sights / Historic

Lonely Planet review

Hierapolis' location atop the tourist magnet that is the 'Cotton Castle' seems to have blessed it with a budget rather more ample than that of most Turkish archaeological sites. The orderly paved pathways, well-trimmed hedges, flower-filled expanses, wooden bridge walkways and array of shady park benches make Hierapolis far more genteel than Ephesus (or anywhere else in Turkey). Wild and raw it is not, but for those wishing, or needing, to see an ancient site on flat and well-maintained terrain, this is the place.

The curvaceous mountaintop means that the city's ruins are relatively compact, with the main sites easily accessible. The ruins evoke life in a bygone era, in which Greeks, Romans and Jews, pagans and Christians, and spa tourists peacefully co-existed.

Indeed, Hierapolis became a curative centre when founded around 190 BC by Eumenes II of Pergamum. It prospered under the Romans, even more so under the Byzantines, when large Jewish and Orthodox Christian communities comprised most of the population. However, recurrent earthquakes brought disaster, and Hierapolis was finally abandoned after a 1334 tremor.

Entering at the southern gate, start near the Archaeology Museum for the ruined Byzantine church and Temple of Apollo foundations. As at Didyma and Delphi, eunuch priests tended the temple's oracle. Its alleged power derived from an adjoining spring, the Plutonium (named after the underworld god Pluto). Apparently only the priests understood the secret of holding one's breath around the toxic fumes that billowed up from Hades, immediately killing the small animals and birds they sacrificed.

To see this lethal spring, walk towards the Roman theatre , enter the first gate in the right-hand fence, then follow the right-hand path down. At the big, block-like temple on the left, a small subterranean entrance is closed by a rusted grate, with a sign reading 'Tehlikelidir Zehirli Gaz' (Dangerous Poisonous Gas). Here the gases can indeed be heard bubbling up from below.

The spectacular Roman theatre, built in stages by emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus could seat over 12,000 spectators. The stage mostly survives, along with some decorative panels and the front-row, VIP 'box' seats.

From the theatre, rough tracks lead uphill to the less-visited but fascinating Martyrium of St Philip the Apostle , an intricate octagonal structure on terrain where St Philip was supposedly martyred. The arches of the eight individual chapels, marked with crosses, originally had heptagonal interiors.

Differing accounts from ancient sources have created confusion over precisely which Philip was commemorated here – if it really was Jesus' apostle, he was allegedly hung upside down from a tree after challenging the pagan snake-worshippers at their nearby temple. An apocryphal ancient source claims that at Philip's death, a yawning abyss opened in the earth, swallowing up the Roman proconsul, the snake-worshippers, their temple and about 7,000 hapless bystanders. Righteous!

Whichever Philip was martyred here, his body has reportedly been found about 40m away, in a Byzantine structure excavated by Italian archaeologists. The sensational news of August 2011 revived interest in St Philip and Hierapolis. Considering that his martyrium clearly suffered fire damage in the 5th century, it's possible that the unearthed body was indeed relocated from the martyrium then.

Across the western hillside is the completely ruined Hellenistic theatre , above the 2nd-century agora . One of the largest ever discovered, it was surrounded by marble porticoes with Ionic columns on three sides, and closed by a basilica on the fourth.

Walking downhill through the agora, you'll re-emerge on the ridgeline main path. Turn right towards the northern exit for the colonnaded Frontinus Street , with some original paving and columns remaining. Monumental archways once bounded both ends of this, the city's main commercial thoroughfare. The ruined Arch of Domitian , with its twin towers, is at the northern end; just before them, the large latrine building has two floor channels, for sewage and for fresh water.

Beyond the Arch of Domitian are the ruined Roman baths , and further past these, Hierapolis' Appian Way. An extraordinary necropolis (cemetery) extends several kilometres northwards. The clustered circular tombs here probably belonged to the many ancient spa tourists whom Hierapolitan healers failed to cure.