Cleopatra’s pool

The hot water of Pamukkale was gathered into indoor pools in antiquity. The story that Cleopatra swam in this pool cannot be verified, although you can now pay to relax in it. She is known to have visited Tarsus and Antioch, far to the east of Hierapolis, and Rome, very far to the west. I think it is unlikely that she took time off from survival politics to come to this place. Most tourists don’t care too much for this story either, and prefer the natural pools on the white cliffs (photo above). They are attracted more by the geothermally heated waters, ie, the geology, than the history.

For good reason. The deep geology of Anatolia is amazing and recent. Just after India, Italy, and Spain collided with the newly forming Eurasian continent and pushed up the Himalayas, Alps, and the Pyrenees, the Tethys seaway was a continuous strip of sea that joined the Mediterranean to the Indian ocean. Between 20 and 10 million years ago, Africa and Arabia pushed north to cut off the Tethys sea.

As a result, the sea bed was pushed above the Eurasian continental plate, forming the Anatolian plateau. The Aral, the Black, and the Caspian seas are the last remnants of Tethys. The closing of the Tethys sea also created the major temperature fluctuations of the last 20 millions years or so, causing huge extinctions, and clearing the way for the rise of modern day mammals and birds. The continuing northward movement of Arabia, and the southwestern movement of the Aegean sea bottom still squeezes Anatolia, making this one of the most geologically active regions on the globe.

This activity not only pushed up the plateau on which ancient Hierapolis stood, but also created the fissures, called faults, which run through it. The raising of the plateau creates a cliff which faces the modern village of Pamukkale, Rain water and snow seep through the crust, are heated underground, and emerge again at various places on the plateau to form these hot springs. The waters are loaded with minerals of various kinds which deposit as the water cools. The flow of water down the cliff has formed these immense terraces of limestone called Travertine.

I’d only seen photos of white Travertine terraces, filled with pools of water. But actually there are various colours to be seen. This is natural, since the water coming out of the earth must have more than just lime in it. These other minerals give the limestone its colour. You can also see in these photos the interesting variety of textures in these deposits. I waited till a little before sunset to take these photos. Then, as the air cooled, The Family and I found our way out of the plateau through the south gate, and came down to the village.

Plutonium in Hierapolis

Passing through the city of the dead, the Necropolis, we would enter Hierapolis through the triple arched northern gate (featured photo), erected in 84 CE, when the town was rebuilt after a major earthquake, to welcome the Roman emperor Domitian. From there a kilometer long path would lead into the city where I really wanted to see the Plutonium.

But between the Necropolis and the gate there was a structure which was probably in danger of collapsing, and was fenced off from tourists. This was the Roman bath, which welcomed travelers to clean themselves after their journey and before entering the city. It is said to have been built in the 2nd century CE, and was converted into a Byzantine basilica a couple of hundred years later. It is interesting that the Romans would oil themselves before a bath, and then would remove the oil with scrapers and water while taking a bath. They picked up the idea of using cakes of animal fat as soap from barbarians. By the time this city was rebuilt, soap would have been common. After walking past the bath/basilica I realized that the fencing could have been prompted by UNESCO, whose listing of this site as a world heritage notes that the biggest conservation concern for Hierapolis is visitors.

Just inside the gate, to our left were the public toilets. The last one which we had seen was in Ephesus. There one had to guess at the structure because the walls had fallen down long ago. This one was fairly intact for a two thousand year old structure. You could see the remnants of the stalls. We’d noticed underground pipes along the road as we walked past the Necropolis. I guess that in the usual Roman fashion, water and sanitation was a major design criterion. The Romans may not have understood the microscopic reasons behind diseases, but they had enough experience to make sure that sanitation was good enough to minimize the chances of outbreaks of diseases. The baths and the toilets, so close to the city gates, were clear signals of their understanding of these principles of health.

The buildings on the other side of the road no longer stood. Some arches columns were still upright, but the rest of the structures had been reduced to foundations. Typically, there would be a market this close to the gate. The more elaborate columns at the back would have been the beginning of the city proper. There was not much to see here, and I walked rapidly through the rest of the long city looking for my target. It turned out to be away from the baths and the travertine cliffs, towards the distance where the theatre stood. I’d already seen several ruined theatres, so I wasn’t planning to walk up to it.

The Plutonium was dedicated to the god of the underworld. It is a grotto near the temple of Apollo (photo above) which emits steam and other gases from the fault beneath the horst of Hierapolis. It is said that the priests of Cybele could approach this opening to the underworld on their bellies, descend part of the way, and often come back alive. There are no priests today, and the whole area was fenced off. The hot springs that flow here are due to rainwater seeping into the faults, and then being forced out. The city is built on top of a geological fault which has slipped by a meter and a half since the late Roman times. Looking at a geological map of the fault zone I realize that the Plutonium was on it. The Romans were right, it was a glimpse into the true underworld. Unfortunately it was closed off.

The city of dead ghosts

Our hotel in Pamukkale was very helpful. The chap at the front desk drove us up to the north entrance to Hierapolis, and brought the car back. The plan was that we would just walk through the ruins and down the white cliffs back to the hotel. From the plateau here we could look down on the graben of the Büyük Menderes. Spring was in full bloom here, a phrase I’d not really appreciated until I took the featured photo. It turned out that from here we had to walk through a large Necropolis to reach the gates of ancient Hierapolis, and the cliffs which were our main target.

Ancient Greek and Roman funeral customs centered on cremation. From Homeric poems we know that the denial of cremation was shocking in archaic Greece. We also know from written laws of the early Classical period that these cremations were to be performed outside of city walls in areas called Necropoli. The custom of burial of the whole body began to become more popular from about the 1st century CE, with the spread of Christianity. So I suppose that most of what one sees in the Necropolis today comes from this later period.

The beginning of the path we were to take passed many individual sarcophagi, coffins made of marble. I suppose these came from well after the founding of Hierapolis during Seleucid times. As we went further we began to see larger structures within which these sarcophagi were placed. Apparently they are family graves. Some of them had been reduced to a few stubs of wall. Others still stood almost complete. Some were extremely elaborate, with multiple rooms containing many sarcophagi. Others, like the one in the photo above, had just one room with a couple of sarcophagi.

Hierapolis was never a big town. It was mainly a spa, and in later times became known as a center for healing because of a large number of doctors. The size of the Necropolis perhaps has more to do with the inevitable failure of medicine than with the extent of the town. Much later I recalled that the town had been destroyed by two major earthquakes, one in 19 CE and the other in 60 CE. So my guess that most of the graves came from the 1st century CE and later had another leg to stand on.

I’d never seen a tumulus before, so when I came across this low circular structure I was quite surprised. One part of the Necropolis holds many tumuli. Some of them, possibly all, have a little opening at the bottom in which I could see steps leading down. A large dose of Indiana Jones movies seen at an impressionable age has made me wary of climbing down into such places. Apparently the tumuli here contain multiple graves.

The place is so ancient that even ghosts, if there were ever any, must have left. I hadn’t realized how large this Necropolis would be, so I’d not researched it before coming. Otherwise I would definitely have wasted some time trying to find the sarcophagus with the oldest known illustration of a crank and a wheel. Soon we passed the last of these graves and came to the gate of the city.

Spa village Pamukkale

The village of Pamukkale is shaped entirely by tourism. This is historically accurate, since it is the successor to the Greek spa resort of Hierapolis, whose business continued into Byzantine times. When we checked into our hotel in the early afternoon, we were just the most recent of a stream of tourists dating from the the second century BCE. I don’t know how the early visitors traveled to this place, but we’d spent longer on the road than we’d imagined by trusting more to GoogleMaps than road signs. One wrong direction had cost us almost an hour of extra travel. So we had a late lunch of gözleme and lentil soup (the Turkish equivalent of alu paratha and dal).

The balcony of our room looked out on the white limestone cliff which gives its name to the village (pamuk means cotton, and kale means fort). We sat in the pleasant warmth of our balcony, lined with roses, and looked out at the cliffs. It was too warm to walk up there. In fact the warmth was making us feel a little dozy. “Do you want an afternoon nap?” I asked The Family. “No, I might oversleep. Why don’t we walk around the village?” That was a easy suggestion to fall in with. We needed to get some bottles of water too.

The village was clearly built on the tourist trade. On our drive we’d passed through a couple of other small villages, and the back roads of Pamukkale looked exactly like them. A mosque stood among little shops and small clumps of houses, with washing hung out in the sun to dry. It was early in Ramazan, so the warm afternoon was very quiet. I suppose you tend to rest, if you can, while on a fast. Closer to the main road, all the restaurants and shops were open for tourists, although there were very few. We found our bottles of water and made our way back to the hotel.

The pool at the front of the hotel had warm water from the spa. A little garden at the back separated the hotel from the house where the owner lived. I’d noticed earlier that the kitchen was in the house, and our waiter had gone through a single door in the separating wall, with the painting that you see above, to convey our order to the cook, and to bring our food back. It was time to have a çay (pronounced chai) before leaving for the springs.