The plan for today was to visit Pergamon (or Pergamum). A couple of days ago we had booked a guided tour through our hotel. I’m not a big fan of guided tours and this was the first time I was going on one. But Pergamon was pretty far from Selcuk and we didn’t feel like figuring out how to get there.
The van picked us up at the hotel early in the morning. Our guide introduced himself as Octavian or Octavius though his real name was something else. Apart from the three of us, there were a couple of older British gentlemen on the tour. As we set out, Octavian gave us a quick breakdown of the day’s plan. Turns out Pergamon was some 2-3 hours away from Selcuk. We had no idea it was so far. But the trip was pretty pleasant. We exchanged notes with the British gentlemen. Turns out they were brothers-in-law and both were engineers. They had become engineers back when it was still a lucrative profession and when there weren’t 10 engineers under every rock. They gave us tips on what to see and do in England. They asked us about what to expect from Mark Carney who was in the news as the incoming ECB governor after his stint as the head of the Bank of Canada. Time flew by as we chatted away and soon reached our destination.
There is a modern town by the name of Bergama at the base of the Acropolis (aka upper city) of Pergamon. The van took us to the entrance of the site. At this point, we had two options: we could hike up to the acropolis or we could take a cable car up there. We chose the latter and ponied up the 5-10 TL for the lift.
Pergamon has a pretty fascinating history. It was a Greek city that eventually became part of the Roman Empire (as did almost everything eventually). It was founded by one of Alexander’s generals and was ruled by the Attalid dynasty. The rulers of Pergamon were smart and aligned themselves with Rome early on which meant that when Rome conclusively asserted its dominance over Asia Minor (ie Turkey), Pergamon was treated favorably. When the last king of Pergamon Attalos III died in 133 BC without any heirs, he bequeathed his kingdom of Pergamon to Rome!! How’s that for an inheritance.
Pergamon has a number of highlights which I’ll address individually later on: 1) the library of Pergamon 2) the altar of Zeus 3) the theatre of Pergamon 4) the temple of Trajan.
As you walk on to the Acropolis, it’s pretty difficult to make any sense of it because only the foundations of most structures survive and not much more. For a vast portion of the site, there is virtually nothing left to see. I was looking through the pictures and I don’t even remember where the library was located now. Regardless it was considered the second greatest library in the world after the famous library of Alexandria. The Ptolemies, the Greek ruling dynasty of Egypt, were so jealous of the Pergamon library that they banned the export of papyrus to Pergamon. Apparently later Mark Antony gifted the contents of the library to Cleopatra as compensation for the library of Alexandria which was damaged during Caesar’s stay and campaign in Alexandria.
The next big highlight for me was the Temple of Trajan. This structure is in better shape than most of the site because the columns have been put back together. The temple of Trajan was built by Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was Emperor Trajan’s distant cousin, adopted son and eventual successor. Trajan was one of the “five good emperors” of Rome that came after the end of the Flavian dynasty. Trajan was also unique in that he was not related to his predecessor – Nerva who was an elderly senator and a bit of a placeholder installed after the last Flavian emperor Domitian was murdered. After Nerva, a trend started whereby the most able man was chosen as emperor. Being related to the emperor was no longer the main criterion as had been the case in the past (though Hadrian did have family connections to Trajan and was particularly close to his wife and married her niece, Sabina. Hadrian and Sabina eventually learned to hate each other. I urge you to read more about these characters. Truly fascinating stuff).
Trajan is considered one of the best emperors of Rome and was definitely one of its greatest military commanders. I wonder if he is less known because his rule was so peaceful (relatively speaking) and fair. There wasn’t any of the drama that the likes of Caligula, Nero or Domitian caused which made them infamous in history.
Anyway, back to the temple, Hadrian built the temple as a tribute to his predecessor. The remaining columns signify that it must have been a glorious structure back in its heyday. A headless statue of a Roman emperor or general still stands at the site which is probably that of Trajan’s.
The next major stop was the theatre. To be honest, the theatre was the biggest reason why I wanted to see Pergamon. And it was by showing pictures of the theatre to the guys that I had convinced them that we must visit Pergamon. It is a very unique theatre because it is built into the face of the hill and because it is so steep. It could seat up to 10,000 people. It doesn’t seem like the theatre has been reconstructed/restored to the same degree that other theatres have been. Regardless it was an awe-inspiring sight. I was pretty terrified of walking down the stairs as we made for the next section. As I get older, I find that rarely do I come across a phobia that I don’t have. Fear of heights is one in a long and ever growing list.
Now we moved on to the world famous altar of Zeus (or Jupiter for Romans). To clarify, the altar is no longer situated at Pergamon. All that remains there is the platform that it was located on. The altar was built as a victory monument after the kings of Pergamon defeated their Galatian enemies. The remains of the altar were transported to Berlin, Germany where they are reside in a museum dedicated to Pergamon. The remaining site is pretty sad and I’m pretty sure I detected some bitterness from our guide when he talked about it. Going by the pictures of the monument, it must have been a glorious building.
That was pretty much it for our whirlwind tour of the Acropolis. As we took the lift down, Octavian pointed out that there was still archaeological work going on around the hill to discover the ancient walls of the city. At the time I had no clue but turns out there are more ruins on a lower level. But the guide didn’t point them out – another reason why I’m not a fan of guided tours which are usually aimed at the lowest common denominator.
Now we moved on to the next site which was the Asclepeion of Pergamon. As we made our way there, we passed the Temple of Serapis which was another highlight I would’ve liked to have seen. But no luck.
The Asclepeion was a sanctuary dedicated to the god Asclepius who was the god of healing and medicine. These sanctuaries were basically ancient clinics. There was a lovely little theatre at this site too but it definitely seemed like it had been reconstructed extensively.
Another reason why this Asclepeion is important is because the famous Roman doctor Galen came from this region and studied/trained at this particular Asclepeion. Galen was quite the rockstar when it came to medicine. Eventually he became Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician. So, he was a pretty important fellow.
After the Asclepeion that should have been it for the trip. But we talked our guide into stopping at the Pergamon museum which I’d read a lot about.
It’s a pretty tiny museum. The main highlights for me were some statues of our good friend Hadrian who showed up quite a bit here. More importantly, the museum houses a small scale model of the Altar of Zeus. That was stunning. Having seen the model and pictures of the Altar in the museum, one can only imagine how incredible it must be in person.
It was some time in the afternoon. That concluded our trip and we made the long trek back to Selcuk. I forget what we did during the evening. So, I’ll leave it there. But if you’re in the region, you MUST visit Pergamon. To me, it was more impressive than any other site we visited in Turkey – yes, even more than Ephesus. So, do NOT give Pergamon a miss.