Hierapolis is an ancient Phrygian city located in Pamukkale, within the provincial borders of Denizli in south-western Turkey, about 10 km north of the ruins of Laodicea. The city was probably established by Eumenes II of Pergamon in 190 BC on a crossroad connecting the inner region of Anatolia to the Aegean Sea on the west. Founded at the site of an ancient cult, Hierapolis became a sacred city (hieron) and was dedicated to Apollo Lairbenos. Its chief religious festival was the Letoia, named after the goddess Leto. Hierapolis was famed for its sacred hot springs whose vapours were associated with Pluto, the god of the underworld. Hierapolis was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and has become a popular tourist destination due to its extraordinary landscape formed by calcite-laden waters.
Usually said to be founded by Eumenes II, king of Pergamum, Hierapolis may actually have been established earlier in the 3rd century BC by the Seleucid dynasty. Two theories exist regarding its name. According to Stephanus of Byzantium, the name Hierapolis, meaning “holy city”, was chosen because of the religious traditions that developped in the area. The second theory suggests that the town was named for Hiera, wife of Telephus, the mythical founder of Pergamum.
Set high on a terrace formed by cascades of white travertine pools, its hot springs were believed to have healing properties and people came to the city to bathe in the rich mineral waters in order to cure various ailments. Ceded to Rome in 133 BC, the Hellenistic city grew into a flourishing Roman town and became one of the richest cities in Asia Minor. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD, the city was extensively rebuilt and subsequently reached its peak of importance in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
In the 1st century AD Hierapolis was characterized by an intense construction activity, mainly pursued by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty. In the 2nd century the theatre and the monumental Agora was built. In 129 AD, Hierapolis was probably visited by Hadrian who, as a sign of generosity, had earlier returned the “aurum coronarium”, a large sum of money offered by the city to celebrate his accession to the throne. Under Septimius Severus, the city continued to grow and to thrive and it received its first (and only) neocoria (a grant to build temples to the Emperor and various administrative privileges) under Caracalla who visited the city in 215 AD.
Hierapolis city had a significant Jewish population, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd century AD, which facilitated the early spread of Christianity. According to tradition, the apostle Philip’s martyrdom occurred in Hierapolis in 80 AD and a church dedicated to him was built in the 5th century. With its several churches, Hierapolis became an important religious centre in the Byzantine years.
Hierapolis was first excavated towards the late 19th century and systematic excavations were started in 1957 by the Italian Archaeological Mission which is still carrying out research, as well as maintenance and restoration works on the archaeological site. The Museum of Hierapolis opened in 1970 in the Roman baths in order to accommodate the findings. The remains of Hierapolis extend over a large area and are particularly impressive. They include baths, temples, a monumental arch, nymphaea, necropolises and a theatre.
“This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground…[…] Any animal that passes inside meets instant death” Strabo (Geography 13.4.14)
Christian symbol over the arches of the Martyrium of St. Philip.
Christian symbol over the arches of the Martyrium of St. Philip.
Laodicea on the Lycus (Latin: Laodicea ad Lycum) is an ancient city in present-day western Turkey, near the modern town of Denizli. The city was founded in the 3rd century BC on the river Lycus by the Seleucid King Antiochus II in honour of his wife, Laodice. The city became one of the most important and flourishing commercial centres of Asia Minor on the trade route from the East, famous for its woollen and cotton cloths. Laodicea was one of the Seven Churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation (1.11, 3.14-22) as well as in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (4.16). The site was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List in 2013.
Laodicea was built on a high plateau overlooking the Lycus River Valley and covered more than five square kilometres. Excavations have shown that the town was settled continuously from the Chalcolithic Period (5500 BC) to the 7th century AD. The name of the settlement was, in turn, Rhoas (Asopos Hill), Diopolis (City of Zeus) and finally Laodicea (Laodikeia). In 188 BC the city became part of the Kingdom of Pergamon and later passed into Roman hands in 133 BC when the last King of Pergamon, Attalus III, left the whole of his empire to Rome. Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman, served as governor of the province, residing mostly in Laodicea. In 60 BC during the reign of Nero, the city was levelled by a powerful earthquake but was later rebuilt entirely. The city lived its hey-days again at the beginning of 2nd century AD and in the 3rd century AD, during the reigns of Roman emperors Hadrian and Caracalla.
Laodicea became an important commercial centre thanks to its location on the crossroads of major trade routes: north-south between Sardis and Perga and east-west from the Euphrates to Ephesus. The most important trade was textiles. Besides, marble, grain and livestock commerce also provided an essential income to the city. The land was fertile, and the pastures produced great flocks of sheep.
The city gained prominence as a Christian centre and as a place of religious pilgrimage in the Early Byzantine Period. Extant churches among the ruins date from the 4th-7th centuries AD. A well-preserved Church built during the reign Constantine the Great was discovered in 2010 using ground-penetrating radar. The excavations and restorations of this large basilica structure have been almost completed in the past two years. By the end of the 5th century AD, another powerful earthquake destroyed Laodicea, and the city lost its importance. It was never rebuilt, and its inhabitants moved to nearby cities such as Denizli.
Today, Laodicea boasts impressive remains of the ancient city including two theatres, the biggest stadium of Anatolia, four bath complexes, five agoras, five nymphaea, temples, churches and monumental colonnaded streets. In the last seven years, excavation work in the ancient city has unearthed some 2,300 artefacts as well as the Laodicean Church, the monumental columns of the Sacred Agora, and a “water law” marble block dating back to AD 114. Restoration work of the western (Hellenistic) theatre is currently being conducted and is expected to be completed by the end of 2020. Finally, a three-metre-high statue of Trajan was unearthed in 2019. The statue depicts the emperor dressed in full military regalia towering over a much smaller figure of a prisoner.