It was a short drive to the Asclepion of Pergamon and we found it a very interesting place, particularly because of its almost contemporary feel, similar to health and well-being centres that are much in demand in the modern world. The image below shows the association with the acropolis; in fact, back in the day when there were no cable-cars or other public transport, there was a direct road, Via Tecta, from the temples on top of the hill (spiritual health centres) down to the physical/mental health centre that was the Asclepion.
As suggested above, the Asclepion reminded us of health and well-being spas that offer a broad spectrum of ‘new-age’ treatments such as meditation, acupuncture, counselling, dream analysis, floatation tanks etc. However modern alternate health centres generally do not have a supernatural basis; this healing complex in Pergamon was dedicated to the Greek God Asclepios, the son of Apollo, himself the God of medicine. The symbol of Asclepios was the snake, a symbol for the Greeks of new life and regeneration due to their ability to shed their skins. Tame snakes are said to have been kept at the Temple to the God at this centre in Pergamon and at its mother complex in Epidaurus in the Peloponnese in Greece.
It is interesting to note that the modern symbol for a doctor is the entwined snakes around a vertical bar that somehow transforms into angel wings. Perhaps there is some spiritual elements to our local doctor’s practice. The coin above right is from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and shows Asclepios with his snake symbol communing with a goddess.
Perhaps the most famous son of the city of Pergamon whose influence has stretched through the last two thousand years of history is Aelius Galenus or Galen (129-216CE). His work in a wide variety of medical fields, experimenting and writing up the results of his work is seen as foundational in the development of medical science. Dissecting human bodies was unacceptable in his time so getting an early job as a doctor to gladiators in Pergamon was the next best thing. He apparently spent some early years of his long career in this Asclepion before he went on to become a famous doctor to various Roman Emperors. The statue on the left shows a relaxed Galen standing in Cumhuriyet Square just outside the Asclepion with the acropolis in the background.
This Asclepion has a long history with archaeological finds going back to pre-historic times. It is believed to have been founded in the 4th century BCE but the remains today of the centre are generally from the time of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century CE. Those seeking treatment at the Asclepion were met by priests/doctors who assessed their health and made decisions whether proposed treatment would be beneficial to them. It is believed that an entry rule was applied: “Death is forbidden to enter the Asclepion as a token of respect to the Gods”.
The models above of the complex give some signals as to the process used when patients arrived seeking healing. After they were assessed on arrival, the patients would be taken to the ‘sleeping rooms’, perhaps taking the waters on the way from the sacred spring in the centre of the large courtyard that the Asclepion was built around. After a night or more of sleep and dreaming, the patients would be taken via an underground passageway to the treatment building. Treatments were based on dream interpretations and apparently consisted of practices such as diet therapies, massages, hot and cold mud baths, surgeries, herbal remedies, drinking of the waters and blood-letting.
One of the other similarities with a modern health spa is that patients could stay on for an extended period of time. This Asclepion had a large theatre for the entertainment and no doubt, education in healthy life styles for the longer term guests. Impressive as this one is, it cannot begin to compare with the huge and well preserved theatre at Epidaurus, Greece. Apparently one of these guests was the last of the ‘good’ emperors, Marcus Aurelius (121-189 CE) and the last of the Emperors who oversaw a significant time of peace and stability in the Empire. Perhaps his time at the Pergamum Asclepion assisted him with his wise rule.