The more we visit ancient sites, the more we realise we need to keep returning. Twice we’ve been to Hierapolis, and, after doing research for this article, I’m very keen for us to get back there and hunt out all the little details I’ve come across online. Those finer details that you miss as you wander around a vast site, photographing as you go along.
Journey To Hierapolis
For now, however, let’s continue with the tale of our road trip around Southwest Turkey. After a night on the Greek island of Meis and a quick stopover in Kaş, we hit the mountain roads and headed north for Denizli.
The joint UNESCO World Heritage sites of Pamukkale and Hierapolis lie just to the northwest of the city and it was time to return after a 13 year gap.
Climbing the dazzling white travertines of Pamukkale was great fun and certainly more impressive than our previous visit.
We lingered here for some time – but the ruins of Hierapolis were like a magnet for us, drawing us further up the travertine hillside towards the ancient city. A city where our only memory was of the stupendous theatre.
Definitely time to get reacquainted…
The contrast was stark. We all know that tourism in Turkey had been at a very low point at this time. To say that Chinese tourists have propped up the tourism economy in this part of Turkey is probably an understatement.
And whilst the travertines were by no means rammed with visitors, the ones that were there were predominantly Chinese. Around 95%. And of this 95%, it seems only around 2% wanted to visit the Hierapolis. Once more, we had some UNESCO World Heritage listed ancient ruins (almost) all to ourselves. No complaints from us.
Exploring Hierapolis Once More
We stood at the entrance to the Hierapolis ruins. Had we really been here before? Certainly the memory wasn’t jogged. We must have raced round on that first visit. On our second visit, guess what day it was. Monday!
So whilst the site was open, the Hierapolis museum was closed, as are all museums in Turkey on a Monday. We seem to make a habit of this.
Hierapolis Hot Springs And Cleopatra’s Pool
Anyway, not to worry. Much more to keep us occupied and, first of all, we took ourselves off to the antique pools so we could get up close and personal with Cleopatra’s Pool.
Hierapolis sacred city was a Phrygian city founded in 190BC by the king of Pergamum, Eumenes II. There are many unknowns and theories surrounding the history of Hierapolis but what is known is that people flocked here to be healed by the waters of the Hierapolis hot springs.
Cleopatra’s pool – of course, it’s said that she came to bathe here (she allegedly bathed in lots of places in what is now Turkey) – was surrounded by columns, possibly from the Temple of Apollo.
Following an earthquake, the columns toppled into the thermal pool and today, you can bathe in those same thermal waters; columns and Roman artefacts lying on the surface beneath you.
We didn’t bathe in the Hierapolis Cleopatra pool, and, as you can see, apart from a couple of people out of shot, there was only the lady you can see in the distance enjoying the warmth of the 36 degree water temperatures. This place is usually packed solid. Not for our visit, however.
Hierapolis Church With Pillars
Glorious, early autumnal skies – a vibrant blue dotted with brilliant white plumes of cloud – rolling hills with sunken and excavated ruins. Bronte-esque! Eerie, lonely, wild and beautiful as we pressed on, further into the ancient city.
This place is a rambler’s dream. We clambered through the ruins of the ‘church with pillars.’ So called because its structure is different to the cathedral and basilica ruins elsewhere in Hierapolis.
We were struggling to make out any type of church structure at all – there’s still a lot of excavation to be done around here – but early Christianity is very much in evidence at Hierapolis.
Like we said, lots of theories and ‘possibles’ and ‘maybes’ surround Hierapolis. Like where the name ‘Hierapolis’ comes from. ‘Hierapolis’ means ‘Holy City’ in ancient Greek.
Was this the name given to it during the city’s Hellenistic period because there were so many temples? Or was it named Hierapolis after the wife (as was customary) of the founder of the Pergamene dynasty, Hiera (or Hiero)? More ‘possibles’ and ‘maybes’ to come…
The Temple Of Apollo And The Plutonium
You can choose whichever direction you like to wander around Hierapolis. But, it’s got to be said, we were lead by our desire to see the theatre again so we were slowly making our way in that direction. After the church with pillars, we found ourselves at the site of the Temple of Apollo.
Not that we knew. No signs and all was fenced off. Only the foundations and a few pillars are visible but Apollo was generally worshipped here as the divine founder of Hierapolis. His mother, Leto, was also worshipped here. Apparently, orgiastic festivals were held at Hierapolis in her honour.
But it’s the Plutonium that really put Hierapolis on the archaeological map in recent years. In 2013, Italian architect, Francesco D’Andria and his team, claimed they had found ‘The Gates of Hell,’ just next to the temple of Apollo.
In Greek and Roman times, this entrance was known as the entrance to the underground and the residence of Pluto/Hades (the respective Roman and Greek gods of the underworld).
The ‘Gates of Hell’ emitted poisonous gases. Birds that flew close by would die. Only the priests could go near the entrance without being affected. Those poisonous gases were CO2 and they’re still being released to this day, hence the entrance being sealed off.
There are photos galore on the internet, however, so at some point in the past, people have been allowed to risk getting their prized shot! Rather them than us.
The Temple Nymphaeum, Hierapolis
Just next to the Temple of Apollo is the Temple Nymphaeum. This is the first structure we came across that was quite intact and recognisable for what it was. Not that we’re complaining. We were in love with the sky, the scenery, the whole abandoned feel of the site.
The Temple Nymphaeum was a shrine to the nymphs. And, as in many other ancient Roman cities, supplied water to the people of the city of Hierapolis. Back in the day, it was a huge monumental fountain but it also had a sophisticated network of pipes that carried water all around the city.
Onwards To The Hierapolis Theatre
Ahh, just look at that sky. Just perfect exploration – and photo taking – weather. We pressed on towards the theatre and, if you’ve never seen the inside before, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth your efforts climbing up the hill to get to it. Trust us, it’s well worth your efforts.
It’s easy to get a feeling when travelling around Turkey of, ‘Yeah, yeah, another town, another ancient theatre.’ Theatre fatigue!
Hierapolis theatre is different…
You enter at the top (if you’re not too good on your feet, or if it’s just too hot to climb, mini buses will bring you up the hill) and are immediately faced with one of the best preserved ancient theatres in Turkey, if not the world.
Much of what we see in Hierapolis today is Roman era. A huge earthquake destroyed Hierapolis in the reign of Nero in 60AD. Rebuilding occurred afterwards and this theatre was started in 62AD.
An Italian team excavated and restored the theatre in the 1970s and, for us, it’s even more impressive than the great theatre at the ancient site of Ephesus. It’s more compact but feels ginormous – almost a dizzying feeling to look down from the top towards the stage area.
You can see around the whole of Hierapolis and beyond, right out across the countryside of the Denizli Province. And the stage, lacking in many other ancient theatres, brings the whole thing to life. This is where the locals watched the gladiators in battle.
Hierapolis In The Bible
It seems Hierapolis was a fascinating melting pot and you really can lose yourself in some serious history, here. Greek gods and goddesses, Roman gods and goddess, Anatolian gods and goddesses – Roman Leto and Anatolian Kybele worshipped as one and the same.
Hierapolis also had an established Jewish population and early Christianity was very much making its mark, too.
More ‘possibles’ and ‘maybes’ here. Hierapolis is home to the Martyrium of St. Philip. His tomb was uncovered by the same archaeologist of ‘Gates of Hell’ fame and dates to the 5th Century AD.
However, whilst there definitely was a Philip of Phrygia, there is much debate as to whether he was Philip the Apostle (as mentioned in the Book of Matthew) or Philip the Evangelist (as mentioned in the Book of Acts).
Whichever he was, he met an untimely death by being crucified – possibly by upside down crucifixion, maybe by being hung upside down from a tree.
Elsewhere in the Bible, Hierapolis itself gets a mention along with its neighbouring ancient city, Laodicea. This is in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Always a bit of a head mash for me that real life history in the country we now live in meets childhood Sunday school stories.
The claims to fame for Hierapolis don’t end there, either. As we started to head over to the opposite side of the site (be sure not to skip this – many people do as they don’t realise it’s there), we passed partially submerged tombs in the hillside.
Not unlike the submerged tombs of the necropolis at Cadianda, near Fethiye. These tombs were just a tiny fragment of what was to come.
You see, Hierapolis is home to one of the best preserved and largest necropolises in Turkey. If the architecture of tombs is your thing, well, fill your boot when you’re here.
We didn’t venture too far into the necropolis. It’s huge – 2km worth – and, as you can see, the autumn sun was starting to dip.
If you’ve got time on your hands when you’re exploring Hierapolis, however, keep an eye out for Hellenistic tombs that date back to the 2nd Century BC. There are tombs from the Roman era, tombs of the Jewish population and also those of the early Christians.
As well as the well-to-do families, there are also smaller simple tombs of the ‘common people.’ And why such a huge necropolis? Well if you’re a city full of doctors using the Hierapolis hot springs to heal the sick, you’re a city that’s going to attract a lot of sick people. We guess many were too sick to be healed by the simple pleasures of a hot bath!
Roman Baths At Hierapolis
The largest intact building at Hierapolis is the Great Baths. This is now home to the archaeological museum – yes, the one that’s closed on Mondays – and all the statues and other finds from excavations in the area. Another bath house is to be found as you walk towards the necropolis; the two imposing arches you can see in the photo.
By the 4th Century AD, Christianity had apparently taken such a hold and been accepted that the Roman baths in the photo above were constructed into a basilica. These are now known as the Church Baths. And now, time to press on to the final significant (excavated) area of Hierapolis before we return to the Pamukkale travertines for the sunset.
Frontinus Street And The Arch Of Domitian
Apparently, the Frontinus Gate was originally 2 storeys high. The Frontinus Street that it opens up to is where you can really get a feel for some of the daily life of the city.
This grand entrance to the city, supported by circular towers similar to those at the ruins of Perge in Antalya, was built by Julius Frontinus in 82-83AD and dedicated to the emperor, Domitian.
Hierapolis was finally abandoned in the 1300s after yet another earthquake, the Mongol invasion and because of the waters it was so famous for. The city was becoming submerged in its own calcified waters. When the Frontinus Street was excavated, archaeologists had to break through two metres of travertine to get to the paving stones.
We’re glad they made the effort. This street was the heart of Hierapolis during the Roman era and the structure you can see in the photo, just through the arches? This was the public latrine. As public loos go, the Romans seemed to like a grand experience.
Of course, the Hierapolis Frontinus Street was more than just a toilet stop. This was where shops and other businesses lined each side of the street. The road lead through the South Byzantine Gate and eventually, out of the city to connect with Laodicea.
Leaving Hierapolis For The Sunset
We’d come full circle by now. Some sections of Hierapolis we’d explored in detail, others…well, as with most sites, we need to return another day to take it all in. Neat footpaths led us back to the main parking area; ruins, tombs, travertines and rose bushes lining our route.
It was time to catch the sunset on the glowing white hillside and then go and find somewhere to stay for the night…
Hierapolis Pamukkale Useful Information
- Hierapolis is a joint site, along with the Pamukkale travertines, and has a single entrance fee (35 TL 2018).
- The site lies 20km north of the city of Denizli.
- The site is open daily but the museum is closed on Mondays.
- If you want to swim in the Hierapolis Antique Pool there is a separate entrance fee (30 TL 2018). Your fee is for two hours. Bring your own swimwear and towel. There are lockers and changing rooms.
- If you don’t want to swim, but want to enjoy watching the pool, there is seating and cafeteria. There is no entrance fee to the cafeteria area.
- Many websites say three hours is enough to explore this site. However, if you’re an archaeology / ancient history fan and you want to experience the travertines and the Hierapolis thermal antique pools, too, we’d recommend setting a whole day aside.
- Whatever the time of year, the Hierapolis ruins are very much overlooked by visitors. Whilst this is sad, if you’re the person who loves to explore, you’ll get to do so without having the battle the crowds and reap the rewards. Hierapolis is very much worth your leisurely time and research.
- You can pre-book organised tours to Hierapolis and Pamukkale through TripAdvisor’s Viator website.