Adventures in Bergama: The Red Basilica and Pergamum

We stayed two nights in Bergama in an adorable place called Odyssey Guesthouse, which is beautifully decorated with handmade lace curtains and faded carpets, and uniquely includes in each room a copy of Homer’s Odyssey. [This would be appreciated more by someone who does not have a serious hatred of Homer.] It’s cosy and really feels like a home, with the framed photographs and woven wall hangings. It’s situated up in the old part of town, a short walk from the Red Basilica and about a ten minute walk from the cable car to take you up to Pergamum, so only a very, very lazy person would complain about the location.

Arriving in the afternoon from Canakkale, we visited the Red Basilica on our first day during a break in the rain. When I’d last visited, I accidentally crashed someone’s wedding photos and got invited to the reception. We had no such luck this time, but we did have the place to ourselves to explore.

The ‘Red Basilica’ is actually the remains of an ancient Roman temple used for the worship of Egyptian deities – in particular Isis and Serapis. Possibly built by the emperor Hadrian in the second century CE, in later years it was converted to a Christian church dedicated to St. John and has the distinction of being one of the Seven Churches of the Revelation [or Apocalypse]. According to Revelation 2:12-17, the church in Pergamum [modern Bergama] is the church that needs to repent. Apparently some naughty things were done by the congregation there…

Regardless, the remains of the Red Basilica are quite interesting. It’s surrounded by a terribly half-hearted wooden barricade to stop you going in, as well as a couple of warning signs about falling rocks, but if you don’t go in then you can’t see the inside of the temple! It’s called red for a reason – the bricks are all a deep burnt red colour. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of Pergamum, with its graceful white fluted columns; to be fair it dates to a much later period. It would have been marvellous to be able to see it as it was back then, rather than the falling down walls and missing statues that remain today. Stray cats amble around, drinking water from bowls made from the carved parts of fallen blocks. Blocked off areas with rows of broken bits of marble suggest that work is ongoing, and yet none is evident. It feels abandoned, despite the security guard who was trying to hurry us up so that he could lock the gate and go home early.

It rained all evening, all night, and all the next morning with roaring thunderstorms to let you know it was serious. So we slept in and waited for the clouds to clear a little before heading up to the Acropolis of Pergamum – the highlight of Bergama and in my opinion one of the highlights of Turkey. We took the cable car up, watching as shepherds herded their sheep below us and little shacks appeared, before we could look into the lower town of Pergamum and see the fields of fallen columns forming the old gymnasium.

Given the inclement weather we decided to see the main part of the city first. Last time I’d done it all backwards as hordes of tour buses got there before me; this time it was just us. We basically had Ancient Pergamum to ourselves, which felt pretty special. Because of this, we may have acted like little kids for a bit…being a little silly and probably breaking a whole bunch of rules that they didn’t think that they needed signs for.

Like this.

Pergamum is an ancient Greek city, and was the creatively named capital of the Kingdom of Pergamum during the Hellenistic period in the third and second centuries BCE. What I’m referring to as Pergamum is basically the Acropolis – most of the remains of the city, at least the remains that tourists want to visit, are here. The Altar of Pergamum was pilfered by the Germans and is in the aptly named Pergamon Museum in Berlin, although the base remains on site. It was on this that Mother and I respectfully climbed about on the columns.

It’s hard to describe the site, as there are so many different aspects – numerous temples, the grand agora, the Temple of Zeus, the incredibly steep amphitheatre, the old fortress walls, a well, underground cisterns, a gymnasium, sanctuaries of Athena and Trajan, baths, palaces, a temple to Dionysus and so much more. Thankfully there are detailed signs around the place to tell you what is what, as once it’s all fallen down it’s not always so easy to figure out. What is easy, however, is spending time exploring the Acropolis. While many people zip in and out, seeing the remaining columns up the top and checking out the amphitheatre before they have to get back on their bus, it’s well worth taking the time to wander slowly and just absorb. It seems crazy that the beautifully carved and ornate chunks of marble now lying in the grass were made more than two thousand years ago; that people sat in the hard marble seats to watch theatrical performances there; that sacrifices were made, that banquets were held, and all this thousands of years before any of us today were even born.

Part of the lower town - photo from my 2010 visit

Lower town - photo from 2010

I love the theatre, with its steep steps and uncomfortable looking seats. Sitting at the back, I doubt you could have seen much – not much has changed in modern theatres, if you’re sitting up in the gods! Many of the steps have worn or fallen away, and at the bottom you can see the remains of the columns delineating the stage. It’s beautiful, and the view over the theatre is my favourite at Pergamum.

I spent about six hours there my first visit; we spent about four this time, before the rain and the wind became too fierce and the mud in the lower section too threatening. In all that time, I believe we saw about four other people there. There’s definitely benefits to traveling out of season!

Mum was having a great time, climbing up on old blocks and showing me how brave she was. That was until she tried to climb up on this one [which, to be honest, was only about four metres above the ground…if that], and her legs went all wobbly and she panicked and couldn’t do it.

Instead, she chose to pose for photos like this.

However, I have some impressive looking pictures from other parts of the ruins that do make her look a little more adventurous.

We braved the rain for quite some time, but decided that we’d prefer to get back down before it got too crazy. We were already practically wet through. Needless to say, once we made it to the bottom and were heading back into town, the rain lightened and then stopped for a while. It’s sneaky like that.

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10 responses to “Adventures in Bergama: The Red Basilica and Pergamum

  1. Hi Cat, Jen can’t receive your blogs for some reason, thought I’d try to get them posted to her. (Love computer incompetants – myself included).
    Just back from Char’s 21st. Lovely speech read out from you. Missed you.

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