Sun, 16 Mar 2003

Turkish hill site provides glories of antiquity

Horst Heinz Grimm, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Bergama, Turkey

The columns of the Temple of Trajan rise high on top of the hill above the small town of Bergama in western Turkey.

They are silent witnesses to the power of the Pergamon Kingdom which was centered here, near the Aegean coast, 2,200 years ago.

Every day, lines of tourist buses bring groups to see the ruins of the Pergamon of antiquity, or of Pergamum as it is often known in English.

Archaeological work here is dominated by Germans.

Wolfgang Radt, who heads the dig, estimates that 250,000 tourists a year come. Nowadays, a modern road leads to the acropolis, 330 metres above sea level, where souvenir vendors and tour leaders lie in wait for tourists.

People who enjoy walking should leave their cars and take the old pathway, with its stony reminders of the past, to the top of the hill. The walk takes about an hour and is best done in the early morning before the real heat of the day and before the tour buses arrive.

In this once powerful city, tourists can also see the foundations of the famous Zeus Altar dating from the second century BC. But to see the altar itself, you need to go to Berlin where the reconstructed frieze depicting a battle between Gods and Giants is on display at the Pergamon Museum.

In 1902, German archaeologists brought the altar to Germany stone-by-stone with the express permission of the sultan. If they had remained where they were they would have been used as construction material by local people.

A German engineer and archaeologist, Carl Humann, discovered the Pergamon of antiquity in the 1860s and, between 1878 and 1886, he headed the first dig at the site on behalf of a Berlin Museum.

Ever since, the site has been a domain of German researchers. They were interrupted only by the Second World War and are still active. Radt himself has been here since 1971.

In antiquity, Pergamon was an important center of arts and science. Its rise to fame and wealth in the 3rd century BC could be put down to the Philetairos - the King of Pergemum - who founded his power on an inherited fortune.

This golden age is recalled by the theater with 80 rows of seat and a capacity of 15,000 people on the steep slopes of the hill. The city once had a population of between 160,000 and 200,000. The Bergama of today has about 70,000.

A significant invention came out of Pergamon: a material suitable for writing was made from animal skins. Pergament parchment offered competition for the writing material of the time, papyrus. The city library contained more than 200,000 rolls of pergament - the most comprehensive collection of writings in antiquity next to the legendary papyrus library in Alexandria.