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What is Hierapolis?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Hierapolis is an ancient city in Turkey. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1988. It is located on top of the Pamukkale hot springs, and is not far from the city of Danizli.

In the ancient world, it was quite common for temples and sacred places to be centered on natural phenomena such as hot springs. As early as the 3rd century BCE a temple dedicated to Hieron was built by the Phrygians on the site that would eventually become Hierapolis.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

In the 2nd century BCE, Hierapolis was developed into an actual spa. It was gifted to the king of Pergamon, Eumenes II by Rome. The origin of the name Hierapolis is disputed. Some believe it was simply adapting the earlier name of the temple to Hieron. Others believe it was named in honor of Hiera, the wife of Telephos, who is said to have founded the Attalid dynasty.

Hierapolis quickly grew in popularity as a medical resort, with the waters of the hot springs praised for their healing properties. When the final king of the Attalid dynasty lay dying, he returned Hierapolis to Rome. Over the next century and a half the city transformed from its Greek roots to a truly Roman town.

At the beginning of the 1st century Hierapolis was ravaged by an earthquake, and a few decades later, during the time of Nero, it was almost entirely destroyed by another earthquake. The city was rebuilt nearly from scratch, this time fully in the Roman style. Over the next two centuries Hierapolis flourished, with Hadrian building the famous theater, and expansion continuing apace.

In the early-3rd century, the city was granted the distinction of Neocoros by the emperor Caracalla. This gave Hierapolis a number of special privileges in the Roman legal system, including granting it the right of true sanctuary. The city boomed, with the population growing to more than 100,000. It was renowned throughout the world for its springs, and temples sprang up to serve the large traveling population.

Hierapolis also served as a base for both Jews and Christians. It’s estimated that at its peak the city boasted a population of some 50,000 Jews. The Christians moved in during the first half of the 1st century, and by the 4th century Christianity had almost entirely eradicated the earlier pagan faiths of the city. The sacred cave, the Plutonium, was filled with stones by Christians to symbolize this dominion, and the baths were converted to a Christian basilica.

The city was fought over during the crusades, and was ultimately abandoned near the end of the 14th century. In the early-16th century Hierapolis was once again ravaged by an earthquake, but with no population to restore it, the damage was cemented in place. The city remained largely untouched until its excavation throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries.

Hierapolis is a wonderful site for travelers interested in archeological ruins. It contains a number of beautiful remnants of both Hellanistic and Roman architecture. Most notable are the Temple of Apollo, the Nymphaeum, a shrine to nymphs in the form of an enormous fountain, the Plutonium, a deep sanctuary and shrine to the god of the underworld, the mighty theatre erected during the time of the emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus, and the Martyrium, celebrating the disciple St. Philip, who is said to have been buried here after being crucified in Hierapolis by being crucified upside-down.

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