Founded on water-laced limestone, Hierapolis was known in antiquity, as it is today, for its therapeutic waters.
One of western Anatolia’s most famous ancient sites, Hierapolis is a city well deserving of its name. Actually, there are two widespread views regarding the origin of that name. The first, and less well-founded, of the two is that Hierapolis means ‘sacred city’, based on the large number of temples located here. The other, and far more widely accepted, view is that the name Hierapolis derives from Hiera, wife of Telephos, founder of the dynasty of Pergamon kings. Indeed both monikers, ‘sacred city’ and namesake of one of antiquity’s most illustrious women, are quite apt.
Seventeen km north of Denizli, near Pamukkale, Hierapolis was founded in the 2nd century B.C. by Eumenes II, King of Pergamon. There is little extant information concerning the city’s history, one of the most important reasons for this being the large number of powerful earthquakes that shook the area. This series of earthquakes, which in every case resulted in the city being virtually leveled and then rebuilt from scratch, caused real and permanent destruction and had a profound impact on its people and way of life. But for a time at least the people of Hierapolis were undaunted, and stone by stone raised their city anew after each successive quake. Even today the streets of Hierapolis, laid out on a grid plan remembered by the name of Hippodamus, a famous city planner of antiquity who was born in Miletus around 500 B.C., provide an extremely regular and convenient living area for its residents.
Preserving its Hellenistic features until a major earthquake that occurred in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (60 A.D.), the city was subsequently rebuilt anew on entirely Roman lines. But this did not mean that Hierapolis’ importance had begun to wane. With its new Roman image, and even later as a Byzantine city, it was always one of the most important and wealthiest cities of its time.
A ‘PLANNED’ CITY
Hierapolis is divided in two by a main avenue running along a northwest-southeast axis. Monumental gates stand at either end of this approximately one-kilometer-long thoroughfare, which is lined on both sides with colonnades and important public buildings. On the north stands the Domitian Gate, which boasts a Latin inscription attributed to the emperor of the same name, and on the south, the South Byzantine Gate, dating to the 5th century A.D. But the main avenue, even though it cuts right through the center of the city, falls outside the defense walls built in the Byzantine era. These walls, constructed of enormous blocks of travertine, are supported by 24 square towers. The streets, which intersect each other at sharp angles, lead to a rectangular agora in the center of the city, to a stoa adorned with Ionic columns, and to a basilica, public buildings, and the houses large and small that the people used as their dwellings.
Built on the slope of a hill to the northeast of Hierapolis, the theater, which was rebuilt in complete fidelity to the Roman style following a major earthquake in 60 A.D., can seat approximately 25 thousand people. The stage area, adorned with statues and scenes from mythology, not only lends the structure a very impressive appearance but also served the purpose of pleasing the god Dionysus.
A HEAVENLY SPA
Thanks to the travertines of Pamukkale, Hierapolis is city rich in hot underground springs and layers of limestone, which explains the large number of baths in the city. Known to be therapeutic since antiquity, its waters made ancient Hierapolis a leading health center in its day. Indeed the heart of the city beat at the large bath, which dates to the second century A.D. Besides those who came from other regions for treatment here, the people of Hierapolis itself were also well-aware of the treasure they possessed, and took the waters at every opportunity to purify both body and soul. The numerous baths of every size in the city welcomed visitors continuously throughout the day, redounding to its fame. One section of the large bath, which was actually a complex of sizable structures with separate areas for rest, sports and training, stands today in the Hierapolis Museum.
Hierapolis was a city prominent in every period for its religious associations, which in antiquity were personified in the god Apollo. The Temple of Apollo, whose foundations date from the Late Hellenistic period but whose present-day remains belong to the 3rd century A.D., stood immediately next to the Plutonaeum, an ancient grotto of religious significance. Built over a natural formation where carbon dioxide gas escaped to the earth’s surface, the Plutonaeum was regarded as a sacred precinct where the city’s priests were enabled to perform miracles. To the northwest of the temple stands one of the many Nymphaeums (monumental fountains) built in the city. This structure, adorned with sculptures and reliefs made in the 2nd century A.D., underwent a comprehensive restoration in the 5th century. As befits a city built on water from whose every fissure water—therapeutic water at that—virtually gushes, one of antiquity’s largest Nymphaeums was built at Hierapolis.
The city’s sacred status, which was symbolized by Apollo in antiquity, would be associated in the Byzantine period with the name of Saint Philippus.
A large number of churches were built in the city, which assumed the title of Metropolis with the coming of Christianity, and bishops began to pay frequent visits. The city’s sacred aura derives from the martyrdom of Saint Philip, one of the twelve Apostles, who came to the city to preach Christianity in 80 A.D. The St. Philip Martyrium, built in his memory in the 5th century A.D., stands on a hillock to the northeast of the city. Every ancient city has one area that needs to be kept separate from all the other buildings and areas, namely the Necropolis. Unlike all the remains of a city’s living history, a necropolis is a city of the dead, an indicator of how that settlement regarded its deceased. The necropolis of Hierapolis, which dates from the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods, spreads over an extremely broad area. In contrast with other necropolises, there is no specific type of grave in evidence here. Instead there is a large variety of sarcophagi, monumental tombs, stellae, mausolea, and earth mounds or tumuli, some decorated, others not. Although it is not known why the graves of Hierapolis exhibit such diversity, the size and heterogeneity of the area are an indication of how populous a city Hierapolis was and to how many diverse peoples of differing income levels it provided refuge. As people consigned their loved ones to eternity with graves and burial methods chosen according to their religious beliefs, income level and taste, did they have any notion, I wonder, of how truly those graves would immortalize their dead?