In ancient times, the name Asclepieion was used to refer to the temple of the god of medicine, Asclepius. Initially, it was just a source of water located in a sacred grove, but over time, the Asclepieia expanded, temple buildings were erected, and hospitals and therapeutic centres were constructed nearby. The Asclepieion in Pergamon was one of the most important facilities of this kind, placed on a par with the Asclepieion in Epidaurus and the one on the island of Kos.
History of the Asclepieion of Pergamon
The first temple of Asclepius was built in Pergamon in the 4th century BCE, which was confirmed by archaeological works. The period of development of Asclepieion coincided with the flourishing of the Kingdom of Pergamon, and the centre gained its greatest fame in the 2nd century CE, i.e. during Roman times.
According to a legend, the founding of the Asclepieion in Pergamon is associated with Arkhias, who was a prytanis, i.e. the highest official of Pergamon. While hunting in Greece, he injured his foot and was then healed in the famous Asclepieion in Epidaurus. As an expression of gratitude to the god Asclepius, Arkhias founded a similar facility in Pergamon. A quiet valley, far from the city centre, famous for its healing springs, was chosen as the location.
The most famous person associated with the Asclepieion in Pergamon was Galen, or rather Claudius Galenus. He was born in Pergamon in 129 CE, in the family of a wealthy architect, Nikon. At that time, Pergamon was a very influential centre of science and culture, attracting many philosophers, whom Galen met at the age of 14. His father planned a career for him in politics and philosophy, but under the influence of a dream in which the god Asclepius appeared to him, Galen began studying medicine at the Asclepieion at the age of 16.
His studies there lasted for four years, until Nikon's death. The money inherited by Galen allowed him to continue his education in the most famous centres of the ancient world and, consequently, to make a stunning career in Rome, where Galen became a court physician to several emperors. The medical works published by Galen were read by future physicians until the 19th century, and his theory that the brain controls all muscles through the central and peripheral nervous systems has been confirmed by modern science.
The therapeutic methods used in Asclepieion of Pergamon included many elements of physiotherapy, i.e. natural medicine. The most important were water and mud baths, massages, herbal medicine, and various ointments. Additionally, patients were encouraged to drink 'holy' water, take periods of fasting, take enemas, and run barefoot in cold weather. Autosuggestion and sleeping in places dedicated to the gods, where prophetic dreams were said to come, played an important role in the therapy, too. Based on these dreams, decisions were often made about the further course of treatment. Plays were performed in the local theatre and music was played, which served as a form of therapy.
Sightseeing of the Asclepieion of Pergamon
Access to the Asclepieion was provided by a sacred road called Via Tecta, 820 meters long. It started in the Lower Town, ran next to the theatre that does not exist any more, and then widened and reached the Asclepieion. At the beginning of the road, there was a gate where patients arriving at the healing centre were examined by doctors. People who were considered too sick to survive, as well as pregnant women, were not allowed to continue. Apparently, there was an inscription on the gate stating that Death is forbidden from entering the Asclepieion out of respect for the gods.
There used to be shops along the road, and even now, there are several food stalls offering their ware there. The last 140-meter-long section of the road was fully excavated by archaeologists. It is over 18 meters wide and has colonnades on both sides.
On the left side of the road, going in the direction of the Asclepieion, there are the remains of a round building, most likely the tomb of a hero from the times of Octavian Augustus. During excavations in the area of Via Tecta, many beautiful statues and reliefs from Hellenistic and Roman times were found, which are exhibited in the Bergama Museum.
The road reached the courtyard of the propylon, i.e. the monumental gate leading to the Asclepieion. To enter the courtyard, you had to go down the stairs. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by a Corinthian-style colonnade. The propylon itself has not survived to this day, except for two steps and the pediment, which contains an inscription stating that its founder was a certain Claudius Charax.
The building located on the right side of the entrance courtyard served a double function as an imperial room and a library. The statue of Emperor Hadrian found on its premises is located in the Bergama Museum. There were shelves for manuscripts on the walls of the building, and the floor was covered with multicoloured marble slabs. There were windows above the shelves, and the whole structure was covered with a wooden roof.
The Asclepieion is an open area with a plan similar to a rectangle with sides 110 by 130 meters. It is surrounded by stoas on three sides. The best preserved is the northern stoa, built in the Ionic order. The ten columns closest to the library building collapsed in the 175 CE earthquake. In their place, new ones were built in the Corinthian order. The back wall of the stoa was paved with marble, but the floor was just packed earth. This does not indicate that the builders were stingy - patients were supposed to walk around the Asclepieion barefoot, and such a surface was more comfortable for them than marble.
The northern stoa leads directly to the theatre, which could accommodate around 3,500 spectators. The auditorium has a semicircular shape, typical of Roman theatres. The highest row of seats was once crowned by a low gallery in the Ionic order. In the middle of the lower section, there was an honorary box. The theatre is now almost completely restored, and judging by the modern stage, it hosts celebrations and performances.
The western stoa has been preserved in a much worse condition than the northern one. In its central part, the remains of a long building adjacent to it were discovered, the function of which is currently unknown. A large room near the southern end of the stoa served as a meeting room and council room.
Two small rooms at the very corner between the western and southern walls used to be toilets - a smaller one for women, a larger one for men. In the men's latrine, the ceiling was supported by four Corinthian columns, the capitals of which are among the best preserved in the entire Asclepieion. The ceiling had gaps for adequate ventilation and lighting, and the floor was lined with beautiful marble. The women's toilet had only 17 seats and was devoid of any decorative elements.
The southern stoa, unlike the northern and western ones, was built over a basement supported by columns. No trace of the above-ground structure has survived, but the basement is clearly visible.
There were three pools and fountains in the Asclepieion area. One of them was located opposite the theatre, close to the north stoa. Patients sat on the marble steps of the pool and washed themselves with water that came from the so-called 'sacred spring' and was considered to have healing properties. Chemical analysis of the water indicated that it was actually slightly radioactive. The second pool was located at the western end of the tunnel leading to the treatment building. Water flowed into this tank through an outlet in the shape of a lion's head and was intended for drinking. The smallest pool was located near the centre of the western stoa. It was carved into the rock and roofed. It was most likely used for therapeutic mud baths. Currently, the pools are empty during the summer, but during the colder and rainier seasons, they fill with water.
In the Asclepieion, everything was considered sacred. The huge courtyard marked by the three stoas described above was partially built-up in ancient times. There were temples of Asclepius the Saviour (Soter), Apollo, and Hygiea - the daughter of Asclepius. Only the stone outlines of their foundations have survived to this day.
The passage between the health centre and the pools, the temples, and the sleeping quarters provided by an 80-meter-long tunnel. It also played a therapeutic role and allowed you to cool down on hot days.
The building called the healing centre, and sometimes referred to as the temple of Telesphorus - son of Asclepius, was located in the southeast corner of the Asclepieion. It was a two-story structure, expanded in Roman times so that its size dominated the neighbouring temple of Asclepius. The ground floor of the circular-shaped building, with six apses located around the perimeter, has been very well-preserved. This building plan was popularized in the Byzantine period. The health centre did not have a dome, it was roofed with wood and covered with ceramic tiles.
Between the health centre and the courtyard of the propylon, there once stood the temple of Asclepius himself, supposedly the most beautiful building in this place. It was built in 150 CE by the Roman consul Cuspius Pactumeius Rufinus. The main part of the temple had a cylindrical shape and was covered with a semicircular dome with a diameter of almost 24 meters. The 3-meter-thick walls were covered with marble mosaics. In the temple, there was a statue of the god Asclepius and statues of other deities related to health. The colonnade leading to the entrance was modelled on the Roman Pantheon, which had been built 20 years earlier. Unfortunately, almost nothing of this building has survived to this day.
There is a car park at the Asclepieion with several shops selling souvenirs and drinks nearby. We recommend the book stand, which offers prices lower than those found in official museum stores at other monuments in Turkey.
The entrance ticket price to the Asclepieion in 2023 was 300 TL. Opening hours for visitors are 8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
The area to explore is not as extensive as in the case of the Pergamene Acropolis. However, you have to walk a long way from the ticket offices, first among the trees, and then along the ancient road Via Tecta, which is completely exposed, so remember about the protection against the sun.
The Asclepieion of Pergamon is located 1 km to the north-west of the centre of Bergama. The route is indicated by signposts placed on the main street of the city (Cumhuriyet Caddesi). From there, turn left, into Galenos Caddesi (Galen Street) and head uphill.