Would the fate of Pergamum have been different if General Philetaerus had not betrayed Alexander the Great’s commander Lysimachus? Perhaps... It might have remained just an ordinary fortress-town, high atop a steep hill, rather than a small empire filled with extraordinary structures that strain the limits of human artistic creativity, power and wealth.
A CITY DEVELOPED BY TREACHERY
Philetaerus faced generals who were vying for control of the vast world that was Alexander’s legacy. Due to its secure position, Lysimachus had made Pergamum (Turkish Bergama) his base, where he deposited the spoils of his conquests. Philetaerus was supposed to defend this treasure and rule the city. But he chose betrayal instead, proclaiming his hegemony over this great wealth in 281 B.C. Thus commenced the 150-year adventure that would transform Pergamum’s fate. Philetaerus founded a dynasty, and Pergamum inscribed its name among the most splendid ever cities of history as the capital of these rich, divine kings.
Although the ancient city, located in the modern township of Bergama in Izmir province, may not be remembered as one of the seven wonders of the world, that it produced wonders is not in dispute. As proof of its glory, its gleaming buildings and ruins are still reflected today from the acropolis down the city’s steep slopes to the township below. The altar of Zeus, unmatched in the world, the temple of Athena, goddess of war, and the art collections of the kings that adorn the sacred precincts have preserved their uniqueness since antiquity,demonstrating that Pergamum’s new star which rose with Philetaerus will never be dimmed. The narrative power of the reliefs that adorn the altar of Zeus, commissioned by the fourth generation ruler Eumenes II to commemorate his victory over the Celts, and of many other structures persists to our day as the subject of entire books, in further proof of Pergamum’s greatness. Even if these works of art alone, exhibited today in the Berlin Museum, were sufficient to leave a mark on the Hellenistic age and for all time as the representatives of a new school of sculpture, Pergamum still has more to tell us. The ongoing excavations and restorations continue to convey, in striking language, the unending story and artistic power of this ancient city.
A PASSION FOR MARBLE
The excavation and restoration work conducted by the German Archaeological Institute under the leadership of Prof Dr Wolfgang Radt is revealing more of Pergamum’s glorious past by the day. One of the best examples of this is a house with a courtyard on the slopes of the acropolis, whose most salient feature is a large floor mosaic that has been recovered intact. Its walls, which reflect the Hellenistic Age, are adorned with colorful tableaux made of fine lime mortar. Radt and his team are soon going to open to the public the magnificent hall of this structure, which they believe to have been a guest house.
Palaces, temples, monuments, marketplaces, sport and recreational centers, all constructed with a refined sense of architecture on the mountainside terraces, are an indication of the wealth of Pergamum, which multiplied from the Hellenistic period to the Roman. The Romans fitted out almost the entire city with marble brought from Marmara Island. A structure known as the ‘Marble Salon’, which was brought to light on the upper slopes of the temple of Demeter, confirms their passion for this opulent building material. From an inscription and portrait found inside it, this palatial house has been identified as belonging to Diodorus Pasparus, one of Pergamum’s wealthy residents. The walls of the house are adorned with large colorful tableaux, the likes of which have never been seen.
But these are not the only eye-catching structures in Pergamum. Consider for example all the works that exhibit the power of Hellenistic engineering... A theater seating ten thousand built on a steep slope, an aqueduct made of 240,000 earthenware pipes furnishing water to the city from Mt Madra 45 km away, a system for distributing water across three valleys and two low hills to each house through bronze pipes.
A LIBRARY TO RIVAL THAT OF ALEXANDRIA
Another magnificent structure on the acropolis
is the library that rises
from a spot near the area sacred to Athena. According to ancient sources, there were some 200,000 scrolls in this library, whose walls still bear traces of its wooden bookshelves. So famous was the library, founded during the period of Eumenes II, that it rivalled the one at Alexandria in Egypt. When Egypt stopped sending papyrus, the Pergamenes invented the ‘Pergamene paper’ or parchment made from goatskin that made their city famous, and the rivalry between the two cities was further flamed. But when the library at Alexandria burned in a cruel twist of fate, Pergamum’s rich collection of documents was carried off in 41 B.C. by Anthony and given to Cleopatra.
Coming now to the lower city, an enormous red structure draws attention. This exceptional building, whose portal alone is 14 meters high, is spread over a large area with its surrounding galleries and squares. Known as the ’Red Courtyard’, this area, where a church was built in Byzantine times, actually belongs to a shrine.
Its interest lies in its being a vehicle for Egyptian beliefs. It has been suggested that the shrine, whose now exposed brick walls were once encased in marble, was dedicated to Isis, a goddess of plenty much beloved of the Romans in that period. This view is based on the many water reservoirs, deep wells and tunnels in the area and the Bergama Çayı, a small stream that flows below one of the squares, for water is the sacred substance of the Isis cult. The columns in human shape that underpin the roofs of the galleries also support the view that the structure was dedicated to Egypt’s chief goddess. These Egyptian-style male and female figures, which are five times human size, are made of marble – black for the faces, arms and feet, white for their garments.
INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
Another world-famous site uncovered in the lower city is the Asclepeium. Water, mud baths, running, and deep sleep were among the cures implemented at this center, built in honour of the health god Asclepius. Like psychologists and psychiatrists today, Asclepius’ priests interpreted dreams and recommended methods of treatment. There was also a library and a 3500-person theater for the patients’ diversion. Galen, antiquity’s most celebrated physician after Hippocrates, was born and raised in Pergamum and practised at this center. Although the Asclepeium dates to the 4th century B.C., most of the structures still standing go back to the 2nd century A.D. With its dream rooms, treatment center and other structures such as a 80-m long underground tunnel designed to keep patients from catching cold, the temple of Asclepius with its circular plan rare in Anatolia is the most intriguing among the ruins.
Text: NERMİN BAYÇIN
Images: FARUK AKBAŞ - YILDIRIM ÇELİK
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