Pergamum dates back to 1000 BC, perhaps earlier, but there is no written evidence until 399 BC when the city emerged as a power during the struggle for territorial control following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. In 301 BC, Lysimachus, one of the successors of Alexander, took control of western Asia Minor. He entrusted his officer Philetaerus with control of Pergamum and left him a huge sum of 9000 talents for expenses. Philetaerus had other ideas: In 282 BC he deserted Lysimachus and took the side of Lysimachus' rival, Seleucus. After the deaths of Lysimachus (in battle) and Seleucus (murdered), Philetaerus named himself king of Pergamum. Under him and his successors, Attalus I (269-197 BC) and his son Eumenes II (197-159 BC), the city became one of the principal centers of Greek (Hellenistic) civilization. During the rule of Eumenes II, it had population of over 200,000 people. Culturally it was rivaled only by the cities of Alexandria and Antioch. Over that time the rulers formed an alliance with Rome, severing ties with the Greeks.

In 133 BC Attalus III Philometer, the last of Pergamum's kings, died without an heir. Per his will the Romans assumed control of the once independent kingdom and in 129 BC, they established the Roman province of Asia by combining Ionia and the former Kingdom of Pergamum. The outcome was far from profitable for the city. The tremendous wealth accumulated by Pergamum's kings was sent to Rome. But the Romans respected the city's past as a religious and cultural center. They designated Pergamum the capital of Asia, until supplanted by Ephesus at the time of Augustus and the birth of Jesus. It was also the site of the first temple to the emperor worship cult, erected to Rome and Augustus in 29 BC, a great honor for the city.

Pergamum acropolis

The earliest city was built atop a cone-shaped acropolis (above), rising over a thousand feet above the surrounding valley. As Sir William Ramsey stated: "Beyond all other cities in Asia Minor, it gives the traveler the impression of a royal city, the home of authority; the rocky hill on which it stands is so huge, and dominates the broad plain so proudly and so boldly." Pliny called Pergamum the most illustrious city of Asia. It was the educational center of the region; "the father of history" Herodotus studied and wrote there.

The acropolis walls were almost perpendicular, except on one side, where there was a steep, narrow passageway to the top, which was easily fortified and guarded. Lines of walls, at one time numbering three, provided additional protection. Because of its defenses, natural and man-made, the city was considered impregnable.

Below, Google Earth view of the Pergamum acropolis.

Pergamum acropolis satellite view

The Pergamum acropolis was modeled after that in Athens; it was, after all, a Greek city. However, the function of Pergamum's acropolis was never the same as that in Athens. Unlike Athens, where everything was focused on religion, Pergamum emphasized social and cultural activities, in other words, daily life. As a result, major buildings were reserved for public use. Even in temples, religion was of secondary importance. Buildings had large areas where citizens could meet, walk or join in social affairs. They were designed to be seen from below and impress those viewing the city from the valley. Today, even in a ruined state, it serves that function very well. Below, model of the Pergamum acropolis at its peak at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

pergamum acropols model

Below, remains of the still imposing structures on the summit of the acropolis. Pergamum was the most spectacular Greek city in Asia Minor. The lower city to the south of the acropolis was the residential area, while public buildings, shrines, temples and palaces were built on artificial terraces on the mountain slope.

pergamum acropolis today

As at Athens, the people entered the acropolis complex through a monumental entrance (propylon) which opened into a courtyard surrounded by three porticoes with Doric columns.

Below, To the west of the monumental entrance stood the Temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros (c. 4th century BC), Pergamum's oldest temple, dedicated to the city-goddess, Athena "who brings victory." It must have presented a stunning appearance, situated as it was on a terrace above the theater on the steep western slope of the hill. The columns in the photo supported the roof of the porticos on the north, east and south sides of the large courtyard that surrounded the relatively small temple.

Athena temple

Adjoining the north colonnade of the Temple of Athena was the city's famed library (below; right side of photo), built about 170 BC. According to Plutarch, it contained 200,000 volumes, second only to the world-renowned library in Alexandria, Egypt.

remains of pergamum library

Pergamum's library had a large reading hall. Manuscripts were rolled or folded and put on shelves. There was an empty space between the walls and shelves for air-circulation to prevent humidity. A statue of Athena Parthenos, goddess of wisdom, stood in the main reading room. Below, artist's conception of the library interior.

pergamum library interior reconstruction

At the southern end of the acropolis was a colonnaded agora (marketplace; from Greek ageiro "to gather"), above which lies a terrace once occupied by the most noted of Pergamum's many temples, the immense Temple of Zeus, also known as the Altar of Zeus. All that remains of the temple is its altar platform marked by a tree growing out of the center (below). Christian horror was aroused by Zeus being called "Soter" ("savior").

altar of zeus today

The Altar of Zeus was built by Eumenes II to commemorate a great victory over the Gauls (Galatians) in Pontus and Bithynia in 229-228 BC. The open-air altar (not a temple) was about one hundred feet long and thirty-five feet high and it was decorated with life-size figures depicting a battle between gods and giants. The great altar. which was included on some lists of the world's wonders, was destroyed during the Byzantine era and the remains were used to repair the acropolis defense walls. In the 19th century these fragments were removed to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany and used in a full-scale reconstruction of the temple (below).

Altar of zeus reconstruction in Berlin

It was once thought the phrase "where Satan has his throne" in Revelation referred to the Altar of Zeus. But most biblical scholars now believe John was denouncing the emperor-worship cult, for which the city was an official center.

Pergamum proudly dedicated temples to three emperors, making the city "temple warden" of the emperor cult three times. The honor of erecting the first temple in Asia to an emperor (Augustus in 29 BC) went to Pergamum. Later came a temple to Trajan (r. 98-117 AD), built by his successor Hadrian. Both emperors were worshiped there. Below, partial reconstruction of the Trajan Temple on the Pergamum acropolis.

trajan temple reconstruction

Still later another temple was erected in honor of Caracalla (r. 211-217 AD) near the theater. Participation in emperor worship was seen as an expression of loyalty, and rejection of it was synonymous with subversion. At the time of Domitian (the emperor at the time Revelation was written), Christians were accused of "atheism" and "hatred against the human race." It would not have been easy to be a Christian in Pergamum.

pergamum acropolis theater

The most striking feature of the acropolis is the Hellenistic theater (above) on the steep western slope, directly below the Temple of Athena and the library. It had the steepest seating of any known theater in the ancient world and the acoustics are still excellent. Its 80 rows of seats were divided into three sections to accommodate 10,000 spectators. Patrons were treated to dramas with characters like Medea, who killed her children after being scorned by Jason and Oedipus tearing out his eyes after learning he had slept with his mother. Performances were quite lengthy, lasting a full day, and it was not desirable to block the view beyond the theater. Therefore the stage building, made of wood, was portable. 360° views of the theater.

pergamum towers of former wall

Above, round towers of one of the Pergamum's imposing defensive walls.

The Middle City, on the southern slopes of the acropolis, includes the remains of an agora (marketplace-town square), an odeum (lecture-concert hall), a bath-gymnasium complex and temples dedicated to Hera, Asclepius and Demeter.


West of the acropolis, on the outskirts modern Bergama, are the remains of Pergamum's famed Sanctuary of Asclepius or Asclepion, a therapeutic and healing center dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Below, Google Earth view of the Asclepion.

Pergamum aesklepion satellite view

Pergamum was a center for the worship of Asclepius, so much so that he was known as "the Pergamene god." Pergamum coins relflect the importance the community attached to the cult. The Asclepion complex covered about 154,000 square feet.

To reach the Asclepion, patients followed the "Sacred Way" (below), a colonnaded street from the city. Originally 2,700-feet-long, only part of the road is still visible.

Sacred Way at Pergamum

The Sacred Way or "Via Tecta" ended at a monumental entrance (propylon) dating from the 2nd century AD (below). It had 12 steps and opened into a large courtyard surrounded by roofed colonnades on three sides. An inscription over the entrance read, "In the name of the gods, death may not enter here." Within the complex was a round white marble altar depicting snakes, the symbol of Asclepius. Snakes were sacred to Asclepius cult because of their power to renew themselves by shedding their skin. Asclepius was often depicted holding a staff with a snake wound around it.

Entrance to Aesklepion

This was not your average medical clinic, but a complete health spa with state-of-the-art (for the day) treatment methods. Patients exercised or took the honey cure. They could walk among the trees and be calmed by the scent of pine. Their dreams were analyzed for diagnostic purposes (two thousand years before Freud), their diets were closely supervised, they were given mud baths (possibly radioactive!) and massages, they were treated with herbal medicines, they had access to a library and a 3,500-seat theater to help them relax and deal with stress, and they drank from a sacred spring (below) and bathed in its waters.

sared spring

A 262-foot-long underground tunnel (below) led to the southeast corner of the complex. Those seeking cures were given hashish pills then, in a drugged state, they would walk through the tunnel in complete silence, listening to the soothing sound of water from the sacred spring flowing under the floor (a form of tension relief). In the ceiling are 12 windows to provide sunlight.

pergamum aesklepion tunnel

The tunnel ended at a "Healing Center" (below), a round building with six sections.

aesklepion healing center

Dating about 150 AD, the treatment center had two stories, but today only the lower floor remains (below). The walls and floor were covered with marble, the roof was made of wood. There were recesses for washing and a sun-terrace.

aesklepion treatment center interior

Alongside was another round temple, dedicated to Asclepius, with rooms where patients slept, hoping that Asclepius would either cure them directly or would appear in a vision prescribing a cure. Archeology has found many gifts and dedications made afterwards by patients, such as small terra cotta body parts, no doubt representing what had been healed. Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla came to this luxury health spa for treatment. Galen (129-199 AD), the most famous physician of antiquity after Hippocrates, was born at Pergamum and received his early training here.

Continuing on the main road from the Asclepion through modern Bergama (site of the lower city in ancient times) you come to a massive basilica known as the Red Courtyard (below), originally built by Hadrian (138-117 AD) as a temple to the Egyptian god Serapis, and later converted into a church dedicated to St. John. It was constructed of red bricks from which its popular name is derived.

pergamum red courtyard