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.
Situated on a high plateau over 600m above sea level, ringed by mountains and watered by a tributary of the Büyük Menderes, Aphrodisias is one of Turkey’s most isolated and beautifully set archeological sites. Acres of marble peek out from among the poplars and other vegetation that cloaks the remains of one of imperial Rome’s most cultured Asian cities. Late afternoon visits have the bonus of often dramatic cloud formations, spawned by the elevation, and the attendant dappled lighting.
It’s quite easy to find your way around – most of the site’s main features are accessible on a path that loops around the complex, maps are dotted around, and all signage is in English as well as Turkish. In general, it’s best to follow a clockwise route, which will allow you to finish your visit in the air-conditioned cool of the museum. What’s more, that route means that the short climb to the theatre will come when you’re fresh, at the start, rather than adding to the sweat at the end.
Aphrodisias was one of the earliest occupied sites in Anatolia. Neolithic and Bronze Age mounds have been found here, and there has been some sort of fertility cult here for just as long. The Assyrian goddess of love and war, Nin, became meshed with the Semitic Ishtar, with the Hellenic Aphrodite eventually assuming the goddesses’ combined attributes.
Despite a strategic position near the meeting point of ancient Caria, Lydia and Phrygia, and its proximity to major trade routes, for many centuries Aphrodisias remained only a shrine. However, during the second century BC, its citizens were rewarded for their support of the Romans during the Mithridatic revolt. Imperial favour bestowed, various emperors patronized the burgeoning city. Aphrodisias became particularly renowned for its school of sculpture, sourcing high-grade marble from nearby quarries, and local works soon adorned every corner of the empire, including Rome itself.
Perhaps because of this fixation with graven images, paganism lingered here for almost two centuries after Theodosius banned the old religions. The reputation of its Aphrodite love cult had served to protect Aphrodisias since its inception, but by the fourth century AD, two earthquakes and sundry raids began to take their toll, and decline was the dominant theme of Byzantine times. The town was abandoned completely during the thirteenth century, its former glories recalled only by the Ottoman village of Geyre – a corruption of “Caria” – among the ruins.
Only since 1961 has work by a New York University team permitted a fuller understanding of the site. The intention is to render Aphrodisias on a par with Ephesus and the eventual results will certainly be spectacular, though for now some of the more interesting areas remain off-limits.
Pamukkale’s spring waters have seduced visitors for thousands of years – including certain Roman emperors. You can follow in their imperial footsteps by bathing in the waters today. Three different options are available. For the first, you don’t even have to leave town: just off the main road, the Natural Park (24hr; free) is a new complex set around a lake. Natural attractions here include piped music and swan-shaped pedalos whose LEDs glow at night, as well as a couple of fake travertine terraces – whatever, the water is real enough, and the park is actually a nice place to spend the evening. The second option is also free, once you’ve bought your ticket to Hierapolis – as you head up the travertine paths, you can wade in the pools on the way.
However, if you want to take a proper bath in the springs, visit the Pamukkale Thermal Baths up on the plateau (daily 8am–7.30pm; TL30), which encloses the sacred pool of the ancients, with mineral water bubbling from its bottom at 36°C. Changing rooms are available, as are drinks and snacks – many visitors choose to relax by the pool, coffee in hand, for an hour or more.