As you approach the UNESCO World Heritage Site of PAMUKKALE from Denizli, 20km south, a long white smudge along the hills to the north suggests a landslide or mine. Getting closer, this clarifies into the edge of a plateau, more than 100m above the valley and edged in white travertine terraces. The Turks have dubbed this geological fairyland Pamukkale, or “Cotton Castle”. This incredible natural phenomenon was created by the hot spring waters that gush up at the centre of the ancient city of Hierapolis, whose blissfully located ruins would merit a stop even if they weren’t coupled with the stunning terraces.
Only a fraction of the huge number of daily visitors to Pamukkale stay the night. Most foreign travellers who do so stay in PAMUKKALE KÖYÜ, a sleepy village at the base of the cliff that’s still, by and large, a rural settlement – you’ll see more tractors than cars on its outskirts, and its main “drag” holds only a small concentration of shops, restaurants and travel agencies. Accommodation is cheap, and almost all hotels feature spring-water swimming pools. Despite the incredible draw of Hierapolis and the travertines, it’s one of western Turkey’s best places to chill out for a few days.
The therapeutic properties and bizarre appearance of the hot springs were known for thousands of years before an actual town, Hierapolis, was founded here by a Pergamene king during the second century BC. After incorporation into the Roman Empire in 129 BC, Hierapolis enjoyed considerable imperial favour, especially after catastrophic earthquakes in 17 AD and 60 AD – no fewer than three emperors paid personal visits, stimulating local emperor-worship alongside the veneration of Apollo and his mother Leto, who was venerated in the guise of Cybele.
The presence of a flourishing Jewish community aided the rapid and early establishment of Christianity. Hierapolis is mentioned in Paul’s Epistle to the (neighbouring) Colossians, and Philip the Apostle was martyred here, along with his seven sons. However, as at Aphrodisias, paganism lingered well into the sixth century, until a zealous bishop supervised the destruction of the remaining ancient worship sites and the establishment of nearly one hundred churches, several of which are still visible.
Hierapolis slid into obscurity in late Byzantine times, nudged along by Arab and Turcoman raids. After the Selçuks arrived in the twelfth century, the city was abandoned, not to figure much in the Western imagination until Italian excavations began in 1957.