The sad truth about Pergamon, a UNESCO World Heritage site

Pergamon, in some sources described as a city of firsts, is more a city of halves. The spectacular Acropolis welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly, almost 99% of which skip half of this spectacular site, probably without even realizing it. To us, this is a shocking discovery, especially if you take the time to read through this post and notice what exactly it is the majority of Pergamon’s visitors are missing out on. Well, yes, Pergamon (or Pergamum) has an upper Acropolis and a lower Acropolis. Unfortunately, the latter only welcomes a handful of visitors daily, despite its magnificent ruins and a majestic mosaic house exhibiting the best-preserved specimens of interior decoration in Pergamon.

If you’ve been to Pergamon and have no idea what we’re talking about, plan a longer visit next time. If you haven’t been yet, please don’t skip the lower Acropolis. Check out what it has to offer in this detailed Pergamon guide, including a Pergamon map.

Click here to see Pergamon on a map
Back Of The East Hall Looking Toward The North Hall Of The Trajaneum

Back Of The East Hall Looking Toward The North Hall Of The Trajaneum

Pergamon in history

Founded in the 3rd century BC, Pergamon was the capital of the Attalid dynasty and became a significant educational, cultural, scientific, and administrative center. The city was built on challenging terrain, following the slopes of Kale Hill down to the Bakırçay Plain. Its remarkably steep Theatre and the three-terraced Gymnasium are perfect examples of how the existing domination of nature was integrated into the urban plan. The Attalid Dynasty created the renowned sculpture school and one of the biggest libraries in Pergamon.

When The Clouds Add A Bit Of Drama To The Temple Of Trajan At Pergamon

When The Clouds Add A Bit Of Drama To The Temple Of Trajan At Pergamon

In 133 BC, when Pergamon came under Roman rule and was the capital of the Roman Province of Asia, the city further developed as a cultural and imperial cult center. Many of Pergamon’s remarkable structures were built or further developed while maintaining the existing Hellenistic Period buildings. The Asklepieion, the Aqueduct, the Roman Theatre, the Serapeum, and the Trajan Temple all date back to that period.

Click here to see a 3D reconstruction of what Pergamon looked like in its heydays

Exploring The North Hall

Exploring The North Hall

Later, during the Byzantine Period, the trade routes and administrative centers shifted to Istanbul (then Constantinople) and northwest Anatolia. Pergamon was reduced to a mid-sized town but remained important both culturally and religiously as one of the Seven Churches of Revelation. The Ottomans subsequently added more urban structures, including baths, mosques, bridges, bazaars and markets, and an extension of the existing Roman and Byzantine water systems.

Overview Of The Pergamon Upper Acropolis Seen From The Asklepieion

Overview Of The Pergamon Upper Acropolis Seen From The Asklepieion

Today, Pergamon and Bergama are a glorious melting pot of remaining and superimposed structures from different cultures and periods, some of which are re-used and integrated into modern life. This is what makes a visit to Pergamon and Bergama special. The town seamlessly unites Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman heritage, embracing Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Paganism.

Red Basilica Seen From The Pergamon Acropolis

Red Basilica Seen From The Pergamon Acropolis

Pergamon: things you need to know before you go

We’ve touched on the most important thing you need to know before visiting Pergamon in our introduction: most people only see half the site simply because they are unaware that the other part exists. This creates a bit of a vicious circle. Clearly, lots of efforts went into excavating and restoring landmarks on the lower Acropolis. But due to a lack of visitors, it seems that funds are used more towards a stronger emphasis on promoting and maintaining the upper Acropolis.

You’ll find waymarks towards the lower Acropolis ruins, but somewhere along the way, you may get a feeling that you’re moving in the wrong direction. Trust us; you’re not. That is where you need to keep going, and you’ll reach the absolutely fabulous lower Acropolis of Pergamon.

Re Erected Columns At The Upper Gymnasium

Re-Erected Columns At The Upper Gymnasium

More than one site

Wait? There’s more? Yes. Pergamon’s ancient site covers the entire Acropolis of Pergamon. Below that, you’re in Bergama, the town, where you will also find ruins belonging to Pergamon such as the Red Basilica and the Bergama Museum, home to many of the artifacts taken from Pergamon. On the edge of town is the Asklepieion, an entirely separate ancient site, which used to be part of Pergamon’s city. On top of that, you’ll find several Tumuli around town and the Kybele Sanctuary near Kapıkaya.

Apart maybe from the Tumuli and the Kybele Sanctuary, each place deserves a visit, so allocating two days is the absolute minimum if you want to cover this much terrain. We’ll cover both the Asklepieion and Bergama in a separate post.

Read More About Bergama On Slow Travel GuideTake a tour around Bergama town in this post
Main Building Seen From The Courtyard

Main Building Seen From The Courtyard

How to get to the Acropolis? Cable car or not?

While Pergamon has two exits, there’s only one entrance at the top of the Acropolis. When visiting the ancient site, you have several options. Walk up, but unless you’re visiting out of season and in good physical condition, we would advise against that, as it is a very long walk! Alternatively, you can drive up and park your car near the entrance, or you can take the Teleferik (or cable car) that drops you off right next to the entrance gate.

We combined the two. We drove up and followed the itinerary described below to exit at the lower Acropolis gate, not too far away from where the cable car departs. After a short walk, we enjoyed the scenery from a different perspective offered by the Teleferik. The view comes with a price, though. At 30TL per person for a one-way ticket (or 50TL for a return ticket), you may be better off taking a taxi, especially if you’re traveling with a larger group of people.

The Upper Seats Of The Theater And The Temple Of Trajan Above

The Upper Seats Of The Theater And The Temple Of Trajan Above

The perfect Pergamon itinerary & Pergamon map

What is the perfect Pergamon itinerary? Ours covers the entire Acropolis and starts at the top, where the only entrance to the site is.

Hover over the numbers of the map to discover Pergamon’s landmarks.
The trick is to start at the upper Acropolis’s highest point and slowly work your way day towards the lower exit. This way, you’ll get to experience Pergamon to its fullest.

We won’t give a detailed description of all the ruins you will see using this itinerary, but we will highlight the most remarkable landmarks. You’ll see the rest marked on the map below.

Upper Acropolis

From the entrance, first, go up for a tour of the upper Acropolis. After the city gates and walls, you’ll find a series of ruined Palace Buildings on your right-hand side. You can explore these upon arrival, or after you’ve circled the upper Acropolis, just before you make your way down.

Sanctuary of Athena & Library of Pergamon

Opposite the Palace Buildings, you’ll find what is left of the Sanctuary of Athena, as well as some ruined houses and the Library of Pergamon. They are both located right above the Theatre. The Sanctuary of Athena is the oldest known Temple in Pergamon and dates back to the 4 century BC. It was surrounded by Doric columns, of which only the foundations are still visible today.

The adjacent Library with a double-aisled Stoa was added later, during Eumenes II, around 197 to 159 BC. The Library held 200.000 scrolls taken by Anthony in 41 BC as a gift to Cleopatra. The circular base in the center of the court held a statue of Emperor Augustus.

Detail Of The Circular Pedestal At The Sanctuary Of Athena

Detail Of The Circular Pedestal At The Sanctuary Of Athena

Stoa At The Sanctuary Of Athena Looking Towards The Palaces

Stoa At The Sanctuary Of Athena Looking Towards The Palaces

Theatre

From the Library area, follow the signs and go down the stairs through the ‘tunnel’ to reach the Theatre, one of Pergamon’s iconic landmarks. The Theatre has a seating capacity of 10.000 people in three sections. Probably the most spectacular aspect of Pergamon’s Theatre is how steep it is. People entered the Theatre from the 245-meter long terrace below, bordered by Stoas on each side.

Interestingly, the Hellenistic Period stage building was made of a framework of wooden beams and intentionally temporary. The reason behind this was that it had to be taken down after using it not to block the view of the Dionysos Temple, located just below the Theatre at the north end of the terrace. However, during the Roman Period, a permanent stone speaker’s stage was built in the orchestra because the Theatre was used for political assemblies.

Epic Views Are Part Of The Pergamon Experience

Epic Views Are Part Of The Pergamon Experience

The Spectacular Theater, Liong Terrace, And Temple Of Dionysos

The Spectacular Theater, Liong Terrace, And Temple Of Dionysos

Temple of Dionysos

The Temple of Dionysos was built in the first half of the 2nd century BC at the end of the Theatre terrace. An appropriate location for a Temple dedicated to the God of Theatre. People could access the Temple after climbing the 25 steps leading up to the Sanctuary. The original construction was destroyed by a fire in the 2nd century and rebuilt around the year 214 when Emperor Caracalla visited Pergamon, but probably never completed. Research suggests that the Temple of Dionysos at Pergamon was probably built by architect Hermogenes of Priene, the master behind the biggest Dionysos Temple of the ancient world in Teos.

Read More About Teos On Slow Travel GuideClick here to take a tour around Teos

Temple of Trajan

The Temple of Trajan is the next famous landmark. After walking back up from the Temple of Dionysos, explore the Sanctuary of Trajan’s substructure. It’s a beautiful series of vaulted supports built on a wall of up to a height of 23 meters. Their only function is to support the platform in front of the Temple of Trajan above. They were never used as storage space but were built to allow using it as a passage-way, which is exactly what you’ll do when you follow our itinerary. The foundation chambers, however, were used as cistern during the Middle Ages.

The Arched Substructure Of The Temple Of Trajan

The Arched Substructure Of The Temple Of Trajan

Terrace And Substructure Of The Temple Of Trajan At Pergamon

Terrace And Substructure Of The Temple Of Trajan At Pergamon

The construction of the Temple of Trajan continued during the rule of several Emperors, in the period between 98 and 138 AD. It started under Roman Emperor Trajan and was completed under Hadrian, serving the cult of both rulers and Zeus. The Sanctuary of Trajan is the only Roman monument on the upper fortress. Built on a high, marble podium, the Temple building has a free-standing main body, with respect for the Greek traditions. It was later surrounded on three sides by halls with monolithic columns and unique Corinthian capitals.

Looking Towards The East Hall Of The Temple Of Trajan

Looking Towards The East Hall Of The Temple Of Trajan

Headless Armored Statue Of Trajan In The East Hall

Headless Armored Statue Of Trajan In The East Hall

There are no data on when the Temple was eventually destroyed, but research indicates that the walls and substructures have been restored more than once during the Middle Ages. The Temple was uncovered in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1960 that the administration considered restoring it. Preparation works started in 1965, and until 1994, a series of restoration campaigns, each lasting several months, brought back the Temple of Trajan as you can admire it today.

Columns Lying On The Floor Of The North Hall

Columns Lying On The Floor Of The North Hall

Overview Of The Trajaneum At Pergamon

Overview Of The Trajaneum At Pergamon

The Temple’s Propylaeum with three entrance doors hasn’t been rebuilt. A re-erected doorpost represents it in its original position. You can see a collection of elements and fragments belonging to the Temple stored in their original finding spot behind the eastern Hall.

The Only Partially Restored Trajaneum At Pergamon

The Only Partially Restored Trajaneum At Pergamon

Almost Like A Painting, The West Hall Of The Trajaneum

Almost Like A Painting, The West Hall Of The Trajaneum

Arsenal & Aqueduct

From the Trajaneum, take the wooden path that takes you to the back of the Citadel. Apart from the great views, you’ll get to admire the city wall and fortification towers. When you reach the ruins of the former Arsenal, look out for the remains of Pergamon’s amazing Aqueduct amidst the olive fields below. The Roman Aqueduct from the 2nd century AD ran for 45km from Madra Dağ. You can also reach it by car to admire it from close by, should you want to do this after your visit. At the top of the loop, just before re-entering the inner Citadel, an observation platform offers great vistas of the reservoir lake below.

Walking Back To The Citadel From The Arsenal

Walking Back To The Citadel From The Arsenal

Part Of The Extensive Aqueducts At Pergamon

Part Of The Extensive Aqueducts At Pergamon

Circular Cistern

Nowadays, repurposed by visitors as a wish pit, this remarkable circular cistern has a stone column in the middle. Some sources mention that this column was used as a base for a mechanism allowing the water rotation. This method added oxygen to keep the water ‘fresh’ during a long siege.

Circular Cistern At The Top Of The Citadel

Circular Cistern At The Top Of The Citadel

Zeus Altar

Now that you’ve circled the entire area around the Trajaneum walk back into the direction of the entrance until you reach the Sacred Precinct of the Cult of the Rulers. From there, take the path down to the remains of the Zeus Altar. Now, you may have heard people using epic terms to describe the Altar of Pergamon. Admittedly, it was spectacular. And it still is. Except, the Zeus Altar no longer sits in Pergamon, but in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Click here for a virtual visit of the Altar of Pergamon in Berlin

The Great Altar of Pergamon was built in the 2nd century BC. It was dedicated to Zeus and Athena and celebrated the victory over the Gauls in 190 BC. It was ornated with a 120-meter long relief depicting the Olympian Gods’ struggle with the subterranean powers. The setting is spectacular, overlooking the plains below with views stretching to the shimmering Aegean in the distance. It is easy to imagine how dramatic this Altar must have been, and one can’t help but think how wonderful it would be if the reconstructed Altar were here, in its original location, instead of being tucked away in a faraway museum hall.

Lower Acropolis

Small Odeon & Heroon

After you’ve taken in the views at the Zeus Altar, continue to follow the path past the upper Agora below. Follow the signs to the Gymnasium and enjoy a leisurely walk on the ancient road overlooking Bergama. From here onwards, the terrain is sometimes a little rougher, so make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes. Further down, you’ll notice a small building with a small Odeon and a Heroon dedicated to Diodoros Pasparos. Right next to it are the remains of a small Roman Bathhouse. The entire complex, Bath, Odeon, and Heroon must have been part of a smaller Gymnasium.

Heroon To Diodoris Pasparos

Heroon To Diodoris Pasparos

Small Bath Complex Next To Odeon And Heroon

Small Bath Complex Next To Odeon And Heroon

Building Z

Building Z not only has an interesting name, but it also has a fascinating interior. It is located just above the Sanctuary of Demeter and the Temple of Hera and covers about 1.500 m2. This is the place where, in 1990, elegant mosaics were discovered, and a project was launched to protect them with a shelter, which started in 1996 and was completed in 2004. Trust us, you cannot afford to miss out on this place! But – after speaking to the guard – it seems that most people do, as he welcomes on average 10 visitors per day!

Courtyard At Building Z

Courtyard At Building Z

Research suggests that the origins of Building Z most probably go back to the early 2nd century BC and the structure likely served as a cult center. Later, during the same century, the building was extended and first featured an L-shaped courtyard, completed by eastern and southern wings that formed an atrium. In the Roman Period, thermal baths were installed inside, and the interior was extensively renovated, including the mosaic floors. Unfortunately, the building was abandoned after a destructive earthquake in 178 AD. During Byzantine times, other structures covered its ruins, which explains why these intact mosaics were discovered only relatively recently.

Entering Building Z

Entering Building Z

The room with the mask mosaic is the oldest preserved chamber and the mosaic floor was probably created in the early 2nd century AD during Roman renovations of the existing structure. At that time, the stucco wall decorations were also repaired. Nowadays, the recovered stucco has been pieced together with countless fragments that were found during the excavation works. The grey colored parts are used to create an easy distinction between the old and original.

The Room With The Mask Mosaic

The Room With The Mask Mosaic

Sanctuary of Demeter

From Building Z, head further down, past the Temple of Hera overlooking the Gymnasium. From there, go to the right to explore the Sanctuary of Demeter. The Sanctuary was used continuously from before 282 BC until the Late Roman Period. The Temple was built on a natural rock peak. There used to be an offering pit and a fountain, as well as viewing stairs used in the rites who were especially important to the women of Pergamon.

Overview Of The Sanctuary Of Demeter

Overview Of The Sanctuary Of Demeter

Beautiful Remains Of The Sanctuary Of Demeter

Beautiful Remains Of The Sanctuary Of Demeter

Gymnasium

The Gymnasium complex of Pergamon’s lower Acropolis consists of several layers and structures. It is located right beneath the Temple of Hera and it’s the largest known Gymnasium of the Hellenistic era. Built in 197 – 160 BC, it stretches over three terraces, each dedicated to a particular age group. The Lower Gymnasium was used by children, the Middle Gymnasium was for young adults, and the Upper Gymnasium was exclusively visited by adult males.

Overview Of The Upper Gymnasium And The Semi Circled Odeon

Overview Of The Upper Gymnasium And The Semi Circled Odeon

Pretty Scenery At The Upper Gymnasium

Pretty Scenery At The Upper Gymnasium

The complex had a large Bath section in the east and west of the upper terrace, where the large two-story colonnaded courtyard surrounded by Doric columns. In Roman times, most likely around 100 AD, the Doric structures were replaced by Corinthian order architecture, and the northwest corner of the Palaestra was enlarged with a semi-circled, roofed Odeon with a seating capacity of 1.000 people.

The Substantial Upper Gymnasium Baths

The Substantial Upper Gymnasium Baths

Still Life At The Upper Gymnasium

Still Life At The Upper Gymnasium

Walk over to the farthest east point of the Gymnasium to find the old road that will take you further down, past the House of Attalus, and the Lower Agora to the exit. The House of Attalus is closed for visitors, but if you peek through the fence, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the stunning mosaics and murals inside. From here, either walk down to the cable car to go back up if you’ve left your car in the parking lot. Or walk back to Bergama town for a visit to the Red Basilica.

The Middle Gymnasium For Young Adults

The Middle Gymnasium For Young Adults

Inside The Semi Circled Odeon

Inside The Semi Circled Odeon

In town

Red Basilica

The Red Basilica, Red Hall, or Kızıl Avlu is a good example of how structures in Pergamon were re-used by later cultures. Initially, this site built in the 2nd century AD was a Serapeum, a sanctuary dedicated by the Romans to Egyptian Gods, and the largest complex of buildings in the entire city of Pergamon. Later, the Church of St. John – one of the Seven Churches of Revelation – is located inside the main building of the Red Basilica, which subsequently became an Ottoman mosque and incorporated a Jewish Synagogue.

Exploring The Red Basilica

Exploring The Red Basilica

Inside The Main Building At The Red Basilica

Inside The Main Building At The Red Basilica

The site with a main building and two round towers measured around 265 by 100 meters. Visitors entered through a substantial courtyard surrounded by Stoas. There were more Stoas to each side of the main building where the galleries were supported by huge statues of Egyptian Deities. One of these figurines, representing the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, has been restored to give visitors a better idea of the scale and the impact these galleries must have had on people. Originally, there must have been 36 of these figurine supports to the north and south of the Red Hall, each more than 8 meters high, including their pedestal.

Admiring Sekhmet From A Distance

Admiring Sekhmet From A Distance

Restored Figurine Of Sekhmet

Restored Figurine Of Sekhmet

At the eastern end of each courtyard stood a Rotunda, a round tower, which was initially probably used for cult functions. Both Rotunda’s stood the test of time. The Northern was is now used as a mosque, the southern one has been restored and is open for visitors as a part of the museum complex. The 1,90 meter thick walls support a stunning dome in stepped bricklayers. Originally, the Opaion (the opening in the middle of the dome) measured 3,70 meters, which was reduced to 1 meter in Ottoman times. The black walls inside are the remains of the years when the Rotunda was used as the machine room for the olive factory erected on-site in the 19th century.

The Beautiful Southern Rotunda

The Beautiful Southern Rotunda

Detail Of The Ornamental Frieze On The Southern Rotunda

Detail Of The Ornamental Frieze On The Southern Rotunda

Tumuli & Amphitheater

You’ll find several Tumuli spread over the town. These burial mounds look like a pile of gravel or sand because that is indeed what they are covered with, multiple layers of whatever soil or sand is available in the surrounding area. Underneath, are sarcophagi or multiple grave chambers. The Tumuli are of great archaeological interest, but unfortunately, the ones near Pergamon are closed for visitors. Click here to read more about a study carried out at Yığma Tepe.

You can also see what remains of the former Amphitheater in the lower town. It is possible to go and have a look from up close, but you can easily spot the ruins during your visit to the Acropolis.

Asklepieion

Finally, the Asklepieion is another must-see in a different location. This is again a site on its own, and we’d advise you to allow at least half a day to visit it. The Asklepieion is one of the structures that were part of the further development of Pergamon during the Roman Period. This Sanctuary became a well-known healing center where the sacred spring still flows today. We’re taking you for a tour of the Asklepieion in a separate article. Do read it, as these photos hardly reveal anything!

Read More About The Asklepieion Of Pergamon On Slow Travel GuideClick here to read all about the Asklepieion at Pergamon
Sneek Peak Of The Asklepieion

Sneak Peek Of The Asklepieion

Practical tips for your Pergamon visit

Bergama is easy to reach by car, and well signposted from the E87 highway. If you are relying on public transportation. You have several options, including a regular service from Kınık and Aliağa. Simply enter Bergama Akropol Örenyeri as a destination on this page. Please, allow enough time to visit this area. As we mentioned in our introduction, two days is the absolute minimum.

You’ll need four different tickets if you want to get a complete picture. Click on the links below for current ticket prices and opening times of the locations.

The Acropolis site has facilities on-site, including toilets and a few small shops and eateries near the entrance. Please, keep in mind that – apart from the toilets – these places are usually closed when traveling out of season. Bring your own water and snacks. Also, while the upper Acropolis is on easy terrain, exploring the lower part is an entirely different story. Good walking shoes are a must!

Top tip: after exploring the entire Acropolis, you will have covered a lot of terrain. Make sure to carry the phone number of a local taxi company with you just in case. If you’re looking for a place to stay. There are some lovely boutique hotels in town. Click below to check them out on a map.

Click here to see places to stay near Pergamon on a map
✔️ Have you been to Pergamon? Then please head over to our Turkey Trip Planner to leave a review. Alternatively, if you plan on visiting, you can add the site to your bucket list.
The Perspective As Seen From The North Hall

The Perspective As Seen From The North Hall

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Source: WHO UNESCO & on-site information boards
The Sad Truth About Pergamon, A Unesco World Heritage Site
The Sad Truth About Pergamon, A Unesco World Heritage Site
The Sad Truth About Pergamon, A Unesco World Heritage Site
The Sad Truth About Pergamon, A Unesco World Heritage Site
The Sad Truth About Pergamon, A Unesco World Heritage Site

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Check the weather

Never wonder about the weather in Turkey again. The Turkish climate is as diverse as the country with significant differences between the regions.

This page contains the current weather and weather statistics for all regions in Turkey.

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Can you skip the line at Istanbul Airports?

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The sad truth about Pergamon, a UNESCO World Heritage site