Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Aesclepion, Bergama, Turkey

     Two posts ago you learned what an Aesclepion is. If you missed that post:
I can show you an Aesclepion first hand. We visited Bergama while traveling in Turkey. In that modern city are the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamon, and in that ancient city is one of the largest if not the largest Aesclepion in the world. This is a fascinating place in Turkey, that was a total surprise to me. Since returning home, I have learned more and found this history even more fascinating.

A drawing of the way the Aesclepion appeared in 2nd century AD.

     For centuries, the Companion Cavalry was a select group of Macedonian soldier/horsemen who served the current Macedonian king both in important battles and as his personal guard. This unit became most know under Alexander the Great. In about 301 BC Lysimachos, one of the successful commanders in this elite Cavalry was assigned by Alexander to deliver 9,000 talents (1 talent + $7500) of war booty to Philiterios, the governor of the small city of Pergamon, located on the coast of Asia Minor and in view of the island of Lesbos. Lysimachos delivered the money and set himself up as ruler of Thrace and Asia Minor. After his death, Philiterios made use of this money to become the first ruler of the Kingdom of Pergamon. He established a Hellenistic dynasty that successfully ruled this small kingdom for 150 years, building a city that rivaled Athens with many structures that were copied directly from Athenian buildings. Eumenes I, Attalos I, and Eumenes II were successive rulers. Successive rulers followed until Attalos III  peacefully signed over his kingdom to the Romans when he died in 133 BC. The city went on to become even more a local capitol under the Romans. Various Roman structures including a Roman theater were added and there were some modifications of Greek structures by the Romans. The Library of Pergamon is famous second only to the Library of Alexandria. It contained 200,000 volumes and under Roman rule, portions of that library were given as a wedding present to Cleopatra by Mark Anthony to help replenish the destroyed Alexandrian Library
      The city's Acropolis rivaled that of Athens and was built on a high promontory over looking the lowlands abutting the Aegean Sea. The Greek Theatre located on the slope of the Acropolis is the steepest theatre known from ancient Greek times. It would house 10,000 people seated on the hillside slope. Greek theatres were always built into a hillside. Whereas Roman theatres usually were constructed on level ground.

Picture taken looking up at the Acropolis of Pergamon from the Aesclepion down below. In the center of the hillside just below the Acropolis, you can see the Greek Theatre. Portions of it have been restored. To the left of the base of the theatre are white columns that remain from the Temple of Dionysius (Bacchus). The columns in the foreground belong to the covered colonnade that completely surrounded the Aesclepion.
     We did not take the time to hike around the Acropolis at Pergamon. I was still limping from a knee sprained while getting into a hot air balloon at Kapadokya. Our guide, knowing that I was a physician, decided to show us the Aesclepion instead. The Aesclepion is a healthspa/ hospital that during Hellenistic times was commonly placed in prominent cities. The patronage of these health facilities carried into Roman times, up to the 6th Century AD. This particular Aesclepion at Pergamon had at least 3 holy springs. It was patronized by the wealthy and the famous including Emperor Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Caracalla. During the 2nd century AD, it reached its peak of influence. The well-known historic anatomist/physician/philosopher, Claude Galen, was born in Pergamon in 129 AD, and schooled in Aristotlean philosophy here. His father, also a learned man, had a dream in which Asclepius, God of Healing told him to educate his son as a physician. Galen studied healing here and then practiced and taught his skills to others, before becoming personal physician to Roman emperors in Rome. He also was famed for attending to gladiators who performed for the High Priest of Asia here at this site. Due to his anatomical and surgical techniques, only 4 gladiators died while under his post, whereas 60 had died the previous year under a different physician. Many of his techniques were used for the next 1500 years and it was not until that long that further anatomical facts disproved some of Galen's ideas. Reluctantly he also became a proponent of bloodletting, a practice that was prominent in our own 18th century. This was perhaps his only major unwitting mistake.

Here are portrayed the sacred serpents of Asclepius on the ancient altar to Asclepius. In the Aesclepion is a Temple to the God of Healing. Several of these sacred serpents were usually kept in the box in this temple. This is thought to be the reason that the mythical Staff of Asclepius has a serpent wound around it.
     This hospital was not intended to treat the deathly ill. In fact at the gate, there was a gatehouse manned by some of the Aesclepiadaie, or physician/priests, who would interview prospective patients to see if they could be helped at the Aesclepion and to turn away those who were ill enough to die, and also pregnant women near term were denied. In fact there is the remains of a pillar at the gate that says, "Death is forbidden to enter in to the Aesclepion as respect for Gods." Treatments consisted of dietary measures, herbs, rest, taking the sun, stress relief, exercise, entertainment at the theatre, reading at the library, massage, mud baths, musical therapy, water baths of all temperatures, bathing in and drinking small doses of the holy water from the springs (which later was discovered to contain a mild radioactive source), dream therapy, because there was a belief that people dreamt of a visit from Asclepius who would prescribe a cure for their illness (before Sigmund Freud), and just sleeping in or near the Temple of Aesclepius, the god of Healing.

In this photo you can see ruins of the Roman Temple at the
 east end of the Acropolis hill. You can see the Via Tecta
 slanting from right to left down the slope.
       The Aeclepion was reached through a half mile long covered and colonnaded walkway down from the Acropolis. As the walkway got close to the entrance, the Monumental Gate, it is called Via Tecta. Along this roadway, many little shops and merchant stalls would have been set up to sell health potions as well as gifts that people going to the Aesclepion would buy to present to the Gods in the Temples of the Aesclepion.
      After entering the courtyard of the Aesclepion, to the right is the Emperor's room, which was later used as a local library. Further along the North Stoia (colonnaded walkway) is the Roman Theatre. This was used to entertain the patients as well as to educate the staff of the Aesclepion. This small theatre could seat 1500 people, has been restored and is now used to present local shows. The stage in Roman times was backed by a 2 story facade, whereas the amphitheatre on the slope of the Acropolis had a stage facade of three stories.

Via Tecta, The Sacred Way (to Aesclepion)

The Library (also called the Emperor's Room)

Northern Stoia with Theatre beyond

Closer view of the Theatre
One of the Sacred Springs still flowing with healing waters.
     In the center of the courtyard are the outlets of three springs with adjoining tubs or enclosures to create pools. Also there is an entrance to an underground tunnel which passed from near the theatre diagonally underneath the courtyard to the Temple of Telesphorus. This subterranean and 2 story round building actually housed the patient sleeping rooms and treatment rooms. It is remarkably well preserved. Next to it is the round Temple of  Asclepius which is patterned after the Parthenon in Rome which was only built 20 years before this Temple. All that remains here is the 78 ft diameter circular marble foundation.

The tunnel, to transport patients comfortably from healing springs to the sleeping and treatment rooms.
First floor of the treatment facility (Temple of Telesphorus).

Main floor of the treatment facility.

Marble foundation of the round Temple of Asclepius, adjacent to the Treatment Facility.
     Our guide, Mehmet Tektik, was correct about taking us to see the Aesclepion. If we were younger we probably would have enjoyed traipsing around the Acropolis as well, but I have read that there the ruins are much like other ancient cities in Turkey, and actually the Hellenistic theatre in the hillside of the Acropolis is perhaps more impressive from a distance (though there is a thrill standing at the top and looking down). And I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Aesclepion and learned even more about its history after researching it when back home.

     Inside the modern city of Bergama, there is the Temple of Serapis, built for the Egyptian Gods in the 2nd c. AD. and called the Red Courtyard by locals. This is a basilica shaped building constructed under the reign of Hadrian. Then, in the 4th century, it was converted into a church dedicated to St. John and became one of the Seven Churches of Christianity (those mentioned by St. John in Revelations).
The Red Courtyard (basilica), in downtown Bergama.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading all about that, as I last went to Pergamum 41 years ago, and hardly any of the ruins were well excavated. I just remembered about the Aesclepion as I am writing about dream therapy, and remembered the incredible juxtaposition of the treatment area with the theatre..all part of a holistic approach. Epidauros too, is worth a visit. Many thanks! Mary Walker (Yorkshire UK)