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Pamukkale: Turkey’s Ancient Roman Spa

Even ten miles distant Pamukkale is an extraordinary sight, a dazzling, bleached-limestone plateau rising an abrupt 400 feet from a flat and dry valley. Beautiful but incongruous, it seems to float on a hazy edge of reality until, as you draw closer, its massive whiteness sharpens and deepens in detail. Graceful ripples and convolutions appear, frozen forever into the rock face. Snow-white stalactites and rivulets of water glint in the sun. Still, shallow pools mirror the bright blue sky. The beauty is so overwhelming -- so unexpected -- that even the most jaded traveler is stunned into silence.


But that’s nothing new: Pamukkale has amazed visitors for all of recorded history, and probably a good deal longer. It was, after all, one of the world’s first thermal-water resorts, a mecca for ancient spa-goers. Evidence exists that, about 3500 years ago, the Hittites erected a religious shrine on the site. The early historian Xenophon wrote that King Darius of Persia spent the winter of 401 B.C. here with his entire army, soaking away the travails of battle. The Apostle Philip was murdered here in 80 A.D. and, a few years later, the Roman emperor Hadrian came to enjoy the waters.

It’s these same waters that have, quite literally, made Pamukkale what it is. Thanks to a tectonic fault, a hot volcanic spring, high in calcium salts, has an outlet atop the plateau. For at least 14,000 years water has thus bubbled upward from the earth’s depths, flowed along the ground, and tumbled over the high cliff edge, gradually forming a few square miles of glistening-white limestone layers. These calcinated deposits, influenced by wind, weather and water-flow, take on fantastic shapes: there are fifty-foot-high stalactite waterfalls, evenly-stepped travertines, shallow petal-shaped pools and deeper basins, and large flat expanses resembling fields of snow.

As if sheer beauty and a dip in curative thermal waters weren’t enough to make Pamukkale interesting, listen to this: sharing its clifftop are the well-preserved ruins of a small but wealthy ancient Roman city. Already thriving by the time of Hadrian’s visit, Hierapolis, which means "Holy City", was crowded with temples. It also contained an immense theatre, a one-mile-long colonnaded street, a necropolis, a gymnasium, an agora (marketplace) and two splendid baths.

Despite this visual splendor and fascinating history, I’d never even heard of Pamukkale until I visited Turkey. Once there, though, it was hard to ignore the place: huge posters of the snowy white travertines and stalactites were proudly displayed in every single train, bus and ferry station we entered, not to mention car-rental agencies, tourist offices, caf‚s, covered markets, and airports. One night in a tiny town on the Black Sea -- clear on the other side of the country -- I slept in a room papered floor to ceiling with posters of Pamukkale’s sky-blue pools and glistening limestone.

At some point a visit became one of life’s inevitabilities: we had to see the place, if only to satisfy our curiosity. And so, when we found ourselves on the Aegean coast a few hours from Pamukkale, we turned inland.

We caught our first sight of the travertines the minute the road carried us past Denizli, a prosperous valley town ten miles south of Pamukkale. Dead ahead were the white cliffs which, at that distance, look a little like a palace for giants (the word Pamukkale means "cotton castle" in Turkish). The road eventually wound beside and then atop the cliffs, where we found a few small hotels sharing the plateau with the limestone formations and the Roman ruins of Hierapolis.

We found accommodations in the Beltes Hotel. The decor was simple, but our room was big and high-ceilinged, with a mesmerizing view of the valley far below. The best thing about it, however, was this: we could jump through the sliding doors at the far side and into our very own, very private thermal pool. But the day was too hot to spend immersed in volcanic waters and, besides, we were anxious to explore. Leaving the pool for later, we took off on our first stroll through the travertines.

Most guidebooks use words like fairy-tale world, wonderland, and dreamscape to describe Pamukkale, and when I moved onto the limestone, leaving the everyday world behind, I understood why.

All that surrounded me was white limestone glinting in the sun and shallow travertine pools reflecting the pale blue of a cloudless sky. The limestone’s shape and angle changed constant-ly, from puffs of cotton to steep-sided stalactites to long and flat fields. Here and there water flowed, descending, pool by pool, to the valley floor. My senses were constantly set off balance. When I walked across a flat white expanse, I expected the crunch of snow but met the resistance of rock. Wading barefoot through a basin seemed like walking upside-down on the sky. Like Dorothy in Oz, I felt transported to another dimension -- or at least to an eerily beautiful landscape unlike anything I’d ever known.

That night we ate in an al fresco restaurant overlooking the travertines. As the sun set and the sky darkened, the pools turned darker blue, then purple, and, finally, black. In the valley below farmers were burning their crop residues, and the small fires twinkled as we ate. Later, as we gazed down from our private thermal pool, the fires had died out and the valley had become a large expanse of darkness -- it might have been the Aegean sea, bounded only by the lights of Denizli on the far southern shore.

Next morning, after a leisurely breakfast overlooking the travertines, we took off to explore the ruins of Hierapolis. Founded during the Hellenistic era (3rd century B.C.), the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 A.D. and restored over the next century by the Romans. Hierapolis reached its peak of wealth and fame in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., a time in which many monumental temples and other structures were erected. Repeated earthquakes finally destroyed the city for good, and it was eventually deserted. Thanks to excavation and partial restoration, however, today’s visitor can catch a glimpse of Hieropolean life.

One of the most impressive buildings is the large 2nd century Roman baths, with its massive walls and arched vaults. The Romans spent much of their lives in baths, using them less for cleansing than for ceremonies, sports, chatting, showing off, and just generally hanging out. In fact, some historians have compared a day at the Roman baths to a day at a popular modern beach. The Hierapolis baths contained a steam room, cold and hot pools, an enclosed sports field, and two ceremonial rooms measuring 120’ x 170’, both faced with high-quality marble.

Today, a portion of the baths has been transformed into a small museum holding finds from local excavations. There’s something immensely satisfying about studying these ancient artifacts on their home turf. Marble sculpture and reliefs, jewelry, sarcophagi, cookware, vases and utensils -- all played a role in the everyday world of Hierapolis.

Perhaps the city’s best-preserved structure is the theatre, which contains fairly intact marble pillars, arches, statuary and reliefs. In its heydey the theatre could hold 15,000 people, and many of its rising rows of seats remain. Performances are sometimes held in summer on the beautifully restored stage.

By lunchtime there was still much to see. The famed necropolis awaited us, with its crumbling sarcophagi and mausoleums. And we hadn’t yet visited the Temple of Apollo, or the early Christian monument built to honor St. Philip, or the Byzantine Gate, or the agora…

But the day had turned hot -- too hot to continue tramping through ruins, no matter how fascinating. We opted for lunch and a swim, planning to continue our historical tour in early evening.

And what a swim! For a few dollars we gained entry to the Turizm Hotel and its bubbling springs. Two thousand years ago, on this very spot, the ancient spa-lovers immersed themselves in the "Sacred Pool". An immensely popular place, the pool was surrounded by marble columns and a Roman portico. When earthquakes finally destroyed Hierapolis, the columns and other marble structures fell into the pool.

The pool remains, as do the fluted columns, which makes swimming here a bit like floating over the ruins of Atlantis or some magic kingdom. Surrounded by roses, oleander, hibiscus, cypress, cedar and mulberry trees, the pool’s small offshoot canals meander under walking bridges or past mysterious, submerged gateways. I swam for hours, occasionally sunning on a piece of carved marble jutting from the water.

That night, after another glorious sunset, we strolled to the theatre, climbed to the highest seats, and sat silently beneath a butter-colored moon. From our aerie we could gaze over the ruins of Hierapolis, across the shadowed travertines of Pamukkale, and into the darkened valley. I thought of Hadrian sitting here, of Darius resting nearby, of the Hittites erecting a shrine, and for a brief second the years separating us disappeared: we were all simple pilgrims in a very long tradition, I felt, at one with the past, present, and future.

Then a match flared on the stage below, breaking the moment. A silky laugh rang out, and the scent of thyme and roasting lamb wafted through the night air. We stood, suddenly hungry, and headed off to dinner.

Note: This article originally appeared as a Sunday travel-section cover story in the Los Angeles Times. The Turkish tourism office informs me that, at certain times, visitors can no longer wade in the shallow basin pools.