Slice of history

Slice of history

Battleground for gladiators: This theatre was constructed in 2nd century BC by Emperor Hadrian. photo by Tanushree Podder

The name Pamukkale means ‘cotton castle’ and a legend tells that this was the place where the Titans spread out their cotton crop to dry. Looking up at the looming white cliffs that dropped more than 100 metres, their rock faces glistening like snow, I was enthralled by the great curtains of water that seemed frozen in mid-air. High above, the white of the cliffs held beautiful pockets of shell-shaped basins filled with azure water. I was in the wonder world of travertines.

Spa city
The calcite-laden waters have dripped down, for ages, over a series of terraced levels creating a fairyland of frozen cataracts. Somewhere within the bowels of the earth, in this area, lies a vast cache of calcite-filled water heated by volcanic lava. This water emerges out of the depths and runs down a steep hillside and when it does so, it cools. The calcium in it precipitates and forms white frozen ‘cascades’ called travertines.

I joined the mass of human beings trudging uphill to the top of the cliffs. Once there, everyone rushed into the flowing water to submerge themselves in its healing properties. After all, it was the therapeutic property of the hot springs that brought the Greeks and later the Romans to this place.

The spa city of Hierapolis was founded on top of the white cliffs by the Phrygian Greeks. Eumenes II, King of Pergamon in 188 BC is credited for its establishment,  which he named after the Amazon queen called Hiera. But it became part of the Roman Empire around 190 BC and the Hellenistic city was slowly transformed into a Roman one. With the transformation came the ubiquitous Roman baths, gymnasium, temples, a colonnaded street a fountain at the hot spring. Gradually, Hierapolis turned into one of the most prominent cities in the Roman Empire with more than 100,000 people staying in it.

The word Hierapolis means Holy City. Today, the ancient city lies in ruins. Earthquakes and natural disasters have taken their toll of this UNESCO World Heritage. A huge Byzantine Gate stands at the perimeter of the city with sturdy walls around it. The crumbling walls of Hierapolis have witnessed many historical events. The magnificent columns had once supported opulent houses, remnants of which are scattered all around the hills.

Reserving my tryst with history, I decided to take advantage of the curative stream and soaked myself in the water. The blazing sun overhead did little to deter the tourists who had covered each inch of the terraces. It wasn’t until I was convinced that my body had benefited from the soak that I began my journey into the past. Walking down what must once have been a magnificent street, I came upon the Sacred Pool that had once been reserved for rich Romans who bathed in the hot springs that bring water to it. The clear blue waters are available for people to swim in, for a price of course.

Just behind the pool stands the Nymphaenum, a beautiful fountain which was the source of water for the ancient city. It is the Temple of Apollo, with its Hellenistic foundations, that catches my eyes. Although not much of the temple remains now, it is to the Plutonium — the sacred cave, which once emitted poisonous gases, that I make a beeline for. Ancient Romans believed that the Plutonium is the entrance to the subterranean realm of their god Pluto. The poisonous gases kept everyone but the eunuch priests of Cybele from entering the sacred cave. With the entrance of the tiny cave sealed, there was no way I could establish the presence of the noxious fumes.

Not everyone was interested in the Plutonium, I noticed. Most visitors were headed for the impressive theatre where gladiator combats were held, watched by 15,000 spectators. Standing on the steps, I could visualise the scenes from the past when slaves were thrown into the arena to fight with lions. Constructed in 2nd century BC by Emperor Hadrian, the theatre is one of the best preserved structures of Hierapolis.

Rich history
Walking down the wide, colonnaded Frontinus Street towards the Gate of Domitian, I came across the Martyrium of St Philip, which is believed to contain his remains. The Gate of Domitian, with its three arches and two towers is one of the most picturesque structures in the area. The Frontinus Street, in its heyday, was a lively avenue flanked by shops and public structures. On one side of the street lay the agora — the market place that saw traders from different parts of Anatolia and far flung areas gathering to do business.

Interestingly, just next to the gate lies the tomb of Flavius Zeuxis whose claim to fame lies in the fact that this Hierapolis merchant had travelled to Italy 72 times by sea. Spread across a long stretch, just outside the Gate of Domitian, is one of the largest necropolises of that era. With more than 1200 tombs of various types — many of dating back to the Hellenistic times — it proves that not all the people who came to the city for cure managed to survive. My walk through the arid land with thousands of sarcophagus was an enlightening one. Scattered around me were different kinds of tombs — sarcophagi, house shaped and the circular tumuli with epitaphs that described the profession and the personality of the buried.

It had been a long trek and my limbs were aching by the time I got around to the end of the road. But then I was in a place with healing waters. Back in the hotel I sauntered into their spa which had channels of the water from the thermal springs. There, I luxuriated for the next one hour, mulling over the amazing ancient city called Hierapolis.

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