Among the most interesting yet underrated Greco-Roman ruins of Turkey are those of ancient Pergamon. Once a major independent kingdom during the Hellenistic era, the city continued to thrive during Roman times. Today, the archaeological site is so vast that it comprises of several different areas, each of which will be covered in this ancient Pergamon guide.
Pergamon’s ruins are scattered throughout the modern city of Bergama, a few hours north of Izmir. While they can all be seen in a single day if you begin early enough in the morning, spending a night in town is recommended.
Be sure to check the end of this Pergamon guide for more tips on visiting the ruins, how to get to Bergama and where to stay.
Pergamon: A Brief History
Pergamon was inhabited since prehistoric times, and there was a small settlement here from at least the 6th century BC. Like much of Anatolia, it was taken by the Persian Achaemenid Empire for a few hundred years before the conquests of Alexander the Great.
In 301 BC, Pergamon was taken by Lysimachos, the king of Thrace. Lysimachos then entrusted his lieutenant Philetaerus to keep his treasure safe within the walled city. But Philetaerus betrayed Lysimachos, aligning himself instead with rival general Seleucus, who soon killed Lysimachos.
But not long after, Seleucus himself was dead, and Pergamon found itself as an autonomous kingdom. Philetaerus proceeded to found the Attalid dynasty, which would rule Pergamon from 281-133 BC.
The later Attalid kings were named Eumenes I, Attalos I, Eumenes II, Attalos II and Attalos III.
Attalos I defeated the Galatians in central Anatolia, while Eumenes II expanded the territory south to the Taurus Mountains. Later, Attalos II would found the coastal city of Antalya.
At its height of power, the Kingdom of Pergamon controlled the majority of western Anatolia. And at its peak, the city’s population grew to as big as 150,000 – huge for the time period.
And Pergamon wasn’t just successful militarily, but it was a thriving cultural center as well. Pergamon became one of the leading producers of sculptures during the Hellenistic era, and local sculptures were known to be incredibly detailed. Later on, sculptors from Pergamon moved to Aphrodisias, giving rise to the renowned school of sculpture there.
The Kingdom of Pergamon had been a close ally of Rome, and the two powers fought side by side against both the Macedonians and the Seleucids. And when Attalos III died in 133 BC without an heir, he entrusted his kingdom to Rome.
Pergamon thrived for awhile as the capital of Roman Asia before that honor was eventually transferred to Ephesus.
Like many of its neighbors, Pergamon would also become an early center of Christianity. But the Byzantines would dismantle many of the notable Attalid and Roman monuments, and Pergamon would never again live up to its former glory.
The ruins of Pergamon are now spread throughout the modern town of Bergama. The main attractions are the Acropolis, the hilltop administrative center, the Asclepion, a prominent healing center, and the Red Basilica, a unique temple dedicated to the Egyptian pantheon.
The building complex known as the Asclepion functioned as a healing center and was among the most famous of its kind in the ancient world.
Built outside the city at the foot of Mt. Geykili, it was connected with central Pergamon by a 1 km-long ‘sacred road’ lined with shops selling medicine and probably talismans.
According to legend, it was founded in the 4th century BC by a local nobleman named Archias. Having injured his foot in a hunting accident, he was healed at an Asclepion in Epidaurus, Greece. Upon his return home, he sought to establish something similar in Pergamon.
At the entrance to the road was a special entrance gate where physicians would examine patients and determine if they were suitable for treatment.
The long colonnaded street, like many other features of the Aclepion, was added during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138).
Alongside the road, you’ll pass by an interesting round Heroon, or ‘hero’s tomb,’ on your left. In ancient times, especially notable citizens would be buried in elaborate tombs placed in public places rather than at the city necropolis. It’s not known to whom this round structure belonged, however.
Entering the main precinct, notice the stump of a pillar in the center of the courtyard. According to a fascinating legend, one particularly sick patient came to the Asclepion for healing. But his illness couldn’t be cured with the typical methods, as it turned out he’d been poisoned.
Unable to do much, the physicians left him outside and called for his family. While lying on the ground, the suffering patient saw two serpents fighting each other over a bowl of milk, inadvertently spewing their venom into the bowl.
The patient then decided to drink the milk with the intention of committing suicide. But contrarily, he miraculously recovered the next day.
A famous physician named Galen observed what happened, and realized that snake venom could be used as an antidote for various bites and stings. And he erected this serpent column to commemorate the event. While the one on-site is a replica, the original is now on display at the local museum.
Galen would go on gain great fame throughout the Roman Empire, becoming the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius.
In ancient times, healing had a strong religious element to it. The Asclepion was named after Asclepios, the Greek god of healing. And also worshipped here was his daughter Hygieia (from whom we derive the word ‘hygiene’) and Telesphorus, a god of child healing.
Telesphorus, who was mainly worshipped in Anatolia, was likely introduced to the region by the Celtic Galatians who’d been defeated by Pergamon. Additionally, Appolo, the mythological father of Asclepios, was worshipped at a temple to the north.
While several temples were built throughout the Asclepion, the only one that survives intact is the unique two-story Temple of Telesphorus.
Entered via a long dark passageway, the temple also functioned as a dormitory where patients would sleep by a statue of Asclepios. Upon waking, they would describe their dreams to the physician, who would then determine the best type of treatment.
While many of the Asclepion’s practices sound rather superstitious today, numerous important medical breakthroughs were discovered here as well.
As mentioned, the antidote for stings and bites was discovered by Galen. And local physicians also developed an early form of anesthesia, indicating that surgeries were carried out here. Massage therapy was commonplace too.
Physicians were also experts in herbal remedies, with garlic being one of the most common prescriptions. In fact, wild garlic still grows around the area.
Following the initial diagnosis at the temple dorm rooms, there were plenty of other habitation rooms throughout the Asclepion, only the foundations of which remain. Apparently, dream interpretations would continue throughout a patient’s stay.
Around the Asclepion were fountains and pools in which patients would bathe, while sometimes immersing themselves in mud. And the sound of flowing water was believed to have a soothing effect on stressed patients.
The large central courtyard was once entirely surrounded by colonnaded porticoes. And on your way to the theater, you’ll pass by a well-preserved section of Ionic columns.
The local theater could fit as many as 3,500 people. It also happens to be the first theater in Anatolia with a three-story stage, though nothing remains of it today.
The presence of a theater tells us that art and music were strongly emphasized at the Asclepion. In many ancient cultures, emotional healing was considered just as important as physical rejuvenation.
This happens to be one of the better-preserved theaters you’ll find in Turkey. And walking to the top, be sure to look behind you for an excellent view of the Acropolis.
Notice the steep theater built into the side of the hill, which we’ll cover more in-depth below.
Across from the theater is one of the ancient bathing pools. And surrounding the large central courtyard are various piles of stones, some of which belonged to the elaborate porticos from the Roman period.
Nearby are also some remnants of a Hellenistic-era portico. Elsewhere around the site, meanwhile, are what appear to be the ruins of an ancient latrine.
Red Basilica (Serapeum)
Among the most interesting structures in central Bergama is the Red Basilica, also known as the Red Hall or the Serapis Temple.
Built during the Roman period in the 2nd century AD, the building complex was the largest in all of Pergamon. It once surrounded a courtyard as wide as 265 x 100 meters. While a lot has survived, many modern buildings have been constructed over parts of it.
As the name suggests, the structures here were all built using red brick – quite unique for Anatolia. But originally, it all would’ve been covered in colored marble.
Two large rotundas still survive, complete with their brickwork domes. The South Rotunda, which was probably used for religious functions, is accessible to visitors.
Attached to it is a hall containing various archaeological finds, but it could only be viewed from behind a gate during my visit.
The North Rotunda also survives in good condition. But interestingly, it’s been converted to a mosque which remains in use today.
Many Greco-Roman cities had a designated temple where the Egyptian pantheon was worshipped. Ancient Egypt was a major inspiration for Greco-Roman traditions, and many cities strove to maintain cultural and religious links with Egypt, going as far as employing Egyptian priests full-time.
Worshipped at this temple were gods likes Serapis (a Greek form of Osiris), Isis, Harpocrates (a form of Horus) and Sekhmet. Interestingly, sculptures of Sekhmet were used here in place of typical columns.
While, as far as we know, no such Sekhmet columns existed at temples in Egypt, certain areas, such as the Precinct of Mut at Karnak, featured countless identical statues of the goddess.
Sekhmet, the consort of Ptah, was a fierce form of the Great Mother Goddess, who simultaneously represented destruction and healing.
One of the 8.5 m-high sculptures was recently restored in which the lioness takes on a distinctly Roman appearance.
In the center of the courtyard is what functioned as the main temple. Its towering walls remain intact, with only the roof missing.
It originally contained marble flooring and a podium for the main cult image. There was also a basin for holy water, and either side of the hall would’ve been lined with columns.
The Byzantines later built a church within the structure in the 5th century, the foundations of which can still be seen.
Before or after visiting the Acropolis, there are a few other sites of interest around modern Bergama to check out during your stay.
Additionally, not covered below are two tumuli located to the south of the city which served as the burial places for Attalid kings. They’re known as Maltepe Tumulus and Yigmatepe Tumulus, and both are clearly marked on Google Maps.
Northeast of the Asclepion are various remnants of a Roman amphitheater as well as an ancient gate. While not essential for the casual tourist, it can be fun to seek out these ruins which now coexist with the modern city of Bergama.
While I didn’t feel unsafe at any point, just be forewarned that the adjacent neighborhood appears rather rough around the edges.
If you’re not up for it, you can get a clear view of these surviving structures from the top of the Acropolis. And likewise, this area also offers one of the clearest views of the Acropolis from the ground.
The Bergama Archaeological Museum
At some point during your visit, be sure to visit the Bergama Archaeological Museum. As German archaeological teams were excavating the ruins of Pergamon for much of the 20th century, this museum was built by German architects in the 1930s to house the findings.
Most works come from the Acropolis, Asclepion, and Red Basilica as well as smaller neighboring towns.
Around the museum, you’ll encounter numerous sculptures, an art form which Pergamon was widely known for. Among them is a bust of Alexander the Great as well as an intact statue of Hadrian, originally found at the Asclepion.
Speaking of Hadrian, you’ll also find a letter from him to the city. In it, he denies local officials permission to build him a temple, as Pergamon already had temples for Augustus and Trajan. But he did at least grant permission for his statue to be displayed at the Trajaneum, the temple of his adoptive father.
The museum also contains a large number of smaller findings discovered throughout the Acropolis, along with a large mosaic piece in impeccable condition.
Modeled after the Acropolis of Athens, this hill was home to Pergamon’s most important religious and administrative structures. The hilltop also served as a residence for the ruling elite, while those of a slightly lower status lived along the middle.
The Acropolis can be accessed via cablecar, walkable from the town center, which is a quick and fun way to get there. While you’ll get a slight discount for buying a roundtrip ticket, don’t do it.
As you’ll see toward the end of this Pergamon guide, the best way to explore the Acropolis is to take the cablecar up and then walk down. Otherwise, you’ll miss a lot of significant monuments.
Arriving at the upper cablecar station and heading north toward the center of the ruins, the first landmark you’ll encounter is the Citadel Gate. It was fortified as early as the 4th century BC and then expanded by Philetairos (r. 282-263 BC), the founder of the Attalid dynasty.
It was later expanded further during the reign of Eumenes II (r. 197-159 BC), who also added numerous gates and towers.
On the other side of the defensive wall were a series of elaborate peristyle houses occupied by the royal family. But little more than foundations remain today.
Continuing northwest, you’ll find yourself approaching the Trajaneum, arguably the highlight of the entire Acropolis.
The huge temple complex, which takes up a large portion of the hilltop, was built for the Imperial cult of Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD). Initially constructed during his reign, it was later enlarged by his successor, Hadrian.
As was common in those times, the temple was dually dedicated to both emperor and god, in this case, Zeus.
Large piles of stone now line either side of the entry path, all of which are believed to have once been part of the temple.
The freestanding main temple, situated in the center, was built atop a tall marble podium. And it was surrounded on all sides by halls and Corinthian columns, some of which remain standing.
It surely would’ve been an impressive sight visible from all over the lower city.
While we’re not certain, the temple was likely destroyed during Byzantine times. They obviously had little interest in maintaining a pagan Imperial cult, and they were also worried about impending Arab raids.
And so they incorporated the temple walls that were facing the valley into a new fortification wall.
The temple as we see it today wasn’t reconstructed until the 1960s with help from German archaeologists. Over the centuries, much of the marble had already been plundered to be burned for lime. But the team did a great job considering what little they had to work with.
Despite most of the temple having been plundered, some remarkable pieces were salvaged from the ruins. Look closely at the pediment to see carvings of faces and intricate geometrical and floral patterns. It rests on especially ornate Corinthian columns.
In the apse at the end of the east hall, meanwhile, you can see the remains of an armored statue (the original is now at the museum).
And part of the other side’s pediment now rests on the large podium.
Also be sure to walk through the barrel-vaulted rooms, which you can see on your way to the theater. But first, go and explore the Arsenal Terrace before returning to the temple.
The Arsenal Terrace & Aqueducts
At the edge of the Acropolis are the remains of a 2nd-century Roman aqueduct which helped supply water for much of the city, including the local bathhouses. You can also see the remnants of the old defensive walls.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, is what appears to be an ancient cistern.
But the real reason to explore this terrace is for the views. In addition to modern Bergama’s city center, the other end of the terrace offers a scenic vantage point of the river Caicus.
Towards the Theater
When finished, head back to the Trajaneum and down into the series of barrel-vaulted chambers which remain in excellent condition.
The five chambers likely came in handy for storage. But as the walls were once plastered over, experts believe that some of these rooms were used for religious ceremonies.
It was around here that the armored statue now on display in the temple’s east hall (see above) was originally found. Later in the Middle Ages, some of the chambers were converted into cisterns.
Keep on walking until you come out the other end. You’ll then find yourself overlooking one of Pergamon’s most awe-inspiring landmarks, the theater.
Pergamon’s theater – built right into the side of the hill – is the very steepest in the ancient world. Those with a fear of heights might not want to look down from the top row!
But if you do, you’ll get a clear few of modern Bergama below. And just behind the stage area are the ruins of the former Temple of Dionysus.
Originally, there would’ve been a stage building behind the orchestra, albeit a temporary one that could be dismantled to keep the views unobstructed.
The theater could fit as many as 10,000 spectators. And like at Ephesus, it wasn’t only used for entertainment purposes, but also political assemblies.
Be sure to descend to the lower level to take it all in from below. While not in the best condition, one can still picture what an amazing experience it would’ve been to watch a performance here with thousands of other people.
You can also walk around the Temple of Dionysus, of which little remains. In the Greco-Roman world, things like entertainment, which we often deem as purely secular today, had religious elements to them.
And offerings to Dionysus, the god of theater and wine, would’ve been carried out before each performance. Looking back, you can get a clear view of the long terrace that stretches all the way to the other end of the Acropolis.
Next, walk to the opposite end of the terrace and walk up the path taking you east. You should then find yourself back at the highest level of the Acropolis.
The Great Altar of Zeus
As seen today, the Great Altar of Zeus is one of the most unassuming sections of the Acropolis. And modern visitors would be forgiven for overlooking it entirely.
But here once stood what was once Pergamon’s most remarkable structure – both historically and architecturally.
The altar was commissioned around 180 BC by King Eumenes II in commemoration of Pergamon’s military victories. Appropriately, many of the scenes depicted the Olympians’ victory over the Titans.
The friezes are among the most famous of the ancient world. Even centuries later during Roman times, the altar was hailed as one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
Today, only a small section of the original steps remains. So where’s the rest?
In the 19th century, a German engineer and archaeologist named Carl Humann was touring the Acropolis when he happened to discover one piece of the altar frieze. Highly impressed, he was determined to come back and find more.
The altar had already been dismantled during Byzantine times. As the Christian Byzantines had little interest in preserving pagan art – no matter how impeccable the artwork – they used the marble carvings as part of a new fortification wall instead.
The carvings were facing inward, with the flat backs of the marble facing outward, which is why they went undetected for so long. Humann and his team then spent seven months excavating friezes, purchasing them from the Ottomans, a close German ally. He then sent them to Berlin, where they remain to this day.
In Germany, the friezes were pieced together and placed along a full-scale recreation of the original altar. And an entire museum was built to house it. Known simply as the Pergamon Museum, it remains a major attraction on Berlin’s Museum Island.
But today, many in Turkey want Germany to return the altar to Bergama. The Germans, however, claim that not only was it legally purchased, but local villagers had been burning vast quantities of marble to create lime. Had Humann not sent everything to Germany, the Altar of Zeus may have been lost for good.
This dramatic series of events isn’t the only thing the Altar of Zeus is known for. In the Book of Revelation, there’s a quote mentioning the seat of Satan himself as being located in Pergamon. And some scholars believe it was a reference to the altar!
The Temple of Athena
Nearby the Great Altar of Zeus was a temple for Athena, his daughter (among many, many offspring). Athena also happened to be the patron deity of Pergamon, which is why her temple sits at the highest level.
Hardly anything remains, but you can still get a clear idea of its size. The temple was built in the 4th century BC and was surrounded by Doric columns. Only the stumps are left now.
Just next to the Temple of Athena was the Library. This is yet another former structure that hardly looks like much today, but was once renowned throughout the ancient world.
In fact, Pergamon’s library, established by King Eumenes II, was the second-largest in the world after that of Alexandria! It once held as many as 200,000 scrolls.
According to legend, Marc Anthony carried off the entire collection in 41 BC and gifted them to Cleopatra, despite her already ruling out of Alexandria.
Situated just outside the city walls was the Heroon, or tombs and cult temples of the Pergamon royal family. Descendants of the deceased would come here and regularly present offerings to their ancestors, as was common in those times.
Also around the area, one can make out a narrow street that would’ve been lined with storehouses.
Descent to Building Z
Now having seen all the main landmarks at the top, it’s time to walk down the hill on foot. Note that if you leave the Acropolis via cablecar, you’ll end up missing all the following landmarks in this Pergamon guide.
Making your descent, you’ll first pass by some interesting ruins such as those of a bath complex.
You’ll also pass by the remains of an additional Heroon. This one likely served as a cult center for a prominent citizen. The head of a statue was discovered here, with the original now on display at the local museum.
Further down the hill, be sure to stop in the structure simply called ‘Building Z.’ It was likely built during Hellenistic times and continued to be used throughout the Roman era. It’s mainly worth visiting for its well-preserved mosaics, discovered in 1990.
Though there are several mosaics on display in their original location, the highlight here is the piece depicting a multitude of highly expressive theater masks.
The building’s masonry and pillars remain in good condition as well.
Sanctuary of Hera / Demeter
Building Z is situated in between two terraces – one of which functioned as a temple for the Greek goddess Hera, and the other for Demeter.
Little remains of either, though they would’ve consisted of numerous columns, large podiums and cult statues.
There are so many old stones scattered about this part of the Acropolis that it can sometimes be hard to tell which ruins belonged to which monument.
The next section is the highlight of the lower portion of the Acropolis. Here you’ll find the remains of a vast gymnasium complex, spread across three different levels.
Physical fitness was highly emphasized by Greco-Roman society, and gymnasiums were an integral part of every major city. Like many other structures at the Acropolis, the gymnasium was first built in the Hellenistic era during the reign of Eumenes II.
The uppermost level was designated for adult males, with the lower levels being used by younger boys. Just behind the gymnasium was an Odeon, a theater-like structure reserved for smaller musical performances.
And over in the distance, you’ll spot the ruins of a bathhouse complex, which were always situated next to gymnasiums for obvious reasons.
Not too much remains intact, but many of the columns surrounding the wide-open courtyard are standing in place. The gymnasium is easily one of the most visually interesting sections of Pergamon, so be sure not to miss it.
Near the bottom is the Gate of Eumenes II, part of a fortification wall he built during his reign. It closely resembles one of the surviving towers at the very top.
The Lower Agora
Past the tower is the House of Consul Attalos, a peristyle Hellenistic house. While inaccessible at the time of my visit, by peeking through the gate I could spot both well-preserved floor mosaics in addition to wall paintings.
Finally, just before exiting the site, you’ll walk past the Lower Agora, also constructed during the reign of Eumenes II. Originally surrounded by Doric stoa on all sides, it once would’ve been ancient Pergamon’s most bustling marketplace.
Bergama is an easy minibus ride from Izmir’s main otogar (bus terminal). But as is often the case with these buses, there’s no timetable posted at the bus terminal. They seem to leave every hour or so, with the ride lasting 2-3 hours depending on traffic.
At the time of my visit, the bus ride from Izmir cost 22 TL, but prices are always changing due to inflation.
For those coming from the north, the closest major town is Ayvalık, about 90 minutes away. Ayvalık would be a good place to break up the journey for those coming from the ruins of Troy (Çanakkale).
But if you want to visit straight from Çanakkale, there are indeed buses available and the ride should take about 5 hours.
There are also direct buses to Bergama from cities like Istanbul and Bursa.
Note that the main Bergama bus terminal is located far outside the city center, about 8 km to the southwest. But there’s supposed to be a free shuttle service to central Bergama.
In my case, both when arriving from Izmir and departing for Ayvalık, there was no need to visit the main terminal. There is a smaller terminal labelled ‘Kantar Son Durak’ on Maps.me which is walkable from the city center. And many minibuses to neighboring cities will stop here. Just be sure to confirm at your hotel before you depart.
Bergama is a small city. As long as you’re based somewhere in the center, all of the landmarks mentioned in the Pergamon guide above should be walkable.
There are surprisingly few Bergama hotels listed online. I ended up choosing Anil Hotel which was a nice hotel with friendly staff located just across from the Bergama Archaeology Museum.
It cost about 18 euro per night which did not include breakfast. While completely reasonable by international standards, it was a lot pricier than most hotels I stayed at in Turkey. Therefore, I limited my stay to just one night, but this was enough to see everything in the guide above.
The Asclepion, the Red House and the Acropolis each require their own entry tickets. At the time of my visit, the Asclepion cost 45 TL, the Red House 10 TL, and the Acropolis another 45 (not including the cablecar). But expect prices to be a little different by the time of your visit.
Pergamon gets much fewer visitors than Ephesus, though you should still expect to encounter some tour groups, especially at the Acropolis.
If you’re arriving in Bergama in the afternoon, it would be wise to start with the sites around lower Bergama, such as the Asclepion, Red House and museum.
Then, the first thing next morning, head to the Acropolis cablecar station. It can be reached on foot in about twenty minutes from the city center and starts running from 8:30.
Arriving early, you should have the whole place to yourself for awhile. And even if not, the crowds will be easy to avoid.
As mentioned above, be sure to just buy a one-way ticket, as many of the landmarks can only be seen by walking down.
At the time of my visit, a one-way cable car ride cost 30 TL, with the roundtrip ticket costing 50.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.