Pergamon, Bergama, Pergamum Turkey


The home of Parchment / The home of Altar of Zeus

The name Pergamon comes from Pargama which is a derivation of “Paraga (u) ma” meaning “People of the High Land” or “Town of People of the High Land” in the Luwi language. The name seems to have a connection to “parrai” in Luwian, meaning “high”, of which the Hittite equivalent is “parku”.

Basically, Bergama is a modern city with the characteristic features of a typical Turkish village. Its fame and exceptional fascination for the tourist derive from the presence in the vicinity of the vestiges of ancient Pergamum (Greek, Pergamon), one of the most famous cities in the Ancient World. The site where the ancient settlements developed is situated in a fertile plain irrigated by the waters of the river Bergama Cayi (the ancient Selinus) and of the rivers Kestel and Bakir. Even though historical mention of it has not been ascertained prior to the 4th century BC, the opinion generally held is that the origins of the city are by far earlier. Various archaeological finds datable to the Stone Age testify to the antiquity of the first human settlements. The history of what then became one of the most flourishing Hellenistic cities began with the dismemberment of the immense Persian Empire, after the death of Alexander the Great. Lysimachus, who received the western part of Anatolia, chose the impervious site of Pergamon as the hiding place for a considerable treasure. Philetairos, a faithful follower, succeeded in preserving the integrity of the treasure and the possession of the city when Lysimachus died, despite attempts on the part of Antiochus I. His grandson Eumenes I proclaimed the independence of the new realm of Bergama (3rd cent. BC), which with his successors, in particular, Eumenes II, shone in the fields of economy, the arts, the sciences, and the culture. With the death of Attalus II, in 133 BC, the Kingdom of Pergamon, lacking natural heirs, was pacifically taken over by the Roman Senate which thus reaped the harvest of old agreements and alliances. Under the Capitoline standard, the city enjoyed a great new period of development which manifested itself in the construction of splendid buildings and in the restoration of various monuments of the past. Later Marc Antonius presented Cleopatra with the city's rich library, the books of which, of incalculable value, were eventually destroyed in a fire in Egypt. The decadence of Pergamum, now known as Pergamum, followed the disintegration of the Roman empire step by step. The seat of a diocese in the Christian period, it was surrounded by new city walls by the Byzantines who reused material of Hellenistic and Roman provenance in its construction. After 716, Pergamum was taken over by the Arabs and passed under the control of the Turks in the first half of the 14th century.

Archaeological Excavations

The history of the archaeological excavations began in the second half of the 19th century when the archaeologists C. Humann, A. Conze, and R. Bohn brought to, light the upper portion of the city. Later excavations, conducted between 1900 and 1913 by W. Dörpfeld, H. Hepding, and P. Schatzmann, uncovered the lower levels. Work undertaken by T. Wiegand between 1927 and 1936 hoped to find a precise identification for some of the illustrious buildings of the past. The most recent excavations began in 1957 and were directed by E. Boehringer with excellent results, while further investigation is on course to restore in their entirety all that remains of the monuments and artistic treasures of the past.

The vestiges of numerous private and public buildings and temples have been found along the vast extension of the Acropolis, which occupies the highest part of the city. This is where the famous Library built in the time of Eumenes II (2nd cent. BC) once stood. It soon became famous throughout the Ancient World for its wealth of volumes, estimated at over 200,000, and was long a rival of the equally famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The enormous statue of Athena, now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, once stood in the Library.

The Temple of Trajan

The ruins of the Temple of Trajan, built to honor the cult of the deified Trajan, lie on a terrace that dominates the remains of the library. It was a Corinthian temple, with a row of six columns on the short sides and nine on the long sides. The remains of two statues dedicated to Trajan and to his successor Hadrian, under whom the construction of the temple was terminated between 117 and 118 AD, were also found here.

The vestiges of the majestic Temple of Athena have been shifted to the right over the theater. The Propylaeum of the temple with its elegant double columned portico has been faithfully rebuilt in the Berlin Museum. It originally decorated with fine reliefs, was erected in the 3rd century BC, in line with the architectural canons of the Doric order and had six columns on the short sides and ten on the longer ones. The nearby Theatre was probably built in the Hellenistic period during the reign of Eumenes II (2nd cent. BC) although some hypotheses date it as far back as the 4th century BC The imposing structure is enumerated among the most scenographic in antiquity. The steep cavea, set against the slope of the hill, was divided into six sectors in its upper part and seven below and had an audience capacity of 10,000 with perfect acoustics. Not far from the theater is the Temple of Dionysios, built in the 2nd century BC and restored in the imperial age by Caracalla, after the original building had been gutted by fire.

Among the other outstanding elements on the Acropolis, mention must be made of the scanty traces of what remains of the Altar of Zeus. Built to celebrate the victory over the Galatians during the reign of Eumenes II (2nd cent. BC) it has been moved and faithfully rebuilt in Berlin, one of the highlights of the museum. The fine frieze depicting episodes of the Gigantomachy, and counted among the greatest masterpieces of the Pergamene sculptor's art, was also taken to Berlin together with the structures of the altar.

The ruins of another Hellenistic temple dedicated to the cult of Hera can also be seen in the vicinity. Built under Attalos I, at the turn of the 3rd century BC, the obvious restorations date to Roman times. Other buildings that lie immediately below the Acropolis include various constructions used as a gymnasium and for baths.

At the foot of the slope of the Acropolis, right where the river Bergama Cayi flows, stand the imposing vestiges of the so-called Red Court or Red Basilica, originally a Serapeion built under Hadrian (2nd cent. AD). The curious name derives from the intense color of the bricks with which it was built. Signs of later transformation, in the Byzantine period, into a basilica, can still be seen. Two subterranean galleries consented the outflow of the waters of the ancient Selinus. In the environs, a Roman bridge with three arches can be identified.

The so-called Sacred Way, once flanked by columns, leads to what remains of the Aesculapium, without a doubt the best-known temple of ancient Pergamon. It already existed in pre-Roman times and was consecrated in honor of Aesculapius, god of medicine. All that is left of this imposing complex in which healing and worship went hand in hand, are the ruins of the Propylaea erected in the 2nd century AD, a few re-erected columns, and traces of the library, a circular temple originally covered with a dome, as well as rooms destined for baths. The annexed Theatre held up to 3,500 spectators and is still used for summer spectacles.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis was founded on a sheltered hill which is 26 km. inland from the seashore and 335 m. high, unlike the other cities in the region. The Acropolis displayed an impressive sight from afar with its grandeur in the olden days and still is impressive scenery for today's visitors. Archaeological evidence places the earliest settlement back to the Bronze Age, but Pergamum made its way into history in the 4th century BC as one of the four kingdoms established at the end of 40-year wars among Diadochi after Alexander the Great's death. Lysimachus, who was in control of western Anatolia, entrusted Pergamum to one of his generals, Philetaerus, together with an enormous treasury. However, Philetaerus betrayed Lysimachus. After having Lysimachus killed on the battlefield, he took possession of the treasure which he used to glorify Pergamon and to secure his position. Though Attalus I was the first ruler to use the title “King” after defeating warrior Galatians, Philetaerus is accepted as the founder of the Attalid Dynasty transforming the small city-state of Bergama into a powerful and independent kingdom.

Tradition tells that the Pergamene Army was intimidated by the coming inevitable war with the Galatians in 230 BC. In the ceremony held before the war to gain the support of the gods, Attalus I held the liver of the sacrificed animal (Haruspicium) before his army and everybody witnessed the writing “Victory to the King” on it. Pergamum army found courage in this miracle interpreting the phenomena as a divine signal from the gods and overcame the Galatians. Rumor tells that Attalus I had the words reversely inked in his hand and created the writing by pressing his hand on the liver. This victory brought great fame to Attalus I and Pergamum became an independent Kingdom.

Roman legions entered Asia Minor for the first time under the command of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus when Seleucid Emperor Antiochus III started to interfere with Rome too much while Rome was busy incorporating Greece and Macedonia into the empire. Pergamum did side Rome in the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC against the Seleucids and as a result, gained great advantage from the Treaty of Apamea. Rome, not after establishing permanent control over Asia yet, had left the rule of a great portion of Western Anatolia to Bergama while dividing Seleucid territory among the allies as to establish equilibrium against Seleucid Empire. Thus, it reached the height of its boundaries who had been a loyal supporter of Rome.

The Acropolis rose on substructures of vaults and arches to gain flat ground for the monumental buildings; can be compared to the Acropolis of Athens in many ways. Nevertheless, as seen in the Zeus Altar that is detached to any temple and situated at a location dominating the plain, religion was not the priority in the planning and reconstruction of Pergamum acropolis. The Altar of Zeus is one of the most beautiful examples of Hellenistic architecture and well-known in the world with the high relief frieze decoration named “Gigantomachy” depicting the enormous battle of the Olympian gods against the Giants, which in fact symbolizes the war between the kings and the Galatians. The Altar can be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin today.

The Library of Bergama

The Library of Bergama was one of the two famed libraries in the ancient world until Marcus Antonius, in an attempt to prove his love for Cleopatra, moved the scrolls to Egypt in 41 BC. The library which had been founded next to the sacred site of the goddess Athena, the symbol of wisdom, had reached a dazzling number of 200.000 scrolls owing to the kings who were fond of arts and sciences. But Ptolemy V Epiphanes was worried that the library would surpass the one in Alexandria and therefore banned trading of papyrus to Pergamon. This resulted in the lack of papyrus after some time and Pergamenes started using a material made from the processed animal skin to write on. It is presumed that this process was known to Western Anatolia in the earlier ages too but it was from Bergama that it became widespread and thus named Charta Pergamena, meaning Pergamon Paper (Pergament). Parchment is credited for carrying the arts and sciences of antiquity to Renaissance being more durable than papyrus. Very first copies of Bible, Quran, Hippocratic Oath, Magna Charta and the United States Declaration of Independence were all written on parchments. It was not easy to make rolls of thick parchments and so they made books called Codex, by dividing the parchments into pages. Papyrus, however, possible to read thoroughly, was difficult to find a certain part of the text and was not used after some time. Books, written documents and any kind of printed media is still sacred in present-day Bergama, which has been enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014 as itself and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape. Today, if a printed material is found in the streets, at least it is simply tucked in a cavity of a tree to keep safe from destruction.

Citizens of the city were not so much fond of Attalus III who had little interest in ruling the area but mostly remained in his palace studying botany and especially toxicology, experimenting the sample poisons on the imprisoned convicts. The book he wrote on agriculture became an important source of reference for the Romans in the following centuries. He died without leaving an heir in 133 BC and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. Rome, whose interest in Asia had grown considerably with time, did not hesitate to suppress Aristonicus (Eumenes III) who claimed the throne and established Asia Province in 129 BC.

At first, it was an independent city with many privileges like Attalus III had wished in his will but not for long.

In ancient Rome, it was the publican's duty to collect the taxes from the states, who bid the highest in the auctions. Apparently, it was quite probable for publicans to acquire a great fortune during his tenure. However it was possible to file a lawsuit against the publican who exploited the public in cooperation with the governors, it was also possible to bribe and buy the judges. This corruption was the reason for the growing public dislike and reaction against the Roman Republic. It was a common idea that a "publicanus" needed three fortunes; one for paying his debts, one for bribing the judges when he has filed charges and another one to supply his own life.

King Mithridates IV of Pontus marched on Asian Province in 88 BC to gain control of Anatolia, taking advantage of the public reaction against the Roman administration and he was welcomed as a life saver. 80.000 Romans who have arrived from Rome under commercial or administrative missions were massacred in one night (Asiatic Vespers), which led Rome to take severe measures in Asia and an army was deployed under the command of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. But shortly, Sulla was called back due to the unrest in Rome and his army was replaced with another one under the command of Flaccus and Fimbria. Flaccus was murdered by Fimbria on the way. Sulla, in a hurry, to return Rome, enforced Mithridates to peace, which was defeated by Fimbria in a number of battles and then marched on Fimbria himself. Fimbria took refuge in Bergama when his army joined Sulla and committed suicide with his own sword in Asclepion. After the peace and order were back in Asian Province on behalf of Rome, the special status of it that had been the command center for Mithridates was removed forever. Ephesus would benefit from this new condition as the new capital of Asian Province.


Trajan Temple which had a tremendous water system that was built using combined vessels technique and carried up to 30 to 35 thousand cubic meters of water to the Acropolis at considerably high pressure like 20 ATU, keeps impressing the world as one of the great masterpieces of Roman architecture. The theater which has the steepest cavea in the world is another must-see masterpiece in Pergamon.

See Also: Private Tour of Pergamum