There are more Roman ruins in ancient Anatolia than in any other country, with the most magnificent temples at Hierapalis in Denizli Province in southwestern Turkey (Anatolia).

A temple in the mountains.

On an Insight Vacations tour ( we meandered along the twisting and curving Meander River Valley to the small village of Pumukkale, at the base of the crystallized calcium carbonate mineral terraces and cliffs where temperate bathing waters still flow, making Hierapolis one of the world’s oldest waterparks.

It is said that the hot springs were more robust in their flow in millennia past but today farmers have siphoned off much of the underground artesian pools to irrigate surface crops; the Turkish government enacted an edict that guarantees a certain amount of hydrology flows through the site. Hierapolis is located on a magnificent bench of spring time blooms with awesome vistas of spurs of the Taurus Mountains; a Turkish national forest abuts the back of the archaeological site, ensuring against development, but at one time hotels and roads popped up within the ruins like the mountain asters but were removed when the site became an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The healing waters spans the millennia.

Swim amongst the columns at Cleopatra's Pool.

Hieropolis in Greek means “sacred city”, and was located in the ancient province Phrygia near the Aegean Sea, known for its temperate climate and long growing season. Pamukkale means "cotton castle" in Turkish and certainly the 2nd Century A.D. Roman engineers and architects referred to the city as a castle — they knew it as Pumakali — where the sick and frail swarmed to heal their aches and disabilities, and where many died and were buried in stone sarcophagi in the expansive Necropolis, including Marcus Aurelius Ammianos. It is not known if Cleopatra visited the baths, but a pool has remained in her name over the centuries and tourists still swim amongst fallen marble temple columns.

The Greek influence was pronounced in the citizenry DNA, dialect, and Hellenic customs after Alexander the Great conquered the region on his march to Persia.  In fact, the first hospital in the world was built in nearby Pergamon by one of Alexander’s four generals, and it also is on the Insight Vacations route of my tour of Turkey. In 190 B.C, the Romans gifted Hieropolis to Eumenes II, King of Pergamon, who defeated another Greek king, Antiochus the Great, at the Battle of Magnesia.  With the spoils of war Hieropolis was expanded.

The beginning of Hieropolis took shape when the ancient Phrygians built a temple (a hieron) in the first half of the 3rd century B.C., first used by the citizens of Laodiceia, a city built by Antiochus II Theos in 261–253 B.C. The healing center struck bronze coins soon after with the inscription of Hieropolis — town or temple of hieron — which was then changed to Hierapolis, with an "a" juxtaposed for the "o", meaning Holy City, no doubt as a proclamation of the powers of the waters.

Ancieent remnants of an ancient time.

When the last Attalid king of Pergamon died in 133 B.C. the city reverted to total Roman control. After earthquakes during Emperor Tiberius’ and Nero’s rule the city was rebuilt along the lines of a Roman city, with almost all hints of the Hellenic style of architecture and monuments and statuary gone with the wind. Pax Romana set in.

The magnificent amphitheatre was built in 129 A.D to honor Hadrian who paid the city a visit. In 215 B.C. Emperor Garacalla bestowed upon the city the title of Neocoros, thus making it a sanctuary city.  This was Hierapolis’ heyday; two large Roman baths were built from hewn stone blocks with the inner niches linking the baths to a library, gymnasium, solarium, sanitarium, and other spaces, either enclosed or open air.  The vaulted baths are now an archaeological museum that you can visit, chocked full of statues, friezes, reliefs, jewelry, and even stone bath tubs.

At one time hot spring fountains adorned the stone paved streets in the agora or meeting or marketplace near Cleopatra’s Pool.  The burgeoning metropolis boasted the arts and philosophy as trade flourished because of its exceptional location. A wealthy city was judged by its numerous statues and Hierapolis’ wealth is on display in the museum.

The big Roman bath sits beneath the museum.

The Hierapolis Archaeological Museum entrance.

Since 1984 the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum has been housed in a new structure above the baths, while incorporating parts of the spa in its walls.  I spent time viewing the beautiful Bronze Age statuary that also includes artifacts from other villages of the Lycos Valley and Beycesultan Hüyük.  The historical marble and limestone sculptures are some of the most significant from the Hellenic and Roman eras, and even Byzantine and Christian periods. The galleries are located in the former library and gymnasium — a museum within a museum!

The Tombs and Statues Gallery offers the largest displays of finds from Hierapolis and Laodiceia, with inscriptions on sarcophagi, statues, gravestones, pedestals, and pillars that gave archaeologists a time line of the city’s history, local customs, and family life. No flash cameras are allowed in the museum, but you can photograph statues and friezes of Tyche, Dionysus, Pan, Asklepios, Isis, Demeter, and Trion, all carved by the Romans, but with a Hellenistic twist.

Reliefs raised from the ruins.

I next visit the Small Artifacts Gallery where smaller works are displayed in chronological order dating back over 4,000 years, when the locals probably enjoyed the pools before temples were built.  Most of the finds were discovered by the British Institute of Archaeology, including baked-earth bowls and lamps, small statue idols, libation cups, and official magistrate seals.  This Gallery also has glass cups, necklaces, rings, adornments of gemstones, and an awesome display of bronze, silver, and gold coins of the realms from the Hellenistic period through the Ottoman Empire.

The beautiful Theatre Gallery.

My favorite antiquity pieces were the restored reliefs and statues in the Theater Ruins Gallery, a separate room of the museum entered from the outside. The stunning reliefs were rescued from the 15,000-seat amphitheatre of Hierapolis.  Many of the restored works are devoted to Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysos mythologies; one depicts the abductions of Persephone by Hades.   

A magnificent relief honors the coronation of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and another of the adoration of the goddess Hierapolis.

Hierapolis’ first theatre was located in the northeast above the northern gate, but this theatre was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 A.D.  so a grander design was carved from a hillside during the reign of emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus. The theatre was expanded during the rules of emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus, and in 352 A.D. water shows were added after a renovation.

There were four entrances (vomitoria) to the ancient theatre, each with six statues in niches surrounded by marble columns.  The semi-circular auditorium (cavea) was bisected by a horizontal corridor (diazoma); originally nine aisles separated 45 rows of seating, but only 30 rows remain today. The two story ornate proscenium had niches off to the sides.  The regal place to sit was in the Imperial Box; the last Roman emperor to visit the imperial city was Valens.

The southern gate to the Hierapolis Amphitheatre.

Many statuary inscriptions in the Theatre Gallery include laurels to the emperors Hadrian and Emperor Septimius Severus and his wife, Julia Domna, and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta.  One relief shows the god Jupiter seated on his throne.  Other Hierapolis friezes and statures are now displayed in museums in London, Berlin, and Rome. There is an ongoing restoration of the theatre, with new brickwork paving to the museum

The Theatre and main gates are under renovation.

Our professional Insight Vacations tour guide, Oguz, rounded our group up and we walked the short distance to the Domitian gate along the ancient main street that ran north and south.  Akimbo to the road and in the distance and separated from the city was the sinister side of the Roman era, the St. Philip Martyrium, where the apostle was crucified upside down; no doubt other imperial rabble rousers met the same fate.  Charred remains from a fire during the Byzantine period may have been its destruction by early Christians. In 2011 the gravesite of Philip is thought to have been found in the area.

The original Martyrium was an octagonal wooden dome covered with lead and surrounded with eight rectangular rooms, each accessible through the three arches; four were entrances to the church, the other four to chapels. The space between the eight rooms was filled with heptagonal chapels with a triangular apse. The dome above the apse was decorated with mosaics. The whole structure was surrounded with a colonnade of marble columns with walls of carved marble panels.

The tri-arched Domitian Gate was the entrance to the holy city.

The tri-arched Domitian gate had bookends of massive stone towers, one of which was reconstructed by archaeologists.  The Domitian Gate was also the northern gate to the city, constructed by proconsul Frontinius.  The Temple of Apollo was also in this area, and most of the city’s citizens created stone or rock walled homes behind the triumphant arches.

Life was grand in Hierapolis.

The first Temple of Apollo predates Hieropolis to the early Hellenic period and is in evidence on their coinage, but little remains of that Doric columned temple that enclosed the inner sanctum peribolos.  The latter Apollo Temple was constructed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Romans, using many of the older temple stone blocks.  Only the marble floor remains of their Apollo Temple.  A fault line passed beneath the temple featuring the cave of the Plutonium.  Just as the Apollo Temple at Delphi in Greece, carbon dioxide gases seeped through the underworld, which was also the origin of the oracles; for a fee futures were deciphered. The Plutonium — the place of Pluto — was the oldest shrine at the archaeological park   The poisonous gases often killed those who entered the depths, and they were certainly buried in the expansive Necropolis not far away. The early Christians closed down the entrance to the Plutonium and constructed their Nympheum on the holy site.

The shrine of the nymphs had a huge hot water fountain used as a conduit with pipes to the city homes.  All that remains are three of the walls of the Nympheum (there never was a fourth wall); priestess statues were found in the ruins and are on display in the museum.

The oldest wine presses were found in Anatolia, dating back 9,000 years, and of course the citizens had a separate area near the Domitian Gate for squeezing their favorite libation. Fruits and grains grew wild naturally in the area and animal husbandry was commonplace; life was grand in Hierapolis.

The ancient wine press, right, was a popular spot.

Over the centuries invaders included the Persians, the Seljuk sultanate of Konya (now the major city in the region), and the crusaders under Frederick Barbarossa, with the Christians turning the baths into a Basilica. The ancient city lay fallow around the 14th century B.C. until it was rediscovered by Victorian-age travelers. The German archaeologist Carl Humann was the first to dig in the ruins of Hierapolis in 1887. In 1889 his notable excavation notes appeared in the book Altertümer von Hierapolis.

The end of the road — the Necropolis.

A family burial temple.

Everyone’s last stop — both the living tourists and the dead — was the Necropolis just past the holy site and the colonnaded road to ancient Tripolis (Phrygia) and Sardis. All the tombs have been excavated, stated Oguz, but many were plundered thousands of years ago. The well preserved tombs were mostly constructed of limestone with arced roofs over pits.

The Necropolis spans the Hellenic, Roman, and Christian periods; the dead were buried in four methods:

The common folk rested in hand dug graves. The marble sarcophagi were reserved for the middle class and merchants, often carved with epitaphs and reliefs. The round tumuli blended into the landscape like grass domed yurts with passageways leading down to the burial chamber; these were reserved for nobles and town officials.  Families were buried together in mausoleums or small temples.

Today’s tourists remove their shoes along a boardwalk over the cliff side terraces and wade in the soothing sips and sinks of the immense cottony staircase of travertine terraces that plunge 75 feet to a pool below where ducks and geese delight in the thermal waters.

Insight Vacations utilizes the best of local accommodations each evening while on tour; it was a delight to soak in the chocolate brown sulphur waters at the nearby five star Collossae Hotel named after an early Christian sect.  

Other sites on the Western Turkey tour included Gallipoli, Troy, Ephesus, Pergamon, Cappadocia, Ankara, and Istanbul.  Insight Vacations provides expert guides and modern motorcoaches on all its tours. This is one of the best tours that encompassed so many unique ancient sites.  Visit Insight Vacations at

All roads may lead to Rome, but first there was a spa detour to Hierapolis.

— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.