The “Cotton Castle” of Pamukkale and Hierapolis
By Annie Chen
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Determined to see more than just the booming city of Istanbul in Turkey, I looked towards other attractions in the country and stumbled upon one a UNESCO World Heritage site which looked remarkably unique and unlike any other place I’ve visited.
In inland Turkey, approximately 3.5 hours from Izmir or Antalya, the ruins of the Hellenistic spa resort town of Hierapolis sits above Pamukkale, the natural thermal springs which are on the hill by the town.
Taking a Dolmus
When I arrived at the small town of Pamukkale via dolmus, aka a minibus which travels between local destinations, from the nearest town of Denizli, I followed the trail of older women up the slightly inclined roads with small sleepy shops and restaurants.
The town was still waking up to the rush of tourists that afternoon sure to head to the central entrance for the two sites.
The words “pamuk” and “kale” in Turkish mean “cotton” and “palace” or “castle”, respectively, and I immediately understood why as I turned the corner and Pamukkale came into view.
The entrance to Hierapolis stood at the top of a fault line which is the starting point for the thermal springs, 200 meters high on a cliff overlooking the nearby plains, so the springs are in clear view.
After years of calcium carbonate deposits which have dried over time, the result is a series of stark white travertine terraces on the hill with petrified waterfalls and calcite-filled basins.
I took in the sight from afar, not being able to glimpse details quite yet from the main gate where a long line of mainly domestic tourists waited to get in.
Turkish nationals received a discounted fee to enter, and others received additional discounts for having a Museum Pass to see multiple attractions in Turkey for a lower fee.
I paid 200 TL (approximately $11.30 USD) and passed through the turnstile. After about a 50 meter walk, a number of people were sitting on a short row of benches removing their shoes and I saw over their heads the beginning of the petrified calcium walk.
Shoes weren’t permitted on the seemingly slippery surface, and I struggled to see anything with a glaringly white surface reflecting the intense heat for the entirety of the shade-less walk.
The thin layer of water just added to the glimmering nature of the slope and alongside many other visitors, I slowly and clumsily gripped my shoes in one hand, camera in the other and a sweaty bag on my back.
Easy to Grip
Luckily, while it most resembled snow from a distance and looked slippery, the ridged surfaces were sharp and rough which made it easy to grip with bare feet.
I padded slowly up the pathway, taking in the stalactites and terraces ranging in height. Some were uneven steps, but others reached my neck and led to natural basins for the room temperature water.
Apparently, as some locals mentioned to me later on, if I visited Pamukkale during the other seasons, the water was chillier than people generally imagine when they hear ‘thermal springs’.
A stream of water ran down the left side of the hill, separating the bulk of the people and the basins where children were splashing about and adults waded up to their knees, with the steep cliff drop off.
A smaller number of visitors directly sat in the rushing stream, which had a soothing massage-like effect that made it easy to imagine the hydraulic system the citizens of Hierapolis designed to transport the spring water as far as 70 km away.
Pamukkale’s Therapeutic Waters
Signs posted around the springs boasted of the therapeutic value of the water. It has been said to work wonders for cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure and varicose veins, skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis, and rheumatic diseases like chronic waist and neck pain, and fibromyalgia.
Back in the heyday of Hierapolis, the resort town was hugely popular for visitors from all around the region specifically for the springs.
Amidst photographers carrying around colored wings for Instagram-hungry tourists (costing 100 TL per photo), I finally stepped up the final ledge to the resting station where dozens of couples and families took over the tables and benches.
A few shops and cafes sold essential items at hiked up prices; ice cream and fresh orange juice sat in refrigerators next to sun hats, sunblock and swimsuits on hangers.
A sign at the cashier reported that all proceeds went directly to the preservation and maintenance of the thermal springs.
Earthquake Damage in 60 AD
It took a moment for my eyes to readjust to the shade of the tall trees above, aided by a massive Turkish flag, and I glanced over a nearby map of the ancient and current Hierapolis layout.
Founded by the kings of Pergamom at the end of 2nd century BC, Hierapolis was rocked by an earthquake in 60 AD which led to Hierapolis’ reconstruction and what remains in the present includes a necropolis, tombs from end of the 1st century AD, and well-preserved temple ruins.
When I set off from the shade, I quickly realized I’d underestimated the distances and size of the ancient city, particularly in 36°C weather with, again, no providers of shade as far as the eye can see.
Tourist buses and rented golf carts whizzed by me while I took in the old church ruins on the side of the road. Following the acceptance of Christianity during the time of Constantinople, the city became an important religious center.
The ancient city’s main street, also known as Frontinus Street, was another spectacular sight. At 14 meters wide, with symmetrical Byzantine gates on either side of the long stone street from the 1st century, Frontinus street used to be lined with shops, houses and warehouses.
Although I had to use my imagination to see the former decorative glory, there were previously the heads of a lion, a panther and a Gorgon to ward away evil from entering the city.
The runoff from the thermal springs winter had evidently caked the main road’s surface with a 2-meter-thick calcium carbonate deposit that when the excavation team was uncovering the ruins, they had to use compressors to find the street again.
I double-backed towards the signs I saw for the ancient baths, since the heat was giving me a headache, and I was running dangerously low on water.
Back at the fork in the road, I followed the signs, and entered what looked like a public swimming pool area with a restaurant and gift shop nearby.
Like Greco-Roman Baths of old
I passed the entrance fee area just to take a look, and saw the subtle but important difference; these pools were designed in the style of Greco-Roman baths from the 1st century AD and made with limestone and earth with stones infill.
An earthquake in the second half of the fourth century AD brought down some nearby columns and large, heavy block remains sat inside the pool where dozens of visitors of all ages were swimming around or sitting on the remains.
Most famously, legend has it that Marc Anthony created these pools as a gift to Cleopatra.
I continued up the hill after the baths, where the rocky path became steeper, and I looked over to the right to see the reason behind the sharp incline – a recently renovated, massive amphitheater with a seating capacity of 12,000 spectators spread out over 45 rows.
The bottom part of the amphitheater was closed off to visitors, though the detailed restoration was visible even from a distance.
Built into the hill, the amphitheater was meant to be relatively close to the temple of Apollo, the primary god of Hierapolis.
Hordes of tourist buses were dropped off at the top of the hill and started to flood the top of the amphitheater so I headed back down the other side.
I passed an olive press, installed in the 11th and 12th century, and landed at the semi-enclosed archaeological museum which housed smaller items.
Larger stone busts and sculptures of various key figures in Greek and Roman mythology were on nearly intact pedestals, and depictions of gladiator fights held in the amphitheater I just visited were carved into stone reliefs.
One which piqued my eye interest was a partial torso with a long tentacle extending to the right. Intrigued, I leaned over to read the caption identifying him as – of course – Triton, son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea.
A Dark, Watery Arched Gate
Emerging back out into the bright light, I passed by an elevated, outdoor site where a few walkways allowed people to explore.
I made my way to one which looked down on a dark, watery arched gate, and a sign nearby told of its history as a rumored gate to the underworld.
Standing above the gate was a statue of Pluto, the god of the underworld, alongside his 3-headed dog to guard it against spirits or people going in or coming back out when they shouldn’t be.
The ironic contrast of that moment wasn’t lost on me, with the dark, seedy entrance to the underworld in front of me as the celestially bright surfaces of the springs glistened just behind me, complete with angel wings.