Usually the front-row seats are the hottest tickets at theatrical events but, gazing down the steep rake of the stone seats of the ancient theater at Pergamum, it’s obvious that this is one instance where the seats of choice would almost certainly have been those at the top, the ones that didn’t involve a frighteningly steep descent followed up an even more frighteningly steep ascent at the end of the evening.
Dating back to the Hellenistic period, the theater, set at a vertigo-inducing angle into the hillside, would once have been able to seat around 10,000 spectators who would have been able to look out over a glorious vista of the surrounding countryside during intervals in the action.
The theater is perhaps the most striking section of the ruins scattered across the hillside to the northwest of modern Bergama that was once home to the Acropolis, the heart of ancient Pergamum, one of the most powerful city-states to emerge from the mayhem following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. It was during the reign of Eumenes II (197-160 B.C.), who controlled an area stretching as far east as Konya, that much of the building work on the Acropolis, including the theater, was carried out.
The theater is actually quite a secretive building, tucked up against the western side of the site. Far more prominent are the partially reconstructed remains of a glistening white temple dedicated to the Roman emperors Trajan (A.D. 98-117) and Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) that would once have been matched in splendor by the much older Altar of Zeus and Athena, a little downhill to the south. A memorial to the victory of King Attalus I over Celtic invaders in 228 B.C., it was erected by his son, Eumenes II, and decorated with friezes showing a battle between the ancient Greek gods and the giants. In modern times, the frieze was dismantled and reused in the building of a wall, an ignominious fate from which it was rescued by German archeologists in the late 19th century. The friezes have since been re-erected in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, although this is certainly one situation, as with the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, where there must be a strong argument for restoring them to their homeland.
Turkey may be littered with wonderful archaeological sites, but few towns are as blessed as Bergama, which is home not just to the sprawling Acropolis but also to the completely separate site of the Asclepion, a vast ancient health retreat named after the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, and itself dominated by the ruins of a more conventional theater to which you can walk along the remains of the Via Tecta, a marvelously evocative stretch of Roman road. The cult of Asclepius was probably brought to Asia Minor from Epidaurus in Greece some time in the third century B.C., and the center here appears to have continued in use right through until the early Byzantine era. People came here to try out a variety of cures that today would be thought of as very New Age, including mud baths, dream interpretation and taking the water.
Although some of what went on at the Asclepion smacks of quackery, with patients even told what they should wear to effect a cure, Pergamum was also the birthplace of Galen (A.D. 129-c.200), sometimes called the father of modern medicine, who had started his career treating injured gladiators but who went on to write a treatise on the circulatory system that continued in use right through until 1628.
Of course in ancient times the Asceplion was merely a suburb of Pergamum. Yet more remains of the ancient city must now lie buried beneath the modern city of Bergama where they crop up unexpectedly from time to time, as in the tea garden beside the Şadırvanlı Camii, whose porch is propped up with two columns clearly taken from an ancient building. One other prominent building survives right in the town center and this is the Kızıl Avlu (Red Basilica), a brooding hulk of a brick building that started life as a temple to the Egyptian gods Serapis, Isis and Harpocrates in the second century, and stands as a reminder of the way in which the Romans managed to accommodate the gods of a wide variety of faiths. In later years, Christians constructed a church right inside the temple and, as reminder of the way in which religious sites often maintain their significance through a myriad changes of faith, the rotunda attached to it now offers a very atmospheric home to the Kurtuluş Camii.
Modern Bergama is a somewhat strange town, mainly consisting of a long canyon of high-rise apartment blocks that stretches most of the way from the bus station in the south to the site of the excellent modern museum. It doesn’t make the most encouraging of introductions to a historic city, so the best tip must be, whether you’re arriving by bus or private car, to slap on the mental blinders, put your foot down on the gas and keep going straight on until you see the Kızıl Avlu. If you get out there, you will barely have to deal with the uglier south of the town at all.
That’s mainly because arrangements for visiting the two main archaeological sites have been made a great deal easier in recent years both by the arrival of a cable-car to carry guests up to the Acropolis (ugly but practical) and by the moving of the entrance to the Asclepion after the military finally grew tired of tourists wandering past their front gate. Now, if you stay in the old town, the museum, the Asclepion, the cable-car and the Kızıl Avlu will all be within walking distance.
With the time saved in getting around what were once far-flung sites, you can now poke about in the back streets of Bergama, especially in the area around the recently re-cobbled and modernized Arasta market area, which is wonderfully ramshackle and picturesque. Here you will eventually stumble upon a stumpy minaret that is the last relic of a Selçuk mosque as well as the battered Virankapı (Ruined Gate), once the lower entrance to the Acropolis and now buried amid modern housing. Here, too, you will find the restored but disused Kuplu Hamam, dating back to 1427. The two giant alabaster jars now in the Aya Sofya in İstanbul originally came from here; a third jar is on display in the Louvre in Paris, France.
On the eastern side of Cumhuriyet Caddesi, the main road through town, you will find several more historic mosques, including the elegant Emir Sultan Camii. Here, too, stands a synagogue dating back to 1875 that is currently being restored. Finally, if you strike north across the Galinos River, you will find yourself in the lovely Talatpaşa district that sits immediately beneath the Acropolis. This is a district once inhabited by Greeks whose stately stone houses still survive in varying states of repair. A couple of them have now been turned into hotels and pensions, the best places to stay if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of old Bergama. If you find the Ulu Camii, constructed in 1399 for Sultan Beyazıt I (Yıldırım), and then head uphill, you will eventually find the lovely Koca Meydanı, reminiscent of a village green in England and home to the Bergama Ticaret Odası Sosyal Tesisleri (Bergama Chamber of Commerce Social Center), the most elegant restaurant in town.
Bergama is a much more tourist-friendly town than it was just five years ago. The only complaint now might be that the sites of the lower Acropolis are overgrown and/or locked up, irritating when the admission fee is so high.
WHERE TO STAY
Tel: 0232-631 3501
Tel: 0232-631 0634
Tel: 0232-633 2595
Tel: 0232-633 2518
HOW TO GET THERE
Hourly buses link Ayvalık and İzmir with Bergama. These leave you at the remote bus station, which is serviced by dolmuşes and a free half-hourly service bus that drops you at the rundown Soma Garajı, just steps from the Kızıl Avlu. From here, everything is within walking distance.