Pergamum (Bergama)

Heading inland from the olive clad shores of Turkey’s northern Aegean coast a steep conical hill reminiscent of an eagle’s eyrie comes into sight. Nearer still and the ruins of Pergamum’s acropolis can be discerned on its summit, overlooking the fertile plain watered by the Bakırçay (the ancient Kaikos).

Today’s Bergama, the Turkish name for Pergamum, covers most of the lower city on the plain. It is an attractive mixture of ancient remains and historic and modern buildings. Ochre painted old Turkish houses with bay windows and wooden balconies are interspersed with traditional workshops. The town has managed to combine modernisation with conservation in a sensitive balance which delights visitors, thanks to local awareness of the value of Bergama’s heritage.

Although Pergamum can be traced back to origins in the 12th century BC, and bathed in the reflected glory of King Croesus of Lydia in the 6th century BC, the city’s real rise to fame began after the death of Alexander the Great. When his empire was divided up the Aegean region came under the control of his general Lysimachus. Following his death in battle in 281 BC, Lysimachus’s treasurer Philetaerus stepped into his master’s shoes, and proceeded to construct a great new city at Pergamum.

His great-nephew Attalus I became an energetic and progressive leader who ruled his kingdom from Pergamum between 241 and 197 BC, and is best remembered for his single-handed and miraculous victory against the invading Gauls from western Europe who estahlished the state of Galatia. The psychological boost which this achievement lent to the Hellenic civilisation of the Aegean was more significant than any strategic gain. The day before the decisive battle Attalus treated his army to a feast of sheep’s livers from hundreds of animals sacrificed to Athena, patron goddess of Pergamum. It is said that the soldiers were amazed to read the word “victory” on the liver. Shouts of joy rang through the air at this sign sent by the goddess. The next day they soundly defeated the Gauls. Attalus then turned on the Seleucids and drove them southwards beyond the Toros mountains. Pergamum’s most splendid monuments date from this period, including the celebrated Altar of Zeus which became one of the seven wonders of the world.

Attalus I was succeeded by his eldest son Eumenes II, who maintained the kingdom at its powerful and wealthy height. Next to the enormous Temple of Athena with its Doric and Ionic columns was the twostorey library containing two hundred thousand papyrus scrolls stored on damp proof shelves in the care of trained librarians. This library rivaled the legendary Alexandrian Library established by Cleopatra, who in annoyance forbade the export of papyrus reeds. However this ban only galvanised the creative powers of the Pergamenes, who promptly invented parchment as a more than adequate substitute. The word parchment itself is a corruption of Pergamum.

The city became a renowned centre of science, philosophy and literature, producing such famous names as Pythias and Menandros. The terraced stopes of the acropolis rock were adorned with palaces and gardens, while the Altar of Zeus with its 120 metres long reliefs was a symbol of Pergamum’s supremacy. The remains of temples of Dionysus and Demter, stadiums, agoras, and gymnasiums with the names of some pupils still visible on the seats, stretch down to the foot of the acropolis. The theatre here is Turkey’s oldest and best preserved ancient Greek theatre, and the view over the countryside far below is breathtaking.

Attalus II, who succeeded Eumenes, inherited his father’s warrior temperament. He challenged both Bithynia in the west and the Seleucids to the east. After sacking Bithynia as far as the shore of the Marmara Sea, he turned south to the Toros, and forced the Seleucids back as far as Side. Having failed to capture Side, however, he resolved to found his own Mediterranean port, and called it Attalai, or “city of Attalus”, today’s Antalya.

The last member of the dynasty was Attalus III, who won a name in history for a very different reason. Before dying childness he bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, the burgeoning empire which Pergamum had been at pains to keep at arm’s length. This strange gesture was perhans prompted by realisation that Pergamum would gain nothing in the long run from resisting inevitable subjection by Rome. Unwelcome as this subservience to Rome was for the Pergamenes, it was under the Romans that Pergamum enjoyed its second golden age. In 31 BC the Emperor Augustus invested Pergamamum with the title of Neokoros, given to cities which had won the right to practise the cult of emperor worship.

Under Hadrian (117-138 AD) the city reached is pinnacle of prosperity and importance. The imposing temple dedicated to Trajan and Hadrian, who were worshipped as gods, dates from this period. Reconstruction of the temple by German archaeologists is almost complete, revealing this building in all its original magnificence.

Worship of the ancient Greek goddess Isis inspired the Serapis cult which arose in the Hellenic era, and the Temple to Serapis is popularly known as the Red Courtyard because it is built of red brick. Another highlight of any visit to Pergamum is the Aesculapium, a complex of buildings, courtyards and the temple itself, later converted into a church by the Byzantines.

Dedicated to Aesculapius, a legendary figure worshipped as god of health by the Greeks and Romans, the Aesculapium was one of the first psychiatric hospitals of the ancient world, originally founded in the 4th century BC. According to legend Aesculapius was the son of the god Apollo and Coronis, daughter of the king of Thessaly. Coronis made the mistake of committing adultery, and when the ravens carried the had news to Apollo, his with sister Artemis killed Coronis with her bow and arrow. Thereupon Apollo saved her unborn son and entrusted it to Kheiron, a wise physician who lived in the mountains. The child, named Aesculapius, learnt the art of healing and soon surpassed his master to the point of discovering the secret of reviving the dead. Zeus was so enraged by this audacity on the part of a semi-mortal that be sent a thunderbolt to strike him dead. Aesculapius died but his knowledge of medicine lived on.

The Aesculapium is linked to the acropolis by the Sacred Road, which is lived by what is left of Ionic and Corinthian columns. The first building along this road is the Temple of Aesculapius, reminiscent of an Eskimo’s igloo. In the courtyard at the entrance to the complex is the pedestal of a statue which once stood here. Here worked the famous physician Galius, who wrote volumes of treaties on every aspect of medical practice, from caesarian section to pathology. Like Aristides, a philosopher who spent 13 years here after suffering a nervous breakdown and recorded his life at Pergamum in a series of poems, you might take off your shoes, walk barefoot to the odeon, run around the earth track for a while, then take a mud bath before listening to a concert of music soothing to the spirit. Finally take a drink of water from the sacred fountain and retire to your bed to dream for the benefit of the physicians who will interpent them the next day.

As you bid farewell to Bergama, you will not feel as if you are departing from a ruined city, but experience a feeling of unity with the past, of continuity. The hospitable inhabitants of today, who weave their intricate carpet patterns and carve onyx into decorative objects, are walking in the footsteps of their predecessors, and make you who have trodden the same soil feel a part of their heritage.