75km (47 miles) northeast of Denizliairport, 25km (16 miles) northeast of Denizli; 652km (404 miles) south of Istanbul; 231km (143 miles) southeast of Izmir; 300km (186 miles) northeast of Bodrum.
Until a few years ago, the cliff-side travertines that had become the poster child of Pamukkale were more like a slushy roadside pile of yesterday’s snow. The terraces are the result of thousands of years of deposits left by calcium-rich natural springs coursing down the mountain. (In nearby Karahayit, springs rich in iron and sulfur leave reddish metallic deposits at the point of exit.) But years of irresponsible tourism had turned this wonder of nature into a dismal theme park attraction, until finally, in desperation, the Turkish authorities called in UNESCO for backup. In an ever-evolving geological environment, it’s normal that these natural springs would find new outlets, and part of UNESCO’s efforts have been to divert the springs to different sections on a rotating basis to restore much-needed calcium to the upper layers of the travertines. In the 6 years since their efforts began, much of the site has been restored to its original blinding whiteness. The travertine terraces, in concert with the plateau housing the ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis, now make up a national park as well as a World Heritage Site, and a visit to one would not be complete without a look at the other.
Although the cloudy white mountainside continues to act as a magnet for thousands and thousands of tourists on day excursions, the only way to really appreciate the region is to spend an afternoon basting in the local mineral-rich waters. This is a spa town, after all. For now, tourists can swim in the Sacred Pool within the courtyard of the former Pamukkale Thermal or in one of the more deluxe facilities in nearby Karahayit. The village of Karahayit has its own modest terraces (more like mounds), and the water over on that side of the plateau is at least 55°F (about 13°C) warmer than the pools of Pamukkale (except for the Colossae Hotel, which takes its source from Pamukkale). The best time to go is after the tour-bus season, during the crisp but gorgeously sunny days of fall, when you can still take advantage of some of the outdoor thermal pools without the unwanted company.
AttractionsThe majority of excursions to Pamukkale can be characterized by 8 hours on a bus, split in half by a quick photo op of the travertines, an hour of free time in the Sacred Pool, and lunch at some tourist buffet. With an itinerary like this, don’t be surprised if you come away disappointed; an overnight in an inexpensive thermal hotel spa with a Jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath, and massage therapy seems to me the minimum requirements in a place known for millennia as a place of healing. Not only just what the doctor ordered, but it’s also essential to factor in a morning stroll through the local village and a relaxed visit to the ancient ruins of Hierapolis after the sun has lost most of its bite.
A swim in the effervescent waters of the Sacred Pool should be at the top of the list on any travel itinerary, but it will be eminently more enjoyable very early in the morning or during a fringe season, when the tour buses have trickled out. The Sacred Pool is the main source for the springs feeding the travertines, and naturally, some clever entrepreneur took advantage of lax governmental controls and erected a motel on the spot, of those many years ago. The Pamukkale Thermal, the last modern structure on the plateau, has been decommissioned from a hotel, and is now essentially a historic swim club, saved from the same fate that saw the other motels razed thanks to the Sacred Pool within. The pool lies in the center of a lush garden and cay evi (teahouse). Scattered about at the bottom of the crystal-clear pool like so much detritus is an amazing collection of striated columns and capitals, a striking reminder of the pool’s pedigree.
The thermal water maintains a relatively constant temperature of about 95°F (35°C), so that a dip in the middle of November is not out of the question. In addition to a high level of natural radioactivity, the water contains calcium bicarbonate, calcium sulfate, magnesium, and carbon dioxide, and after a swim, you should simply dry off and let the minerals do their magic.
So as not to forget that 2,000 years ago emperors and kings weekended here, the impressive remains of the ancient city-spa of Hierapolis (admission 3.60YTL/$2.70) lie all around. The city of Hierapolis was founded in 190 B.C. by Eumenes II as part of the great Empire of Pergamum and was probably named after Hiera, the wife of the legendary founder of Pergamum. Considered a sacred site for the magic of its healing waters, Hierapolis reached its peak of development under the Romans at the end of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. During the Byzantine Era, a large church was erected to St. Philip, who was martyred here in A.D. 80.
Behind the Pamukkale Thermal are the stunning remains of the best-preserved ancient theater in Turkey, and the third-most-impressive theater after Ephesus and Aspendos. The theater was constructed in the middle of the 2nd century by Hadrian and adapted in the 3rd century by Septimius Severus, indicating the importance of the city during both Hellenistic and Roman times. The upper section of 25 rows, added during the restoration, is constructed of stones quarried from the ancient theater to the north of the city rather than of marble, suggesting that the city hit upon financial hardships during this era. Notice the skeleton of the mechanism below the well-preserved stage. The theater comes to life in the late spring for folklore performances during the Festival of Pamukkale.
Just down the hill are the scattered leftovers of the Temple of Apollo, patron of the city. If you descend the incline just inside the fence and circle to the other side of the temple’s stairs, you can see the Plutonium, a niche believed to be sacred for the noxious carbon monoxide vapors that are emitted from a nearby underground stream. Accessible via a (closed) passageway through the temple, the temple priests were the only ones with the power (or lung capacity) to emerge alive, a thesis supported by the deaths of not just a few imprudent tourists.
A pretty good hike up the hill will lead you to the Martyrium of St. Philip, the remains of an octagonal basilica believed to have been erected on the site where Philip was martyred.
From the Martyrium you can cut down the hill toward the Byzantine Gate and the Colonnaded Street. Crossing the city on a north-south axis for .8km ( 1/2 mile), in ancient times the street ran from the Southern Gate and ended at the monumental Arch of Domitian, a triple arch flanked by two robust cylindrical towers constructed by Julius Frontinus, the Proconsul of the Asian Provinces between A.D. 84 and 86. To the right of the gate are the pillars of the latrine, not as graphic as the toilets at Ephesus, but interesting from an architectural point of view nevertheless.
Beyond the Arch of Domitian is the Necropolis, stretching for over 1.5km (1 mile) and ending at the northern entrance to the site. Although people traveled from all over the empire to heal their ills, it’s painfully obvious from this extensive burial ground that some diseases just can’t be treated by a warm bath. There are various types of sarcophagi, layers of mausoleums designed as houses for the dead, and remarkable examples of the stone cylindrical drum tumuli employed during Hellenistic times. Don’t pass this up just because it’s too hot.
On the paved road heading back to the southern entrance, notice the crumbling but imposing Roman bath, built around the end of the 2nd century and later converted into a Byzantine basilica. From the looks of several of the archways, one more earthquake and this structure is road dust.
Next to the parking lot of the Pamukkale Thermal are a 6th-century Christian basilica and more Roman baths (this one for the rich folk). Dating to the 1st century, the baths were constructed in the rebuilding of the city during the reign of Tiberius after a major earthquake severely damaged the city. Now a museum, the baths house artifacts from the area, including a fairly impressive marble sarcophagus, but for the most part, you can skip the exhibit and admire the baths from the outside.