The Ancient City of Pergamon: History & Major Facts

The ancient city of Pergamon, nestled atop a commanding hill in the modern-day Turkish town of Bergama, represents a fascinating blend of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman heritage.

Its strategic location in the Aegean region of Turkey made it a pivotal cultural and political center throughout antiquity. This city, renowned for its architectural grandeur and cultural achievements, offers a deep insight into the achievements chalked by the ancient world.

Origins and Hellenistic Glory

Pergamon’s roots can be traced back to the Archaic period, but it rose to prominence in the Hellenistic era after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The partition of Alexander’s empire among his generals eventually led to the establishment of the Attalid dynasty by Philetaerus in 282 BC. Under the Attalids, Pergamon blossomed into a significant power, both politically and culturally.

The city is perhaps best known for its second king, Eumenes II (197-159 BC), under whose reign Pergamon reached the zenith of its influence. Eumenes II expanded the city’s territorial holdings and embarked on ambitious building projects that shaped the city’s majestic appearance. The Acropolis of Pergamon, similar to its Athenian counterpart, featured a plethora of important cultural and civic buildings.

Architectural Marvels

The most iconic of these constructions was the Great Altar of Zeus, celebrated for its dramatic high-relief friezes depicting the Gigantomachy, an epic battle between gods and giants. This altar is often considered one of the masterpieces of Hellenistic art and architecture due to its size and the dynamic representation of movement in its sculptures.

Adjacent to this were the Temple of Athena, the Library of Pergamon, and the steepest theater in the ancient world. The Library of Pergamon held some 200,000 volumes, making it the second-largest in the ancient world after Alexandria’s. This rivalry reportedly led to the innovation of parchment (charta pergamena) in Pergamon as a response to Alexandria’s embargo on papyrus.

The Acropolis of Pergamon is a historic site that features monumental temples, theatres, porticoes (stoas), a gymnasium, a celebrated altar, and a library, all ingeniously integrated into its sloping terrain and encircled by extensive city walls. Image: Acropolis – Pergamon.

Scientific and Cultural Hub

The intellectual life in Pergamon was vibrant, fostered by its library and a school of sculpture that was highly influential in spreading the Pergamene style, characterized by emotional expressiveness and dynamic compositions.

Notable scholars, such as the physician Galen, who was born in Pergamon in 129 AD, were products of the city’s conducive intellectual environment. Galen’s works would dominate and shape medical theory and practice for centuries.

Religious and Social Structures

The Sanctuary of Asclepius, south of the Acropolis, was another significant site in Pergamon. Known as the Asclepieion, it was a famed healing center attracting people seeking cures for their ailments. The complex included a sacred spring, a theater, and a sleeping hall where patients experienced healing dreams, supposedly sent by Asclepius himself, the god of medicine.

Roman Pergamon

After the death of Attalus III in 133 BC, Pergamon was bequeathed to the Roman Republic. Under Roman rule, the city remained a major administrative and cultural center. It became the capital of the Roman province of Asia.

The Romans added numerous structures, such as the Temple of Trajan and expanded the city’s gymnasiums and baths, enhancing its stature as a cosmopolitan urban center.

During the Roman era, Pergamon also became an important Christian center, one of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor cited in the Book of Revelation. The conversion of many of its temples into Christian churches marked Pergamon’s gradual transition into the Byzantine period.

Byzantine Empire: Major facts about one of history’s longest-running empires

Byzantine Decline and Ottoman Resurgence

As the Roman Empire split and the eastern half became the Byzantine Empire, Pergamon’s importance waned. The shifting of trade routes and the rise of Constantinople led to a decline in its economic and political significance. However, Pergamon retained its religious and cultural stature, transitioning into a modest Byzantine town.

The arrival of the Ottomans in the 14th century marked the next phase of Pergamon’s history. The Ottomans integrated the city into their empire, constructing mosques, baths, and markets, thus overlaying the ancient and Byzantine structures with Islamic architecture. This period imbued Pergamon with a new cultural layer, characterized by a blend of its ancient past and the Ottoman present.

Ottoman Empire: History, Timeline & Major Facts

Archaeological Rediscovery

Modern interest in Pergamon began with its rediscovery by European archaeologists in the 19th century. Carl Humann’s excavation campaigns in 1878 led to the discovery of the Great Altar, which was subsequently transported to Berlin, where it was reassembled and is now displayed in the Pergamon Museum. These excavations opened up Pergamon’s historical narrative to the world, highlighting its significance in ancient history.

Legacy and World Heritage

Today, Pergamon is celebrated not just for its monumental ruins that offer insight into various historical epochs but also for its unique testimony to the continuity and adaptation of an urban center over millennia.

The Acropolis, the Asclepieion, and other remnants tell a story of a city that was a focal point for architectural innovation, artistic expression, and intellectual pursuit.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Pergamon continues to attract scholars and tourists alike. Its extensive ruins provide a tangible link to the past, showcasing the evolution of urban design, cultural amalgamation, and the human endeavor to build, create, and understand the world.

Thus, Pergamon stands as a beacon of ancient civilization’s achievements and an enduring symbol of cultural continuity amidst the changing tides of history.

FAQs

Where is Pergamon located?

Pergamon is located in the modern-day town of Bergama, within the İzmir Province of Turkey. It sits in a commanding position on a hill overlooking the Bakırçay Plain, in the historical region of Mysia, which is part of the western Aegean region of Turkey.

When was the city established?

The city of Pergamon was established in the early 3rd century BC, though the area was inhabited much earlier, evidenced by settlements dating back to the Archaic period.

The significant development of Pergamon as a major city, however, began with the Attalid dynasty around the time of Philetaerus, who founded this dynasty around 282 BC.

Pergamon was established as the capital of the Attalid dynasty in the 3rd century BC. Image: Ruins of this ancient city.

What geographical features were integrated into the urban plan of Pergamon?

The urban plan of Pergamon integrated the high steep sloping terrain of Kale Hill and the Bakırçay Plain.

What are some of the major architectural or cultural structures from the Hellenistic period in Pergamon?

Major structures from the Hellenistic period in Pergamon include the extremely steep theatre, the lengthy stoa, and the Great Altar of Pergamon.

What is significant about the Great Altar of Pergamon?

The Great Altar of Pergamon is significant for its detailed high-relief friezes depicting the battle between the gods and giants (Gigantomachy), showcasing the artistic skill of the period.

In 133 BC, the Romans took over Pergamon, and it became a metropolis and the capital of the Roman Province of Asia.

What is the Asclepion Sanctuary in Pergamon?

The Asclepion Sanctuary in Pergamon is well-known as a healing center that featured a sacred spring whose waters were believed to have curative properties.

How did Pergamon’s role change during the Byzantine Period?

During the Byzantine Period, Pergamon’s significance as a major center declined due to the relocation of trade routes and political centers to northwest Anatolia, particularly İstanbul (Constantinople), though it continued to maintain cultural-religious importance.

When and how did the Byzantine Empire fall?

What were some of the structures built by the Ottomans in Pergamon?

Ottoman structures in Pergamon include mosques, baths, bridges, khans, bedestens (covered bazaars), arastas (markets), and water systems, reflecting the Ottoman architectural and urban planning.

What is the significance of the Church of St. John in the historical context of Pergamon?

The Church of St. John in Pergamon, originally part of the Roman Serapeum, demonstrates the reuse of structures across cultures, having been transformed into an Ottoman mosque and incorporating a Jewish synagogue.

How does Pergamon reflect the cultural influences of Paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam?

Pergamon reflects the cultural influences of Paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam through its diverse range of preserved architectural and cultural structures, showcasing a long history of religious and cultural transformation.

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