This Bible History Daily article was originally published in July 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.
Perched atop a windswept mountain along the Turkish coastline and gazing proudly—almost defiantly—over the azure Aegean Sea sit the ruins of ancient Pergamon. Although the majority of its superb intact monuments now sit in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, enough remains of the acropolis for the visitor to sense the former greatness of the city that once rivaled Alexandria, Ephesus and Antioch in culture and commerce, and whose scientific advancements in the field of medicine resonate through the corridors of today’s medical treatment facilities. Juxtaposed sharply against this image of enlightened learning is that of “Satan’s Throne,” as described by the prophet John of Patmos (Revelation 2:12-13), which some scholars interpret as referring to the Great Altar of Pergamon, one of the most magnificent surviving structures from the Greco-Roman world.1
The modern visitor approaches the site from the steep and winding road that leads from the modern Turkish city of Bergama just a few miles away. Upon reaching the ruins, the commanding panoramic view from Pergamon’s 1,000-foot-high perch makes it easy to understand how this city once dominated the entire region. It was a proud city in its time, and it had reason to be so. Its monuments and building were constructed of high-quality white marble in the finest Hellenistic style, and its library rivaled that of the famed library of Alexandria in Egypt. In the mid-second century A.D., it became known throughout the Mediterranean world as a center of ancient medicine, largely due to the presence of the eminent Roman physician Galen (c. 129–200 A.D.), who was born in ancient Pergamon.
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Pergamon rose to prominence during the years of the Greek empire’s division following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. His short-lived empire was partitioned among his generals, with General Lysimachus inheriting the then-settlement of Pergamon and its wealth. Due largely to its strategic position along land and sea trading routes and in part to the wealth of the Attalid kings who ruled the kingdom, the city enjoyed centuries of prosperity that continued when it passed peacefullly to Rome’s control in 133 B.C. From that point on, Pergamon’s fate was inextricably linked to that of Rome, and it rose and fell in tandem with the great Roman Empire.
The oldest and arguably most beautiful section of Pergamon is also its highest. The acropolis of Pergamon rises triumphantly over the ruins of the city that cascades down the steep slopes to the valley below. One of the most dramatic structures of the acropolis was what scholars believe to be the Temple of Zeus, the massive foundations of which are all that remain on the southern slope of the site. The altar believed to be associated with the temple, known today as the Great Altar of Pergamon, was moved to Berlin in the 19th century by German archaeologists, who evidently had an easy time getting permission for its removal from the indifferent authorities of the Ottoman empire.
Walking north from the Temple of Zeus and site of the Great Altar of Pergamon, one encounters the remains of the Temple of Athena, constructed at the end of the fourth century or beginning of the third century B.C., and dedicated to the city’s patron goddess. Just beyond that to the northwest is the magnificent structure that was the city’s famous library. While the estimated 200,000 documents of both papyrus and parchment may be rather high (Seneca estimates that approximately 40,000 volumes were catalogued in the larger library of Alexandria), it was certainly one of the largest collections of written material in the ancient world and was famous throughout the Mediterranean. It also housed one of the most extravagant wedding gifts of all time: Marc Antony is said to have presented Cleopatra with a sizable portion of the Pergamon library’s collection, in part to restore Alexandria’s own collection that went up in flames during Julius Caesar’s occupation of the city.
The best-preserved ancient sacred structure on ancient Pergamon’s acropolis is the Temple of Trajan, built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.)and dedicated to his deified predecessor. Towering imposingly over the surrounding structures and ruins, its commanding presence is a testament to the strength of the imperial cult.
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It is hard to imagine, gazing up at its enormous height, that this was actually one of the smaller sacred structures in the temple precinct of the acropolis. The sheer size and majesty of the building against the dramatic backdrop of the valley below and the ocean and sky beyond is truly awe-inspiring.
Every ancient Greek city worth its name boasted a theater. A place for both entertainment and civic gatherings, the theater was a focal point of public life in the Greco-Roman world. The architecture of the nearly intact theater of Pergamon not only attests to the city’s importance but also provides what is surely one of the most spectacular—and dizzying—settings of the ancient world. Cascading sharply down the precipitous slope of the acropolis toward the sea, the theater is one of the steepest of its kind. The 10,000 visitors would have had to carefully navigate the 80 rows of horizontal seating, lest they take a fatal tumble to the stage more than 120 vertical feet below. Like many ancient Greek theaters, the theater at Pergamon is an acoustic marvel: An actor (or tourist) speaking normally on the stage can be heard even at the top of the cavea (seating structure).
During the second century A.D., Pergamon’s fame as a center of healing and medical science eclipsed its reputation for anything else. Its most celebrated citizen during this period was the physician Galen, whose work and research was largely responsible for providing the foundation from which modern western medicine was to spring. The asclepion at ancient Pergamon was one of the most famous in the ancient world, and this ancient version of a medical spa attracted pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean region who came seeking the restorative powers of its thermal waters and medical treatments for various ailments and injuries.
Given the fact that they city represented the epitome of Hellenistic culture, traditions and religion in both its pursuits and its very architecture, it is perhaps not surprising that early Christians viewed it as a bastion of all that was anathematic to Christian beliefs. In the Book of Revelation, John conveys a message from the risen Christ to seven Christian congregations in Asia Minor, all of which are located in modern Turkey. Pergamon’s congregation was one of these, and Christ’s message to the faithful praises them for adhering to their faith while living in the place “where Satan dwells.” Antipas, a Christian bishop of Pergamon, was believed to have been martyred here at the end of the first century A.D., around the time when many scholars believe the Book of Revelation was composed. The execution of their bishop certainly would not have endeared the city to its Christian inhabitants, and the Biblical reference to the city is reflective of the general tension between Christian and pagan communities at the end of the first century A.D.
As part of the Roman Empire, Pergamon’s decline mirrored that of the empire as a whole. Like the rest of the region, it eventually came under Byzantine and then Ottoman rule. By the late 19th century, excavations had begun at the ancient site, and today it draws people from all over the world. Climbing up to the peak of the acropolis, the modern visitor can easily sense the echo of Pergamon’s glorious past, which can still be heard amongst the beauty of its marble ruins today.
This Bible History Daily article was originally published on July 16, 2013.
Sarah Yeomans is Director of Educational Programs at the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington, D.C. She is an archaeologist specializing in the Imperial period of the Roman Empire with a particular emphasis on religions and ancient science. Yeomans is a faculty member in the department of religious studies at West Virginia University. In addition, she is pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost Fellow, and is a Mayers Fellow at the Huntington Library and Museum in Los Angeles. Yeomans holds an M.A. in archaeology from the University of Sheffield, England, and an M.A. in art history from USC. She has conducted archaeological fieldwork in Israel, Italy, Turkey, France and England and has worked on several television and film productions, most recently as an interviewed expert on Fox’s The Nativity: Facts, Fiction and Faith. Her current research involves ancient Roman medical technology and cult, as well as the impact of epidemics on Roman society. She is generally happiest when covered in dirt, roaming archaeological sites somewhere in the Mediterranean region.