- Aug 2, 2004[See photographs of Hierapolis at:
By Nermin Baycin
Thermal spring water steeped in calcium oxide patiently shaped the
extraordinary white travertines of Pamukkale over thousands of years.
In this fairytale setting of cascading white terraces and pools of
water stands the ancient city of Hierapolis, one of the most
magnificent cities of Hellenic and Roman civilisation and famed
throughout the Mediterranean region. The ancient city features a main
street lined by colonnades and galleries, a theatre seating ten
thousand people overlooking the valley of the Curuksu River (the
ancient Lycos) against a backdrop of snowy peaks in the Babadagi and
Honaz ranges, baths with frigidariums and caldariums, imposing public
buildings, and one of Anatolia's largest necropolises.
Pamukkale and Hierapolis are a unique site, protected under the UNESCO
World Heritage List. Apart from the natural and man-made wonders
already mentioned, Hierapolis is distinguished from other ancient
cities by the gods and goddesses worshipped here.
To these deities representing the fundamental needs of human beings
and the geographical features of the earth were attributed the origins
and fortunes of the city. Pluto, god of the underworld gave to
Hierapolis its health giving waters and beauty, while at the same time
instilling fear with his powers of destruction, and the mother goddess
Cybele (the Roman Demeter) granted fertility. In this sacred city
other deities and immortals of myth like Persephone, Attis, Leto,
Apollo, Artemis and Dionysus all played a role in the natural cycle,
beginning with the seeds of life concealed underground to rebirth
above ground, the transition from winter to spring, and the growth of
crops to maturity and harvest.
Strabo of Pontus (63 BC- 21 AD) gave this description of one of the
most celebrated features of Hierapolis: 'Facing Laodicea is
Hierapolis. Here there are hot springs and a plutonium... At the foot
of a fairly high hill is a pit of medium size just large enough for
one person to enter.
It is quite deep and surrounded by a rectangular railing. This pit is
filled with such dense thick steam that it is difficult to discern the
bottom. If people approach the railing the air is harmless, because in
calm weather the steam is not dispersed, but anyone who passes inside
the railings dies instantaneously.
The plutonium mentioned by Strabo is a cave in the centre of the city
from which poisonous fumes rise. This cave still exists today. The
flight of steps descending into this holy place symbolises the door
into the heaving and simmering underworld; the land of the dead from
which there is no return. But for the inhabitants of Hierapolis, Pluto
was also a god who brought prosperity by bestowing blessings from
beneath the earth. Places of worship dedicated to Pluto were rare in
the ancient world, and this plutonium was a sacred site which
increased the celebrity of Hierapolis. Demeter, Persephone and Pluto
were the principal protagonists in one of the most popular stories of
ancient Greek mythology.
In this story Persephone, the only daughter of Demeter who symbolised
the fertility of the soil and crops, particularly wheat, was kidnapped
by Pluto and carried off into the underworld. The story is depicted in
the friezes of the theatre and on coins minted in the city.
A statue of Attis found here and now displayed in the local museum
refers to another myth about the transformation of death into life and
abundance. When Attis sacrificed himself to Cybele violets sprang up
on the spot where his lif'se blood had soaked into the earth. The
theme of earth and abundance continues with another scene in the
theatre friezes, this time concerning Adonis. The story of this youth
with whom both Aphrodite and Persephone fell in love also ends with
his transformation into a spring flower. Then there is Dionysus, god
of wine, the vineyard and revelry. In the picture showing the harvest
festival held in his name, he is depicted in the centre upon a chariot
drawn by centaurs.
Artemis, goddess of hunting and wildlife, was the twin sister of
Apollo, the chief deity of Hierapolis, and another of the principal
figures in mythological scenes. Apollo himself is represented by his
temple on the terraces right above the plutonium, a location
symbolising his position at the centre of the cycle between the
underworld and earthly life.
The oracular building uncovered this year at the sanctuary of Apollo
by a team of Italian archaeologists is one of the most important
discoveries regarding the sacred character of the city. Among the
finds in this structure representing the oracular powers of Apollo,
the most interesting are fragments of an inscription citing prophecies
in alphabetical order. Those consulting the oracle pulled letters out
of a bag under the watchful eye of the priests, and according to the
prophetic texts symbolised by each letter the oracle pronounced upon
Hierapolis was founded by King Eumenes II of Pergamum in the 2nd
century BC, and its health giving springs drew visitors to the city
from far and wide. This prosperous city was also a prominent weaving
centre. Under the Byzantines the city became a bishopric, and
buildings dating from the early Christian period include a martyrium
for St Philip, one of Christ's disciples, which is yet another of the
many points of interest for visitors to Hierapolis today.
* Nermin Baycin is an archaeologist