason, Hieropolis boasts the largest city of the dead uncovered anywhere in the world. It stretches out over acres and acres as far as you can see. Because Turkey did not have a great structure in place for archeological digs, many Turks would come to have a picnic and do a little pillaging of the tombs all the way up to the 19th century. There’s not much left inside the tombs, but the sarcophagi remain. And so do the curses carved upon them to deter thievery. (18th century Turks didn’t read ancient Greek, so needless to say, these threats were fairly useless).
BONUS: The Plutonium
A sacred cave said to lead to the underworld inhabited by Pluto. It emitted poisonous gases (still does) and is therefore inaccessible these days. It was said the priests of Cybele could safely enter, but all other humans and animals would die. We did not test out this theory.
Lest you think that Paganism was the only thing going on in the city, there was also a large population of Jews in the city at this time who were members of the art guilds and Philip visited the city many times, died and is buried there and writes about it once in the Bible. I found Turkey repeatedly to be a stunning example of religions co-existing and of the borrowing and layering of religions on top of sacred sites throughout hundreds of thousands of years. This fascinates me to no end. Remember the Hagia Sohpia?
After we explored the city (I really needed about three more full days to be satisfied here), we had time to swim in the travertine pools. The pools are formed by minerals in the earth bubbling to the surface in the water. The terraces below Hieropolis are all white due to calcium being the prominent mineral, but in other places we saw yellow (sulfer) and red (magnesium) terraces.
The best part of the day, however, was the descent. It took nearly an hour, but we were able to walk from the top of the mountain all the way back down to the town along and through the travertine pools. I’ve read online that they no longer allow this. I’m not sure if that is a recent or an older development, but people were very certainly doing it while we were there.
It was just soul balm for me to walk through these pools that had been sacred sources of healing for centuries.
I can only describe the experience as a spiritual journey of sorts. It was profound and deeply moving to be connected to this ancient place surrounded by so much beauty. I look back at the pictures and I think “these don’t even come close to capturing the awesome “otherness” of this place. Or the reverence of such a monumental history of both healing and death”.
And perhaps that is what I am learning most on this trip. That losing myself in every fleeting moment and taking every sound, sight, smell, feel into memory is more deepening than simply trying to capture an image that just can’t encompass the vast emotional responses I am having to our experiences.
Stay tuned: Our next post is about our Mediterranean cruise on a traditional Turkish gulet boat!!