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Posted By Sarah Yeomans On November 16, 2014 @ 10:07 am In Biblical Archaeology Sites | 18 Comments
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 16, 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.
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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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.
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.
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