Hot Springs and History at Turkey’s 2,000-Year-Old Spa

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Massive stone heads from fallen sculptures call out to you like sirens at sea, begging you to swim down and bring them up for air. Compelled, you take a deep breath and dive. But the water is too thick, too fiery with minerals, and too hot to make any progress. You soon resurface and concede that Cleopatra’s lost artifacts must remain anchored in her pool. It’s a win for historic preservation, but a crushing a loss for your personal collection.

No, you’re not playing a game of Tomb Raider; you’re visiting one of the most spectacular sites in Turkey. Pamukkale, a naturally occurring spa, is a captivating attraction with an unlikely combination of elements: natural splendor that rivals the beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Greco-Roman history as rich as any on the Mediterranean. In fact, this UNESCO World Heritage site represents one of the oldest spa cultures in the western hemisphere.

Pamukkale, which means “Cotton Castle” in Turkish, is named for its otherworldly landscape of bone-white travertine terraces created by mineral-rich, thermal-spring water that has built up over time. It’s one of the most sensory-disorienting places I’ve ever been. The pillowy travertine – which forms wavy strips that appear as if mined from a glacier – looks icy cold, but these smooth-as-stone walls surround pools of steaming hot water. Dozens of conjoined pools majestically cascade down a 650-foot cliff like oversized cotton balls pouring down a mountain. Lush greenery — which benefits from the waters many minerals — fills in the hillsides.

Pamukkale's travertine terraces from above

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For travelers like me who love visiting places where world and natural history collide, Pamukkale delivers big time. It’s blanched beauty and warm waters have been attracting travelers for more than two millennia, and the hot springs gave rise to a thriving spa town in the 2nd century B.C.

Under Greco-Roman and, later, Byzantine rule, the town grew into the city of Hierapolis. Ruins from the era include a well-preserved 15,000-seat amphitheater, several temples, and a collection of sculptures that grows by the year, thanks to ongoing excavation efforts.

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Archeological work in progress at ancient Hierapolis

Archeological work is still in progress at Pamukkale, the site of the ancient city of Hierapolis.

Under Roman rule, Hierapolis thrived. Engineers channeled the hot springs to a health center that became renowned throughout the empire. Thousands of pilgrims sought treatment in its thermal baths; one myth even claims that Cleopatra herself owed her beauty to their mineral powers.

With travelers came money. The outdoor bathhouse was embellished with the finest columns and marble carvings of the day. But in the 7th century, disaster struck. Persian armies sacked Hierapolis. As its people struggled to rebuild their lives and town, an earthquake rocked southwestern Turkey. The city and its baths became a ruins-filled ghost town within a generation.

The earthquake knocked the bathhouse’s marble pillars and sculptures into the water, which is exactly where you can find them today. This may be the only place on Earth where you can swim with perfectly preserved Roman ruins in 130° Fahrenheit water. With its natural beauty, historical significance, and offering of R&R, Pamukkale — where visitors can literally soak in two thousand years of history — is the ultimate thrill.

Among Fallen Ruins in Cleopatra's Pool

The author soaks among fallen ruins in Cleopatra’s Pool.

Photos by Natalie Purbrick and Cliff Pollard.

Natalie is fresh off a 16-month romp around the world. She has trekked mountains from Machu Picchu to the Himalayas, studied Jamón Iberico in Spain, rallied with protesters in Istanbul and Bangkok, and skinny-dipped in most of the world’s oceans. She and her fiancé, Cliff, document their food and travel adventures at Pasture Braised and their Instagram feed. They live in the Bay Area with their pit bull, Gigi.

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