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Columns at Hierapolis

Discover ancient Turkey

Justine Tyerman carefully treads Turkey’s precious white terraces.

Justine Tyerman carefully treads Turkey’s precious white terraces.

From a distance, the white terraces at Pamukkale looked like a coating of fresh snow or a glacier flowing down the hillside – an incongruous sight glinting in the heat of the Turkish summer sun.

As we approached, I was thankful for my extra-dark sunglasses to shield my eyes from the reflected light off the dazzling white surface.

The spectacular travertine terraces and hot springs in Turkey’s Denizli province have been a popular attraction since 200 BC, but I couldn’t help feeling a little alarmed at the hordes of modern-day tourists swarming over such fragile works of nature.

However, I silenced the voices in my head and took a few barefoot steps down the broad white staircase myself.

Pamukkale means “cotton castle” in Turkish and the sight is indeed like a dream or fantasy.

 The Roman bath at Hierapolis in Turkey.
The Roman bath at Hierapolis in Turkey.

The pure white coating on the broad steps and petrified waterfalls occur due to the mineral-rich hot springs from a geological fault depositing layers of calcium carbonate which hardens to form travertine.

Two thousand years ago, water cascaded over the whole expanse of the 200m-high, 2700m-long terraces.

Our guide Mehmet Kaplan said the preservation of the area had vastly improved since 1988 when Pamukkale became a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the 1960s, hotels were built at the top of the terraces, interrupting the flow of water, turning the travertine to unsightly shades of beige.

The hotels have since been demolished but the flow of water has diminished and the terraces are slowly deteriorating.

Mehmet said even in his relatively short lifetime he had seen a drastic reduction in the water flow, so my advice is go there soon while the cotton castle is still gleaming.

The extensive ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis, meaning “sacred city”, are located on a plateau above the Pamukkale terraces.

Under active excavation by archaeologists, the site is vast with many restored structures.

Hierapolis was founded as a thermal spa and healing centre early in the 2nd century BC by the king of Pergamon, Eumenes II, of the Hellenistic Attalid dynasty. Successive earthquakes in 17 AD and 60 AD destroyed much of the original Hellenistic city so most of what you see today is from the Roman period.

One of the Seven Churches of Revelation was founded at Laodicea, near Hierapolis, in the first century AD through the influence of the apostle Paul while he was living at Ephesus.

The apostle Philip was crucified upside down by Domitian in 87 AD, just up the hill from where buses park in their hundreds. He felt he was unworthy to be crucified upright like Jesus.

The site is marked by the ruins of an octagonal martyrium which became an important sanctuary to early Christians.

In the 3rd Century AD, Hierapolis flourished as thousands flocked to the spa to take advantage of the medicinal properties of the hot springs. Hierapolis grew to 100,000 inhabitants and became one of the most prominent cities in the Roman Empire.

 The ancient Roman theatre at Hierapolis.
The ancient Roman theatre at Hierapolis.

Despite the heat of the afternoon, I found myself drawn to the massive Roman theatre high on the hillside above the terraces. From a distance, there appeared to be a flurry of activity and I assumed the trucks and scaffolding related to archaeological work.

However, once I had sweated my way to the top entrance, I was surprised to see the 1700- year-old theatre being set up for a concert. At first, I was dubious at the thought that this ancient theatre, built in 129 for a visit by the Emperor Hadrian and renovated under Septimius Severus in the 3rd century AD, would resonate to the sound of modern music.

But I reasoned that the dozens of archaeologists beavering away nearby – assisted by huge cranes – were most likely funded by the proceeds of such concerts.

The 15,000-20,000 seat theatre with its well-preserved stage buildings and reliefs was a magnificent sight and I must confess watching a concert there would have rated pretty highly. And after all, the Romans were into entertainment in a big way.

 The Byzantine Gate.
The Byzantine Gate.

I loved watching the archaeologists hard at work, painstakingly restoring the 3rd century AD Temple Nymphaeum, a fountain that distributed water to the city, and the Temple of Apollo, the patron god and divine founder of the city.

Had there been more time on that hottest of summer days, I would have swum with the antiquities in the Sacred Pool, which is littered with underwater fragments of ancient marble columns from porticoes toppled by earthquakes.

There are a dozen other fascinating sites in the region, all worthy of hours of exploration, including the Pamukkale Museum, the Roman baths, the Plutonium (an entrance to the underworld) and the magnificent Domitian and Byzantine gates.

Justine Tyerman travelled on a 10-day Ancient Kingdoms Classical Turkey tour, courtesy of Innovative Travel Company. The writer flew Emirates.

The Australian Women's Weekly
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