About a contemplative afternoon at the Asclepion of Bergama (Pergamon) and the sounds that went with it.

For the first time on this trip, I really goofed up with my camera.  I took pictures all morning and some more in the afternoon with my small camera without a disk in it!  Why isn’t there a beep or warning mechanism?  I clicked away and since I usually don’t look at the pictures afterwards (some will turn out and others won’t), I completely missed the problem until it was way too late.  So there are no pictures of Adrian, the hippie-healer owner of the Pension Nur in Selcuk and no pictures of the wonderful scenery along the coast, or any of the afternoon sun-lit alleys of Bergama.

Ever since Pamukkale the surrounding landscape has been pleasant.  The harshness of the north-eastern mountains is gone.  There are still mountains, but they frame wonderful fertile valleys and are soft, forested, rolling hills.  You pass through areas filled with olive trees, ploughed fields, greenhouses, and lots of fruit plantations.  The oranges and lemons are ripe already whereas other fruit trees just started to blossom in white and pink.  Whole areas are transformed into colorful natural carpets.  The bus along the coast takes you past harbors with dozens of large vessels docked, and bays with many small fishing boats. Hundreds of villas line the shore with gorgeous views of the water.  It looks like a place to live if you can afford it!

Bergama, the modern village which has replaced the ancient city of Pergamon, is a small and nondescript town which flourishes in large part because of tourism.  People come to see the Asclepion 3 km west of the city center and the ancient Acropolis 5 km north of it, and possibly the museum.   But everything is happening on a small scale here; no resort hotels and far fewer visitors than in Ephesus or Troy.  In fact, the comparison with Ephesus is simply ridiculous.  As I could hardly turn at Ephesus without having to elbow my way through another group of tourists, I spent ½ hour today sitting at the top of the 3500 seat theater at the Asclepion looking down on an empty site which had a French couple, a Spanish guy, and a group of Japanese tourists come through while I was enjoying the scenery.

Asclepions (or should it be Asclepia) have always fascinated me.  In my Edirne blog, I described one of those surprisingly progressive hospitals of Ottoman times where diet, aromas, water sounds and music were used to holistically heal psychological patients.  But that was Ottoman times.  The Greeks had their ideas a good thousand years earlier, no less progressive.  Asclepius, one of the legendary fathers of Greek medicine who lends his name to these institutions, Hippocrates, or Hygeia, were all hugely influential to Western medicine, but a lot of what they did also seems to have gone by the wayside with the onset of Christianity and had to be reinvented only recently.  Asclepius’s attribute, the staff with two intertwined snakes, still identifies our pharmacies.

These Asclepions were a lot more than hospitals.  The temple of treatment was just one component of a whole complex consisting of dormitories, temples dedicated to gods, at least one theater, often a stadium or exercise area, shops selling remedies and all kinds of things, and finally tombs for those who did not make it…  There often are sacred mountains, caves, or springs and fountains as well.  At Pergamon, a stately promenade of shops connected the Asclepion to other parts of the city, particularly the Acropolis which I will visit tomorrow.  Once you enter the precinct you can overlook the entire site, at least today, since everything except for a few re-assembled columns and the theater is “knee-high”.   But even with everything in its heyday, this was not a large area like an acropolis or a whole city.  It was “just” a hospital complex.

You could easily say “seen one, seen them all”.  There is not much to see today.  A vaulted tunnel survives in which the patients would have been led to the treatment center.  A few walls of the once double-storied center survive.  Of the three temples there, dedicated to Apollo, Hygeia and another medicine-related god, nothing but a few traces in the grass remain.  A few column-stumps of the once impressive agoras have been put up again.  Even the theater, fully restored now, indicates clearly how much there was (or was not) left.  One section has been left as found in the 19th century – you would never guess, it was a theater; it’s a few crumbling bulges in the hill.  One section has been restored with original stones – they are very rough and are missing the top layer.  It would not be fun to sit down.  And most everything else has been fully restored, practically rebuilt.  Judging by the brand-new stage, I wonder if there aren’t temporary performances held there once in a while.  It would be a perfect place.

No, you don’t come to Bergama to see more columns.  I think most people come to experience the setting; at least I do.  I like to see things in their context, feel the ambiance, see the surrounding areas, and get a glimpse of the past.  It really takes 20 minutes to see what there is to see.  After that, your time is spent taking it in, not just looking.  I chose the north western corner of the theater which put the sun behind me to illuminate everything.  And since I was sitting at the highest spot, everything was at my feet.

I watched the people come and go, but mostly, I listened to the sounds.  This was quite something.  Adjacent to the Asclepion is a huge military base.  Warning signs to photograph in the wrong direction are posted everywhere.  It was just my luck that they were training for a parade (I think) and that full marching band was playing.  But since it was playing in the distance, it did not drone out the sheep bells which were ringing behind me non-stop.  A large herd was grazing right outside the Asclepion and each sheep was equipped with a bell; higher ones, and lower ones.  But the first place in the concert goes to the frogs and toads.  In a deafening concert they were making themselves known to each other and the world from the two former fountains which were fed by the holy water.  By the way, if you dared, the holy water was still flowing, unfortunately out of an unappetizing iron pipe.

You could almost imagine the well-fed, well-entertained patients going down through the tunnel into the two-storied temple for their night treatment.  Opium or similar stimuli would have helped them to drift into sweet dreams during which they might be awoken by a priest who would be there to interpret the dream and to make a diagnosis.  The priests supposedly also received a divine message from the gods determining your payment.  It was always exactly what you could afford given your income!  How is that for socialized medicine?!

Where has it all gone – I think you can see it.  Look at some of the older homes in Bergama, and strangely familiar looking building blocks appear everywhere!  Add a few earthquakes, disinterest, neglect and just time to the mix and you know why you are looking at nothing much today.

Good night.