Ancient Pergamon

City of science...and satan?

Pergamon’s strategic location along both land and sea trading routes contributed to its prosperity. Pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean region would flock to the city to engage in commerce or to visit the famous Ascelpion, a center of medical treatments.

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 peacefully 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.

Pergamon’s strategic location along both land and sea trading routes contributed to its prosperity. Pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean region would flock to the city to engage in commerce or to visit the famous Ascelpion, a center of medical treatments.

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: Mark 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 Great Altar of Pergamon is considered to be one of the greatest surviving monuments from antiquity. Now located in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, the altar is thought by many scholars to be the “throne of Satan,” referred to by the prophet John in the Book of Revelations. (Revelation 2:12-13)

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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The Temple of Trajan, or the Trajaneum. The towering structure attests to the strength of the imperial cult in the city. After Augustus became the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Pergamon was authorized to become the first imperial cult center in the east.

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.

Overcoming vertigo, the author stands in the middle tier of the three-tiered theater of Pergamon, the steepest known theater from the Greco-Roman world.

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 among the beauty of its marble ruins today.



1. See Adela Yarbro Colins, “Satan’s Throne,” BAR, May/June 2006.

sarah-yeomans-2Sarah Yeomans is an archaeologist specializing in the Imperial period of the Roman Empire with a particular emphasis on ancient science and religion. Currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California, she also consults as Director of Educational Programs at the Biblical Archaeology Society and is adjunct faculty at both St. Mary’s College of Maryland and West Virginia University. A native Californian, Sarah holds a M.A. in archaeology from the University of Sheffield, England, and a M.A. in art history from the University of Southern California. 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 The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. She is a Provost Fellow at the University of Southern California and is the recipient of a Research Fellowship from the American Research Institute of Turkey (ARIT) as well as a Mayers Fellowship at the Huntington Library and Museum in Los Angeles. 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.

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on July 16, 2013.


13 Responses

  1. robin Ward says:

    To paul
    Evolution is contrary to creation
    The human race did NOT exist millions of years ago , and did not ” develop” a thumb. Humans were created in the image of God , and God already had a thumb , thanks
    see further explanations in the book DREAMLANDS re evolution and creation
    There is NOT enough time in evolution to have “developed” the human EYE——let alone anything else

    angelfire 2

  2. Keith says:

    Interesting article. Too bad the first sentence is innaccurate: “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.”
    Bergama / Pergamon is not on the coastline, so it does not rise over the azure Aegean Sea. That leaves an inaccurate impression, which unfortunately raises questions about further accuracy of the author. Google Maps will point this out.

  3. 10 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Satan | ratermob says:

    […] not the end of the story. In the mid-19th century, a German engineer named Carl Humann visited the ruined city. He petitioned the respective governments to excavate the city and remove and take what artifacts […]

  4. Charles says:

    NOTE to Paul says: One’s authority is undermined when the distinction between altar and alter is not understood. In this age of texting, we may have become acclimated to bad spelling, but sometimes it fundamentallychanges meaning.

  5. The pagan personality | Household Scribe says:

    […] is described as dwelling where Satan’s throne is, and even though I believe there’s a historical context to this, I think it’s also indicative, at the same time, of the fact that those who live […]

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    […] There in Pergamon is The Temple of Zeus.… […]

  8. rodney allsworth says:

    I find it interesting that the alter of Pergamum was dismantled by the Germans and rebuilt in Germany in the 1930s just prior to the rise of the Hitler govt and the 2nd WW, one can only assume that the Germans of that time had some understanding of the connections of the God Zeus -THE GREEK GO , THE INTELLECTECTUAL WORLD BASE, AND THE GOD OF THIS WORLD BEING SATAN, it says to me that Hitler was always going to send the Jews to the fires of the holocaust as a sacrifice to the god of this world Satan, in essence he was going to be the GOD OF THIS WORLD FOR A THOUSAND YRS, remember the 3rd RIECH. he would be the man in power under the rule of the Satanic rule of Satan himself, it is a true counterfeit to the millennium reign of the Lord Jesus Christ after he returns to, rule with an Iron rod, one also remembers the speeches Hitler used to give with great oratory flair, -were we hearing from the pit of hell and the mouth of Satan himself. one wonders one does,
    Rodney Allsworth

  9. Dallas Kennedy says:

    It’s not true that the library at Alexandria was burned by Christians. There’s a theory (probably wrong) that Julius Caesar accidentally burned it in 48 BCE, anothe theory that it was damaged during a civil war in the 200s CE (possible), and a third that it was burned by Christians at the end of the 300s CE (detailed accounts of the destruction of the pagan temple, the Serapeum, but no mention of the library — the books had probably been already plundered or removed to Constantinople). Sources 5 centuries after the event sometimes attribute the destruction to the Caliph Omar, when his army conquered Egypt — the certainly fictitious story that, if the library did not contradict the Koran, it was redundant, and, if it did, the library was evil — so Omar ordered it burned.

    Anyway, the “satanic” aspect of Pergamon was not connected with the library, but with the Temple of Zeus and the worship of the Roman emperors.

    Pergamon was important not only for having the second largest library of the Roman empire, but because that is apparently where the codex (the bound book) was invented, in the 200s BCE. Between the first and fourth centuries CE, the codex overtook the scroll as the preferred format for first Christian, then eventually all, Greco-Roman literature. Christians apparently adopted the codex to distinguish themselves from Jews, who continued to use scrolls for the Torah (five books of Moses). Later, Jews adopted the codex for lesser scripture (prophets and writings), but not the Torah.

  10. Paul Ballotta says:

    An early account of Jewish assimilation into Greek culture comes from 1 Maccabees 1:11-15, describing the erection of a gymnasium where all attendies were nude and apparently Jews needed to cover the sign of the covenant because someone was offended by it.
    I imagine the place was adorned with statues of god and goddesses, headless and armless, as if to convey the message that it is not what you think and do that matters, but the status of your body. “Vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
    John writes the church at Pergamon admonishing them not to “hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:15), a reference to a lifestyle that benfits those who profit from vice.. That word is derived from the winged goddess of victory, Nike. Since it was the Greeks who brought us the Olypmics, I can now make reference to the sports apparel giant, Nike, one of many Olympic sponsors. Along comes gold medal winner Michael Phelps with peculiarly large feet that may indicate a genetic characteristic that still survives in the collective human genome. Perhaps a glimpse; from ancient Babylonian accounts of prehistoric “apkullu” who founded civilzation, there is a half-man, half-fish being is among the “Seven Sages.”
    Some people (who make a profit) were offended when Phelps was photographed taking a hit off a bong. Something that they percieve runs counter to the obsessive body-image culture they’re trying to promote.
    It states in Eccesiastes 9:11 that “the race is not to the swift,” and the years leading up to the German Blitzkreig (when the men unceasingly goose-stepped around not being allowed to think after burning the books) saw the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in which Jesse Owens won the 200-meter race and “the spectators rose as one to pay tribute to the American Negro athlete from Ohio State, and the applause was thunderous. Of course, by that time Hitler again had left the stadium” (Chronical of the 20th Century, p.460).

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  12. Allan Rchardson says:

    It is interesting how a certain religious temperament, by no means confined to Christianity, considers science to BE satanic. The library at Alexandria, a few centuries after being refreshed under Cleopatra, was burned again, more completely this time, by the people who controlled the Roman government at that time … the Christians. This short-sighted destruction of a culture branded “totally satanic” by that generation of Christians may have deprived later generations of a head start on the Renaissance by destroying a great deal of knowledge and technology. And even today, some leaders of both the Christian and Muslim faiths are denying scientific evidence, thus hampering the progress of humanity.

    As pro-humanistic Christians and Jews we ought to honor the city for which the best book medium for books since papyrus and until paper was named: Pergamon, city of parchment.

  13. Rob Palmer says:

    With the intensive bombing of Berlin in WW II, it is amazing that this stuff survives. It might have been better if they had left it in Turkey. I wonder how much was lost. Or possibly British target selectors put it on the “do not bomb here” list.

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