At Least What Remains On-site
15 September 2023
As I look over the Aegean and navigate the coastal region of Anatolia, I contemplate: Did my early ancestors pass this way? Did they take note of its beauty and history?
As early as 50,000 years ago, Man (and Woman) left the African Continent. They entered the Fertile Crescent, a wide strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea and moved south into Mesopotamia following the Euphrates. Approximately 12,000 years ago, Man’s adoption of agriculture as an alternative to his hunter-gatherer lifestyle altered the course of societal evolution forever. The culture that emerged formed the foundation for our world. Adjacent and to the north of this Fertile Crescent were the lands of Anatolia/Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey.
Ancient DNA has been extracted from the skeletal remains of individuals who lived in Anatolia. Thus, many of us can trace our roots out of Africa, through the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia into Western Europe. Other humans trace their DNA to those who entered Mesopotamia and northern Iraq and the Middle East. All humans turned left towards Europe or right towards the Middle East and Asia. My ancestors took a left.
The Ancient City of Pergamon
Along the coastal region of Anatolia are the ruins of Pergamon, one of Turkey’s best known historical and cultural sites.
Pergamon played a significant role in the history of both the Hellenistic and Roman periods. During the Hellenistic era, Pergamon was the capital of the Attalid Kingdom, a powerful Greek dynasty that ruled after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.
Pergamon’s historical significance lies in its contributions to art, culture, and scholarship during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The city was renowned for its impressive architecture, including the Altar of Zeus, a grand monument and remarkable example of Hellenistic art.
Pergamon also had a famous library second only to the Library of Alexandria. This library was a center of learning and scholarship, attracting notable philosophers and scholars.
In 133 BC, the Attalid Kingdom bequeathed Pergamon to Rome, making it a Roman province. The city continued to thrive as a cultural and political center under Roman rule, becoming an important hub for early Christianity.
Pergamon was famous for intricate, beautiful mosaics adorning its buildings. While the fate of some mosaics is not well-documented, what is documented is the removal of many of the city’s priceless artifacts.
Excavations in Pergamon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries sealed the fate of many mosaics. German archaeologists dug between the 1870s and early 20th century, a time when European powers were actively involved in archaeological expeditions and acquisitions. German archaeologist Carl Humann (1878 – 1886) transported artifacts to Berlin where they are now displayed in the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island.
These artifacts offer insights into the lives of its inhabitants and the artistic and cultural richness of its craftsmen. The most notable piece on display in Berlin is the stunning Pergamon Altar, an enormous Hellenistic monument with intricate friezes depicting the battle between the Olympian gods and the giants, and the life of Telephus, the son of Hercules and mythical founder of Pergamon. The frieze is 7.5’ high and has a total length of 370’, making it the second longest frieze surviving from antiquity. The museum also houses a range of smaller artifacts, sculptures, reliefs, and decorative elements from Pergamon and other ancient sites.
It needs to be seen to realize the enormity of the Altar displayed in Berlin, 1500 miles from its origin.
The museum’s collections provide a glimpse into the grandeur and historical significance of Pergamon and other ancient civilizations. Visitors may appreciate the art, architecture, and culture of the past – just not in situ.
We reach the acropolis via a funicular. From there, the hill is a series of paths and steps.
The Remains at Pergamon
Today, what remains at Pergamon are stones and a few fragmented structures. The well-preserved Theater dates from the Hellenistic period and had seats for over 10,000 spectators. It faces the Aegean and remains the steepest of all ancient theaters. What a view ticket holders had! Also, at the top of the citadel is the Trajaneum, a Temple dedicated to Trajan and Zeus Philios. The Corinthian temple was 60’ wide with six columns on the short sides and nine columns on the long sides.
Just the stone outlines remain of the Temple of Dionysus. The marble temple, atop a podium above the theater terrace, represented an Ionic prostyle with a row of columns along the front. Probably the best-known similar example is the Temple of Athena Nike atop Athens’ Acropolis.
Pergamon’s Temple of Athena is its oldest temple, built in the 4th century. Several beautifully restored columns, bases and pediments remain of the approximately 40×69 foot temple. The Library of Pergamon was the second largest in the ancient Greek world after the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The library contained an estimated 200,000 scrolls. Nothing remains but a partially restored wall.
There was also a Lower Acropolis with a Gymnasiym. Remains of sanctuaries, stoas, theaters and lesser temples are sparse. Below, the ruins Red Basilica or Serapis Temple consists of a main building and two round towers. This enormous temple was dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis/Serapis. According to Christian tradition, an early battle between Serapis and Christians involved John the Apostle. A mob burned Saint Antipas in front of the Temple, supposedly the first martyrdom recorded in Christian history and Book of Revelation.
Pergamon is a well-planned city. From the beginning of Philetairos’ reign in 282 BCE, civic events in Pergamon occurred on the Acropolis. He transformed the city from an archaic settlement into a fortified wonder. A wall was built around the whole upper city, including the upper agora and some of the housing.
Ancient builders knew good real estate.
The course of the main street, winding up the hill to the Acropolis with its series of hairpin turns, is typical of Pergamon’s system of broad streets and small interconnecting alleys. The entire complex is immense. Views over the city of Bergama are spectacular.
Asklepion Healing Center
Following The Sacred Way, we enter Asklepion, the ancient healing center of Pergamon. Asklepion was the god of healing. Some believe he continues to reside in this complex. The center was founded around a sacred spring in the 4th Century BCE – the spring flows albeit out of a pipe now. Perhaps dip your aching feet but don’t drink the cold water. Over the centuries, this complex became one of the best-known healing centers of the ancient world. While the famous physician Galen may have been born in Pergamon, it was Asklepion’s reputation that drew the sick.
However, Asklepion was not a free clinic with universal health care. I learned that the sick, approaching via the same rocky way we used, had strict requirements. No one near death could enter nor could pregnant women. The healing process began along The Sacred Way. It continued at the temple where the sick would lodge and undergo treatments, including massage, mud baths, herbal and diet therapies, dream interpretation, and just a little blood-letting.
I heard that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius “took the cure” here sometime in the 2nd century. Did he had a relaxing time going to Asklepion’s theater and possibly avoiding “the grape” for a few weeks?
We overnight in Selcuk at the family-operated Kalehan Hotel just off the busy highway on Ataturk Caddesi. Its collection of plates, old documents and antique keys adds interest to an otherwise modern hotel. The resident cat joined us for an excellent dinner and Efes beer.
No dream interpretation or blood-letting but a bit of the grape was enjoyed.