In our few days at Ephesus, we encountered a number of sites that were more centred on St John the Evangelist than the culturally important remnants of Ephesus. Our tour adviser had already suggested that visiting Pergamon was a great idea given that we were only a few hours drive away but perhaps the deal was sealed when I realised that John himself had a few strong words to say about the folk of Pergamon…

And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.  But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. (Revelation: 2:12-15) It is a very rare thing that a cranky intolerant man in his latter days has inadvertently given interesting reasons for travellers in the 21st century to visit Pergamon on the Aegean coast of Turkey.

On the way from Ephesus to Pergamon, we had to bypass the huge, city of Izmir along the way. In the best of all possible worlds where we had endless time to wander the coast of Turkey, Izmir would have been the next on my list to visit despite the apocalyptic John referring to its Christians as a synagogue of Satan!

The old city of Pergamon that was our destination sits on an impressive mountain with its modern city, Bergama, surrounding it below. It’s a very rare tourist site where the visitors get to arrive via cable car; boarding the cable car at the car-park, we were able to get great views over the valley and to take in the start of the uncovered buildings of ancient Pergamon rolling beneath us. If cable-cars were invented two and a half thousand years ago, rather than ruins rolling out underneath us, the amazing view illustrated above would be the scene that would slowly spread out beneath our feet. The Roman city of Pergamon lost its viability back in the 5th century CE when its ‘pagan’ buildings fell into disfavour with the Christian community developing below. Like all such places, it fell into ruin and reverted back into its environment except for those pieces of building material that could be reused to build walls or buildings in the new city down below the mountain. It wasn’t until the 1860’s that German engineer Carl Humann arrived and began investigating the Roman rubble on the mountain. It was surprisingly only twenty years later in 1882 that enough work had been done by archaeologists for the artist Friedrich Thierch to create the above painting of the amazing sight that was Pergamon in its heyday.

We alighted from the cable-car not far from where the famous Great Altar once stood. As can be seen from Thierch’s painting above, the altar dominated the plateau of Pergamon and it is easy to understand why it was once considered for the list of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Perhaps it was John the apocalyptic doomsayer of the time that ensured that Pergamon’s Altar never made the list. Scholars are convinced that his commentary, “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is” was a reference to this Altar to Zeus and Athena. Instead of an amazing monument, all we found when we walked past this site was its original foundations and a lone tree dominating the platform where sacrifices to the Gods once occurred. The image on the right above is from the early days of clearing the site, gathering the pieces of what was left of the altar. The story of what happened to those pieces is covered in the blog found here.

Our guide clearly didn’t want to go into the story of the Altar of Zeus too much so she escorted us through the stone archways that led underneath the substantial support for the terraced levels that lay above us on the slope.

As can be seen from the plan above, the next major feature we visited was the amazing Theatre of Pergamon that was built into the side of the mountain. It is claimed that it is the steepest ancient theatre in the world and it certainly looked like it; patrons getting late to their seat on opening night would need to be careful they didn’t misstep or they would end up falling over and rolling a long way down to the stage! The 80 rows of seats apparently could hold 10000 people. The original theatre on the side of this mountain was built in the third century BCE but the remains here today were part of the renovations in the reign of King Emenes II (ruled 197-159 BC). When Pergamon was taken over by the Romans it was further renovated before it slipped back into rubble and undergrowth for 1500 years before being excavated by German Archaeologists

From the site of the missing Altar, we reached the theatre by passing through the archways of the huge substructure of the supporting platform above that had been built to house the Temple of Trajan built on the Acropolis of Pergamon in the second century CE. Being the sacred centre of Pergamon, the mountain that loomed above the town below had clearly been the site of earlier temples. When Pergamon was handed over to the Romans in the will of Attalus III (2nd C CE), the Romans proclaimed their control by the building of a temple where the worship of their Roman rulers as Gods was to take place. It was clearly a major propaganda statement to ensure bonds with the Imperial family were continuously strengthened. The Temple of Trajan (a Trajaneum) was the fourth imperial temple built in the Province of Asia for this purpose. To house such an impressive temple, a platform had to be cleared in the side of the mountain and this also included the huge foundations to support to supprt the temple precinct above.

In Late Antiquity (around 3rd to 7th century CE), mining for metals was becoming a lost art so rather than mining ore, taking metals used to hold-together ancient buildings was the next best option. That is why any tour of cities today that were part of the Roman Empire will present ancient buildings (eg. the Coliseum) where the metal staples that joined the stone-work have all disappeared. The fate of the temple of Hadrian was not only to lose its metal joins but to have its stone-work carried down off the acropolis to be incorporated into new buildings in Bergama. Of course, a lot of the marble recovered from the ruins of the temple was also burned to produce lime for cement. The ruins of the Temple of Trajan were uncovered in the late 19th century but work to restore what was left didn’t begin until the 1960s. The headless statue of Hadrian above right was found at this time. The full-sized version of Hadrian to the left was also found in the area of the Asklepion down below the acropolis and is now in the Bergama museum.

There are a number of areas of the Pergamon archaeological site that have found fame around the world since their recovery in diggings of the 19/20th centuries but the Library of Pergamon is one that has particularly received prominence in the history of the first century of the Common Era. The most famous library of the ancient world was that of Alexandria that was shamelessly burnt down in the wars for control the Roman Empire between Octavian and Mark Antony. In Ephesus we were able to gaze upon the façade of the Library of Celsius earlier in our tour of the Aegean coast of Turkey which was the third largest library of Antiquity and was destroyed by earthquake. The Pergamon Library competed with Alexandria for the title of the largest library in the Roman Empire but unfortunately, like so many other gatherings of wisdom around the world, fell to the twin forces of…

  • Human duplicity…Mark Antony took the scroll collection from Pergamon and gave them to Cleopatra to replace some of those lost in the battle with Octavian.
  • Destructive Warfare…Pergamon and what was left of the Library was destroyed by Islamic crusaders in the 7th century CE.

From the Temple of Trajan it was a straightforward path to where the remains of the Pergamon Library are to be found today. The diagram to the left indicates the archaeologists’ belief that the building was a two-storey structure that was entered from the top floor. The image of the ruin below left was taken in 1885 before excavations began. There was little to find of this famous library but the archaeologists did try to convey their ideas in the image on the right below as to how the library rooms might have once looked. Rather than books, the library was housed with scrolls, usually written on papyrus from Egypt but many were written on leather. The convenient ‘book’ form had not been invented by this stage! The internal walls of the library would have held large structures of pigeon-holes to house each individual scroll in the possession of the library. There were also reading rooms for scholars who needed to do their research in the library

The next destination after inspecting the scant remains of the Library was the Temple of Athena. It is reached by continuing along the Acropolis and down to the next platform in front of where the library once stood. The extract (on left) from the Thierch painting gives a good idea of the geography of such a walk

A clearer image of the Temple of Athena can be seen here of what it would have looked like on a special day (Courtesy … This temple was the oldest place of worship at Pergamon having been built in the third century BCE. The inner sanctum of this cult centre was dedicated to both Athena and Zeus’. Like the nearby Library, there is very little left of the Temple of Athena as can be seen in the image below

However it is one of those curious anomalies of passing time that while the marble components of the Temple of Athena didn’t survive in place for the last two millennia, the formal doorway, the Proplyon, to the Athena precinct itself, did. Like the Great Altar, the pieces of the Proplyon were discovered by German archaeologists and shipped back to Berlin where the jigsaw puzzle was put together again. It can be seen in the image to the leftt but if you want to check it out in person, you will need to wait for when this section of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is opened up again. The section of the museum housing the Great Altar of Pergamon has been shut for some years while a third attempt at getting the building conditions right is completed. It is on my bucket list if I am ever lucky enough to return to Berlin.

It was a long and fascinating stroll around the major features of Pergamon but it was time to make our way back past the empty foundations of the Great Altar and back to our cable car for the beautiful trip down the mountain to the car-park. There was still enough time left in the day to go and have a look at the ruins of the Ascleipion that was below the Acropolis before the long drive back down the coast of Turkey to Sirince.

The Pergamon Museum and the Great Altar

The Asclepion of Pergamon

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