Pergamum‘s religious interests lie in its pagan temples, in its place as the site of one of the Seven Churches, and in its role in the history of western Asia Minor. From its acropolis its kings controlled a major crossroads in the 3rd century BC. Its kings eventually ruled Aeolia, Ionia, the Troad, Phyrygia and Caria.
They showed their power both as successful generals and as patrons of the arts. Under them the city accumulated one of the largest libraries in the ancient world. It was so extensive that jealous Alexandria, which had the monopoly, tried to curtail the number of volumes in its library by putting an embargo on the export of papyrus. The king was unwilling to give up his interest, so he resorted to having his books copied on skin. Skins do not roll up the way papyrus. The king was unwilling to give up his interest, so he resorted to having his books copied on skin. Skins do not roll up the way papyrus does, but they do make pages that can be used on both sides, an advantage over papyrus that eventually made them the preferred material. The kings also built magnificent public buildings that were faced with sparkling white marble. Pergamum with its temples, theater, library, palace and agora on the acropolis was a striking city when viewed from afar. Its location and the buildings make it still an attractive tourist center.
The largest building on Pergamum’s acropolşis is the theater which can seat 20000 people. The pitch of the hill and the thermal currents of air are such that no one in the audience would ever have had difficulty either seeing or hearing what happens on stage. The excellence of the acoustical engineering of the Hellenistic builders can easily be tested if one person in the orchestra speaks in a normal voice while others listen from the top row of seats. Above the theater is the Temple to Trojan and Hadrian and next to that are the ruins of the small but famous library. The Pergamenes’ library was estimated at 200.000 volumes.
King Attalus I of Pergamum (who had worked hard to accumulate the library) faced a serious problem in 230 BC of a demoralized army that was afraid to defend the eastern border against the raiding Gauls. Attalus solved it with a resort to a combination of mass psychology and sleight-of-hand. By secretly imprinting the words, “Victory for the King!” on the liver of an animal that he was preparing for sacrifice, he inspired his men to defeat the Gauls who previously had been invincible. The emotion of that battle still live in the statue of the Dying Gaul now in the Vatican Museum in Rome.
Eumunes II followed Attalus I. Eumenes used his wealth to build the Altar to Zeus. The friezes on the outside walls depict a mythological battle between the gods and the giants which are among the most beautiful sculptures of their kind. (They are in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin; a small copy of the Altar is in the Bergama Museum in the center of town. Karl Humann was the German engineer who initiated the excavations of Pergamum when he discovered this temple in 1878.) Attalus II, brother of Eumenes II, succeeded to the throne in 159 BC. Among the events of his reign was his fight with King Prusias of Bithynia, the man who had befriended Hannibal in 183. Attalus III, nephew of Attalus II, reigned for five years. His scholarly interests turned to medicinal and poisonous plants which he tried out on condemned criminals. When he died his minters were shocked to learn that he had willed his whole country to Rome.
The large Red Basilica (Kızıl Avlu) on the Selinus (Bergama Çayı) at the edge of present-day Bergama was probably a temple dedicated in the 2nd century AD to Serapis and maybe also to Isis and Harpocrates. Later the central part was used as a church. Today one of the towers is a mosque. Gravestones in the yard in front of the building are inscribed with Hebrew characters.
Southwest of the city is the medical center, the Asclepion with its temple to the god of medicine, Asclepius. This center was next to Epidaurus on the Peloponnesus in its high reputation for healing. Asclepius was usually represented with a snake coiled around his staff; the snake which sheds its skin was a symbol of rejuvenation and of prophecy. A marble capital has been set in the center of the present grounds, its twining snakes reminding visitors of the origins of the doctors’ caduceus.
The famous physician and prolific writer, Galen, was born in Pergamum and practived medicine here in tje 2nd century AD. Among his patients was the rhetorician Aelius Aristides whose moving report on the earthquake of AD 178 that destroyed Smyrna inspired the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to rebuild the city. Aristides also recounted his dreams and visions that he had while he was under the treatment of sleep (he called it “incubation”) in the Asclepion. One of the common cures was a mud bath; Aristided took his cure in mid-winter and described it with such enthusiasm that it would seem he enjoyed ill health. Doctors at that time also used another kind of hydrotherapy in their treatment of patients: Patients were led through the cool tunnel to the round building while above them priests chanted soothingly, and under them they heard the purl of rippling water. Galen started as doctor to the gladiators; his skill was such that soon the Roman emperors were going to him.
In the valley between the Asclepion and the acropolis is one of the few amphitheaters in Anatolia. This one was build across a stream which could be blocked when the performance included a sea battle or a fight with crocodiles. Amphitheaters (completely enclosed theaters) were used for wild beast fights; such baiting of animals was a Roman pastime. Animals were either set against each other or against people. At first the entertainment involved only a few animals, but as people grew to enjoy the bloody spectacle, more were added; there is a record of as many as 11000 animals killed in a single celebration during Trajan’s reign. The prelude to the main fight was a hunt which involved the hunter’s skill in trapping an animal that was not dangerous enough to kill the man but that was nimble and clever. One such chase was for ostriches. The Emperor Domitian added a new quality to his games when he employed dwarfs and women as his gladiators.
Pergamum’s place in religious history is largely because of the paragraph addressed to its Christian believers by John in the Book of Revelation. He characterized Pergamum as the place where Satan was enthroned. Some people have thought that to be a reference to the Temple to Zeus which was on the acropolis. Some steps from the foundation were left in situ when it was sent to Berlin. John saw a group he called the Nicolatians as an additional threat to the believers. Who these people were is not clearly known. John condemned them for adultery and for eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. John also promised a white stone and hidden manna to those who repented of their false beliefs and immoral behavior.
Known in Helennistic and Roman times as Pergamum, Bergama holds variety of interests for tourists today: ancient ruins and modern rugs, perhaps a play in the theater, and many stories of how its residents overcame their enemies. The popular hand-made Bergama and Yağcıbedir rugs, now made with natural dyes, can be found in many shops lining the main street. Also on the main streets is a good, small archaeological and ethnographic museum where there is the replica of the Temple to Zeus along with other statuary.