Pergamum is an ancient Greco-Roman city in western Turkey, about 15 miles from the Aegean coast, 60 miles from Izmir, the closest airport, 110 miles from Ephesus, and about 320 miles from Istanbul. The modern town on the site is Bergama.
From the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE, Pergamum was among the most culturally influential cities in the Mediterranean region and reached a population of 200,000. The library at Pergamum was the largest after that of Alexandria; and legend tells that, for a wedding present, Mark Antony gave Cleopatra the contents of the Pergamum library to insure the uncontested cultural prominence of Alexandria.
There’s something about Pergamum that makes it my favorite Greco-Roman site. I even prefer it to Ephesus, although they are very different sites and really shouldn’t be compared. But, if I had to choose just one, I’d pick Pergamum. Most of what is left to visit is on the acropolis, 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The white marble remains are scattered around a mountain top that drops off rather abruptly. White columns soar against the sky. The theater claims to be the steepest in the world and I have no reason to doubt it. It looks to be clinging to the hillside for dear life.
The most prominent site atop the acropolis is the Temple of Trajan, which is gradually being reconstructed. Scant remains of the Temple of Athena and the Pergamum Library are also there, as well as a monumental gate and tombs of Hellenistic rulers. Spilling down the slope is the incomparable theater. The Temple of Dionysus, the foundations of the great Altar of Zeus and the agora are terraced into the slope.
In the valley, about 2 miles from the acropolis, the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of healing, was a very popular spa and health center in the 2nd century. People came from across the Roman world for treatment. Asclepius would appear to patients in a vision and tell them what to do to get well. The famous physician of the time, Galen, was trained at Pergamum.
Less than a mile from the acropolis is the Red Basilica, built as a temple to the Egyptian gods Serapis and Isis and converted to a Christian church in the Byzantine era.
Pergamum is a common stop on any Classical tour of Turkey, for its historical significance and beauty; but it has special significance for Christians and is usually included in Turkey pilgrimage itineraries, which trace the establishment of early Christian communities by the apostle Paul.
In the Book of Revelation, the author is instructed in a vision to write to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor: “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness who was put to death in your city, where Satan lives.” (Revelation 2:12-13)
Some scholars believe Satan’s throne in this passage refers to the magnificent Altar of Zeus, which stood prominently on the slope of the acropolis of Pergamum. Most of that altar was taken to Germany in the late 19th century and is on display at the Pergamum Museum of Berlin; only the base remains in its original spot. The Turkish government has appealed to the international court in The Hague to have the altar returned.