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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

The 'Cotton Castle' of Pamukkale, Turkey

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

An aerial view of the white mountainside gives the impression of packed-powder snow, perhaps dotted with patches of smooth, glassy ice. But that's just an impression! No skiing here! What you are actually viewing is hard, rough, often sharp, TRAVERTINE limestone! And what is responsible for this NATURAL beauty is the calcite-rich hot thermal mountain and volcanic spring waters flowing from a cliff and tectonic fault line 200 meters above. Multiple millennia of calcium carbonate deposition resulted in white, petrified waterfalls, stalactites, and a series of terraced basins of travertine. This is Pamukkale, Turkish for 'Cotton Castle', located in the Denizli province of southwestern Turkey and formed over a period of ~14,000 years. It lies intimately adjacent to the former Greco-Roman spa town called Hierapolis, whose ruins are still prominent. This area has become perhaps the MOST POPULAR tourist destination within Turkey, for the terraced TRAVERTINE hot springs provide a unique landscape like none other. Because of its distinctive beauty and historical significance, Pamukkale-Hieropolis was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1988.

Hieropolis: A Greco-Roman thermal spa destination

Likely established by one of the successors of Alexander the Great during the Seleucid period, the town subsequently passed into the hands of the King of Pergamon in 188 BC. Later it became a Roman city, in about 133 BC, but didn't fully bloom until the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Hieropolis developed into one of the wealthiest cities in Asia Minor during the later Roman years as evidenced by the monumental building projects which were launched and whose ruins can still be appreciated. Gymnasiums, temples, baths, a theater, a nymphaeum, a monumental arch, and a necropolis were all constructed. The baths and theaters were particularly enjoyed by the wealthy Romans whenever they visited Hieropolis, their popular spa destination. However, intense industrial activity also occurred within Hieropolis, related to the production of wool and the dyeing of textiles, for the hot water from the thermal springs aided in fixing the color of the wool. Hieropolis had guilds of purple-dyers providing a source of revenue and wealth. The town was home to a large population of both Christian and Jewish people. Not surprisingly, Jewish merchants became involved in the business of dyeing wool and textiles,

At the beginning of the 4th century, when Emporer Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Hieropolis became a Christian city and gained prestige as a pilgrimage site for the presence of the tomb of the apostle Philip. While Christian tradition holds that the apostle Philip was martyred there around 80 AD, ecclesiastical historian, Eusebius, reported that he was Philip the Evangelist (a different Philip) ... not Philip the Apostle. Later Christian tradition, however, made no distinction between the two. The ruins of the Martyrium of (?)Philip can still be viewed.

Pamukkale: A natural wonder of terraced Travertine

I visited Pamukkale in 2019 and things have certainly changed. The site did not look like the pictures that I had viewed prior to my trip. Historically, visitors were allowed to wade within the natural pools created along the hillside, as shown in the first photo below. That is NO LONGER allowed. Several artificial pools have now been built in a linear arrangement (along a former road that cut through the site) to "kind of blend in" with the surrounding natural cascades (2nd photo below). Visitors, nowadays, may view the natural pools but ONLY ENTER THE ARTIFICIAL POOLS (3rd and 4th photos below).

You may also notice in the photos both above and below, that the vast majority of the pools are DRY. The natural travertine basin architecture exists, but there is no water within them. This is because (1.) there is a reduced volume of naturally flowing spring water emerging from the mountain, (2.) much water is diverted to the surrounding artificial spas, baths, and thermal pools located both on the site and in the town below, and (3.) the low volume remaining water is regulated to flow in varying rotations over the natural landscape in efforts to preserve the site. You may also notice that the travertine is more GREY in color, appearing dirty, compared to the bright white stone shown in photographs of the site from MANY years ago. This, too, is a result of several factors. Less water flow over the travertine leads to graying because of air pollution. Additionally, the flood of tourism to the site has stimulated the construction of infrastructure to support it. In years past, prior to its recognition as a UNESCO site, EVEN MORE water was being diverted to feed adjacent hotel pools, tourists both bathed and, sadly, littered in the natural pools, mechanical damage to the stones was sustained from footwear and tourist traffic, automobile pollution occurred from traffic on a road that ran through the center of the site, and even some sewage pollution resulted from leaking septic tanks. All of these factors, cumulatively, had a destructive impact on the travertine. OVERTOURISM has significantly DAMAGED THE TRAVERTINE TERRACES and pools. In response, the site is now much more tightly regulated. For conservation purposes, hotels immediately adjacent to the travertine pools were removed, private vehicles can no longer enter the premises, the road that ran through the center of the site was eradicated and replaced with the artificial pools, visitors can only walk barefooted on the travertine, and visitors can no longer access the natural travertine terraces at all. Seeing as the travertines cannot be closely approached by foot due to the new restrictions, one of the best ways to view the natural pools NOWADAYS is from a hot air balloon, for the balloon flies DIRECTLY over them.

Check out these videos from the Hot-air Balloon

Is it worth the visit?

Without reservation, Hieropolis and Pamukkale are worth the visit. I have never before seen such a vast area of naturally-created, terraced travertine basins across an entire mountainside. It is a spectacular sight! Together with the adjacent Greco-Roman ruins of Hieropolis, it makes for an incredible day trip. I, also, recommend a hot-air balloon ride to view the entire site, as that is THE BEST way to get both an up-close view of the flowing natural travertine pools and an aerial view of the ruins.

Perhaps my slight disappointment stemmed from MY misguided EXPECTATIONS which were formed by outdated advertisements of the site and which continue to be published and circulated. These ADVERTISEMENTS herald back to the days prior to the damage exacted on the travertines and prior to the restrictions imposed on the visitors. Understandably, the RESTRICTIONS implemented by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism were the RIGHT thing to do in efforts to preserve the site and prevent further damage. That being said, they should definitely update their advertisements, placards, websites et. al in order to be honest, transparent, and not create false expectations. For no other reason than to make a point about misleading advertising, check out the photos below. Very dreamy, to say the least.

That being said, I would still recommend a visit to Pamukkale-Hieropolis. It's beautiful. It's impressive. It's unique. It's natural. It's historic. Just, not quite as advertised!

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