A breath-taking theatre; a city destroyed by an earthquake; plus magnificent travertine terraces

February 17th, 2011

My tour guide said it would be great to visit an ancient city nearby. Our final destination was to be Pamukkale, but he emphasised that this nearer city also had a very interesting history although it was missed off by most tours because the path to it was very challenging. I said that if he thought the city was worth a visit then we should go to.

My experience of sites hidden in the wilds, where few visitors dare to go, was first inspired when we visited Pinara. There, the wildness, the simplicity, the way the city was hidden in the middle of the vegetation, quietly waiting for someone to come back and embrace her again, giving her life—it made me feel in love too. I had been talking about Pinara ever since; every time Firat asked what was my favourite place so far, Pinara was my answer.

We arrived at the mysterious ancient city in a sunny morning, the temperature wasn’t too low and so it was possible to feel the wind in your face without wincing. I looked around and could only see a few scattered ruins and a series of stone steps leading towards the top of the mountain. Termessos was a Psidian city, built at an altitude of more than 1000 metres, on what is, these days, is called Güllük Dağı (Ancient Solymos mountain). We were still in Antalya Province, around 30 km from Antalya. The place was completely deserted, there was absolutely nobody in sight, and the only sounds were of birds and other animals.

I had begun the climb with enthusiasm, but after 30 minutes the carved steps had petered out, so now I was facing terrain with high natural steps and my breathing was becoming more and more difficult. My guide was complaining about how slow I was and asking why I couldn’t breathe any better, considering that I didn’t smoke. It’s funny how people can’t understand that we are all different and why, what is easy for one person, could be difficult for others. I was getting annoyed by his comments. Now, I was having to jump from one rock to another—all the while trying to keep away from the edge of the mountain, to keep pace with my guide…and…to…keep…breathing…

Reaching Termessos made me forget all the bad feelings. The ruins and the beauty of the view took the rest ofmy breath away; making the effort all worthwhile. The most spectacular theatre I had seen until now was there. Not that it was well conserved, but the view and the silence were something few people are able to experience. Exploring the ruins, now spread through a pine forest, I learned that the city was founded by the Solims who were mentioned by Homer in the Iliad in connection with the legend of Bellerophon, who was considered the founder of the city (legend, of course).

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Another historical figure was also linked to the city, Alexander the Great.  Alexander surroundedTermessos in 333 BC, but the fact the city was lodged in the mountains like an eagle’s nest made conquering it difficult, meaning that Alexander failed to do so.

 The inhabitants of Termessos called themselves the Solymi, and this name, like that of the mountain where they lived, was derived from Soleymus, an Anatolian god who was later to be identified with Zeus. Many civilisations held the city including the Greeks and Romans, but it was abandoned when (probably in the 5th century AD) its aqueduct was crushed by an earthquake.

We decided to return from the mountain by means of a different path, one that was the original main route serving Termessos. It was a very good choice because now we were passing by the rock-cut tombs and sarcophagi. One of those sarcophagi was to Alcestas, a man linked to another battleand to Termessos (see the book ‘A Tale in Red’, release date May 2020). The path was very dangerous, being covered in of small rocks, often rolling from under your feet when you stepped on them. At times, Firat disappeared around a corner, and I only caught up with him a few minutes later. The most pleasant thing about the city was that shehadn’t suffered any human intervention after being abandoned. My little adventure through the forest covering the city meant that I then researched a bit more about the place, only to discover that the region was the habitat of a fierce wild cat. What I can say after visiting Termessos, is that nothing scares me anymore…. well, hardly  anything!

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Taking to the road again, the next stop was Laodicea. Sometime between 261 and 253 BC, at a strategic point in the highway crossing Phrygia, and on a long spur between the valleys of two small rivers – the Asopus and the Caprus – that discharge their waters into the river Lycus, the Seleucid King Antiochus II founded the city. He named it Laodicea after his wife Laodike.

At first, the city had little importance, but soon acquired a high degree of prosperity. In 220 BC, Achaeus, also a Seleucid, had become king. In 188 BC the city became part of the kingdom of Pergamon, and later ended up under Roman domination. It was under Roman rule, towards the end of the Roman Republic and under the first emperors, that Laodicea took advantage of its position on a trade route and became one of the most important and flourishing commercial cities in Asia Minor.

We arrived, and soon I understood why Firat had said that the site wasn’t a place where tour guides usually took their clients. It looked as if an earthquake had destroyed the entire city. “You’re right, that is exactly what happened!” There are a few structures you can visit, like the nymphaeum and the theatre, but most of the city is in pieces scattered over the ground.

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Needing a rest before moving on to the next site, I sat near the big theatre to hear the call to prayer, while my guide was busy taking some photos. Since we were travelling together, I had been observing his behaviour when he heard the call to prayer—even though he had never prayed in front of me, every time the call began he turned off the music and stopped talking. Silence, he kept a respectful silence. Even if we were in the middle of a meal, he stopped eating and waited until the call ended—something I learned to respect.

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When he joined me again, my guide insisted we leave Laodicea for Hierapolis immediately, saying that our time window was short and that Pamukkale would be closed by the time we arrived if we stayed any longer at Laodicea.

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Hierapolis was founded in the third century BC by Alexander the Great’s successor, it subsequently passed to Pergamon to rule and then, later, to the Romans in the same manner as had happened for Laodicea. However, in contrast to Laodicea, the city did not disappear in Christian times but became a centre of pilgrimage. Why? The apostle Philip was buried there. It’s not known if he moved there to spend his last days in Hierapolis or if he was martyred there. However, his tomb became a shrine to devout Christians.

But it’s not just religion and ruins that are the attraction here. The famous Pamukkale terraces are the real beauty. Hot-water springs emerge from the depths of the Earth on a plateau; then, as the water cools, it deposits the calcium carbonate it contains in a series of stalactite-fringed basins. The result is an extraordinary scene—as if straight out of a fairy tale. Rivulets of water from the pools cascade from the top of the hill towards the valley. To the Turks, they looked like lengths of cotton, resulting in the name Pamukkale (Pamuk – cotton, kale – Castelo) or in English, the Cotton Castle. For their part, the ancients were more intrigued by a cave near the centre of the spring—it was deadly to enter; to them it was the entrance to the underworld. The shire was called Plutonium, after the underworld god Pluto, and became a place for devotion and superstition. The city built there was called Hierapolis, the ‘city of priests.

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In more modern times, many hotels were constructed aroundthe site and Pamukkale became a holiday destination. The hotels were later removed from the site, leaving only a pool where visitors can swim in the ‘medicinal’ hot-waters amongst the ruins of the city.

The most impressive examples of sarcophagi are in Hierapolis. You can walk through the ruins and see many of them; some house-like (similar to those in Termessos), others mount tombs (see Sardis). But, one of the top attractions there is still the travertine terraces, where warm water flows, level to level, and can be felt as you walk (without shoes), or even swim.

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After we had visited the tombs and the theatre, I seated myself near the terraces and watched the sunset. All the warm reds were there – red, orange, yellow – pulsing in a poetic moment over Hierapolis and the travertine terraces. While the sun moved down to go behind the Earth, the moon rose on the opposite side, and, for few seconds, both were in our view, an outstanding example of how truly extraordinary nature is in all her visual glory.

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