Pergamon: The Glow of an Ancient City


The fascinating ancient city of Pergamon (also known as Pergamum) is located on a plateau near the Aegean shores of Turkey: its enthralling location provides a staggering view over the surrounding area and gives an impressive atmosphere to the city. Despite Pergamon’s stunning sight, this is not what makes the place famous: Pergamon was a center of medication, science, learning, and power for hundreds of years and most likely, it was the first place to produce parchment paper in the Hellenistic era(1); it had and has a multi-layered cultural landscape and as such it is under UNESCO protection (2); and the city is also the eponym of the famous Berlin Museum, the Pergamon Museum (3).


Pergamon. Madain Project. https://madainproject.com/pergamon

Pergamon’s name is most likely to drive from the Luwian word Barga, which means High Hill. The small Mysian city later was occupied by the Lydians (4), but, as it wasn’t located on the shores of the Aegean but in the inlands, it didn’t tempt the Ionians; thus, the territory remained on the hands of the indigenous peoples and it was a small city on the hilltop with the potential of becoming a commanding center. Around 470 BCE, it fell under Persian influence, and nearly a hundred years later, Sparta occupied the city. Some decades later, in 334, Alexander the Great crossed the territory as well (5). During the Hellenistic era, Pergamon belonged to the Seleucids, from whom it was able to gradually become independent. By 283 BC, it became an independent Polis, ruling more and more from the surrounding territories. By the 170s BC, Pergamon became the strongest city in Asia Minor, ruling its own empire, having such cities under its control as Ephesus. Pergamon’s support meant a great deal to those taking part in the wars of the era (6). During the Hellenistic era, Pergamon became a big city supporting art and culture, having a constantly improving Acropolis with the temples dedicated to Athena and Demeter.


Under the reign of Eumenes II (197-159 BC), great constructions took place in Pergamon: he built a theatre in the hill-side capable to seat 10, 000 people, which is still the steepest theatre to be known. It was also him, who built the famous Zeus Altar and a library, which became the second biggest in the world, only to be outrun by the famous Library of Alexandria (7). Eumenes II was followed on the throne by his son, who bequeathed Pergamon and its kingdom to Rome in 133 BC. This is how it became possible for Marc Anthony to give the Pergamon Library to Cleopatra as a gift. The Library of Pergamon consisted of approx. 200,000 parchments and books, when it was transferred to Egypt in 41 BC (8).


Although the city has lost its library, yet, a look on the most glorious period of Pergamon was just about to start. During the era of the Roman Empire, Pergamon became the most important city of Anatolia, the center of Asia Province and a famous medical centre, known for its Asklepieion healing centre (9). In its Asklepieion, not only medicine and usual healing was practiced: mud and water therapies were used, as well as psychotherapy methods based on music and sports (10). Although the Asklepieion was established in the 4th century BC, it reached its heyday in the 2nd century AD (11).


The Remains of the Temple of Trajan. Photo taken by the author in 2021.

The Temple of Trajan was started to be built by Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) and enlarged and completed under his successor Hadrian (117-138 AD). Given the size and weight of the temple, which served the cult of Trajan, Hadrian, and Zeus, the rock in the side of the mountain had to be levelled (12): the remains of the giant substructure built in the side of the steep valley is still on the site and partly open to visit.


Regarding its material heritage, thanks to the early German excavations, the city's artefacts are now housed mostly in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where the reconstruction of the Altar of Zeus is exhibited. Yet, among other things, the museum also made a 3D reconstruction of the Altar, easily accessible through the museum's website. (14)


Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1457/gallery/

The Temple of Serapis was built by Hadrian as well, in the 2nd century AD, and was dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Serpais. The temple, also known as the Red Basilica, became a Christian church during the Byzantine era (13). Later, it became an Ottoman mosque, and incorporated a Jewish synagogue as well. That brings us to the multi-layered culture of the city of Pergamon, Bergama with remnants still preserved today. After the split within the Roman Empire, the territory fell under Byzantine rule. During this period, Pergamon became a middle-sized town, which preserved part of its cultural and religious importance.


Now during the Ottoman era, the Christian city turned into Muslim one creating its new urban landscape with mosques, baths, covered bazaars, etc., overlaying the Roman and Byzantine settlement layers. As Pergamon was continuously inhabited (contrary to Ephesus for example, which site was inhabited only during the antiquity) and the city was in continuous transition for thousands of years, it is of great importance that "it incorporates Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman structures...preserving their cultural features within the historical landscape. (15)" Certainly, the beautiful ancient city and its stories hold a lot more to discover, and the remains of the city are waiting for the travelers.



References


1., 4., 10., 13. Yilmaz, Yasar (2013): Ancient Cities of Turkey. A Guide to the Ancient Cities of Turkey: From Anatolia to Thrace. 4th Edition. Anadolu Kültürel Girisimcilik. pp. 50-51.


2., 9., 15. Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape. World Heritage List. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1457/gallery/&index=1&maxrows=12


3. Profile of the Pergamon Museum (2021). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/pergamonmuseum/about-us/profil/


5., 7., Matthews, Henry (2014). Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey. History, Archaeology, Architecture. Ege Yayinlari, Istanbul. pp. 81-109.


6. Kertész, István (2006): A Hellénisztikus világ. In: Hegyi, Dolores – Kertész, István – Németh, György – Sarkady, János: Görög történelem a kezdetektől Kr. e. 30-ig. Osiris Kiadó, Budapest. pp. 331-365.


8. The Library at Pergamum. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/pergamumlibrary.html


11. The Asklepieion. https://www.visionpubl.com/en/cities/pergamon/asklepieion/


12. Pergamon. Madain Project. https://madainproject.com/pergamon


14. The 3D reconstruction of the Altar of Zeus. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. https://3d.smb.museum/pergamonaltar/




Image Sources

  • Pergamon. Madain Project. https://madainproject.com/pergamon

  • The remains of the Temple of Trajan. Photo taken by the author in 2021.

  • Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1457/gallery/

Author Photo

Lujza Varga

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