A Sacred Necropolis

It was suffocatingly still. And silent.

We started walking up a wide road, lined with what looked like crumbling little cottages. The asphalt seemed out of place, the heat bouncing off it in waves and enveloping us in a disquieting haze. Peering into a doorway, spooked by my own shadow, it was evident these structures were never meant for the living.
We had expected to walk through the city of Hierapolis, but it turned out our guide had decided to do it in reverse, through the Northern necropolis, set out like a miniature city with over 1200 tombs in every shape and size – tumuli, sarcophagi and house-shaped – from the Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian periods! And this is just one of three cemeteries surrounding the city!

Hierapolis meaning ‘Sacred City’ was founded in the 2nd century and started out as a thermal Spa, due to its proximity to the Pammukale hot springs. Thought to be named after a Phrygian temple dedicated to Hieron and/or Hiera the wife of the founder of the Attalid dynasty, Hierapolis became a healing center, and by the 3rd century was elevated to one of the most prominent cities in the Roman empire, with a population of over 100,000.

Judging from the number of tombs in the necropolis, I suspect the healing powers of the thermal springs is subject to debate. The ‘antique’ pool where Cleopatra is thought to have bathed, is now a tacky swimming pool inside a local hotel, so awfully overrun with people, we didn’t even venture close.

The apostles Paul and Philip preached and propagated Christianity in Hierapolis, and Philip is alleged to have been martyred here by crucifixion in 54AD. The site where he was buried is marked with a structure known as the Martyreum. Doubts persist about whether this was actually Philip the Apostle or Philip the Deacon who came much later. (On 27 July 2011 however, Turkish archaeologists claimed to have found the tomb of Philip the apostle within a newly excavated church in Hierapolis!)

Devastated by frequent invasions and earth quakes, and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the city was eventually abandoned in the 14th century. and buried in limestone deposits from the hot springs, until excavations began in 1887.

Thermal springs - Pammukale, Turkey
The dazzling white travertine terraces next door in ‘Pammukale’ or ‘cotton castles’ are formed by deposits of carbonate minerals from the hot springs. The deep turquoise thermal pools are nothing short of breathtaking.

Hieropolis/Pammukale is usually combined with Ephesus and Pergamom. While her ruins are admittedly not as magnificent as those of her sister cities, the necropolis is the largest in Anatolia and possibly all of the Mediterranean. And considerably less frequented than the hot springs.

If you consider cemeteries sombre and boring you might want to skip Hierapolis. My interests on the other hand border on the ghoulish, even if I am – sometimes – scared of my own shadow.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

75 thoughts on “A Sacred Necropolis

    1. Oh Fergie, that is so lovely to hear from someone who writes as well as you 🙂 I admire your Haikus so much!

  1. Your photos and story of the necropolis and “the dazzling white travertine terraces next door in ‘Pammukale,’ are a contrast in moods. Dazzling white and turquoise in one. Somber, historic notes in the other. Each with a rich history.

    1. Thanks Gilly. I don’t have any photos from Troy because my camera died down and I left my spare batteries in the vehicle!

    1. Thank you Ashok. Thought some of your projects were pretty awesome too 🙂 having to fill in my details each time I want to comment is a bit tedious though.

  2. hey madhu akka,

    coming back after a long time….

    The Freshness in your photography is still as good….


    Are you posting this as you travel? or are you posting the photos which were taken long back?

  3. I love cemeteries so I would be right there with you! And the color of those thermal pools is just stunning. 🙂

    1. The thermal pools were wonderful, but it was the cemetery that I found intriguing! Thank you LuAnn 🙂

  4. Beautifully written narrative and great images as always. Perfectly timed for our trip here next month – thank you!

    1. You are all set then Suzanne? Have a great time and tell us all about it when you return 🙂

      1. All set Madhu! Flights, transfers, hotels all booked 🙂
        We’ve gone for one of your recommendations for Cappadocia so thank you and, yes, I’ll be telling you all about it – can’t wait!

  5. As if I went back in time. Beautiful, timeless Necropolis. The images and words made a one sacred , unforgettable journey. Thanks.

    1. Thank you Island traveller! Yes the silent trek through the necropolis is quite unforgettable 🙂

  6. What a fascinating place to visit, Madhu. What a great pity about Cleopatra’s pool, but I suppose they don’t really know for sure that she actually bathed there. I also like to explore cemeteries, but this one is outstanding.

    1. I don’t think they know for sure AD. And yes this was very different from the other comparatively modern cemeteries I have visited as well.

  7. This is awesome Madhu!!! Your pics and your voice really capture the feel for this amazing place. As someone who has always loved archeology, this essay hit me right where I live. You’re lucky to have been able to walk amongst history! Cheers!

  8. Thanks for sharing, Madhu. I know I can always count on learning and seeing something new in your posts. The color in the hot springs is so striking!

  9. Very interesting. Your photos are always so brilliant, but the clarity of your narratives are also a pleasure.

  10. Breathtaking!!!!!!!
    And the pic of your shadow….Well, you had set the tone, so I too was startled!!!

    Thank you so much for these Trips!!!!!!!!

  11. Lovely description with so much history and a touch of the tongue-in-cheek! I had no idea Hierapolis was such a major city during Roman times – how ironic that the very hot springs that prompted the city’s foundation eventually buried it in limestone deposits!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it James 🙂 Turkey is a treasure trove of Greco/Roman sites. We barely scratched the surface.

  12. Another neat post, Madhu! For a town meant to be a healing center, Hierapolis looks far from energizing or relaxing. However, it is a kind of place I normally would love to visit when I travel.

    1. Thanks Bama. I agree, and those tombs speak for themselves 😀 Perhaps people left it too late to come here to be healed?

  13. Walking through the cemetery makes me a little melancholy, thinking about all the unused potential and unmet dreams.. It’s kind of humbling too.. in that it reminds you that you’re very much still alive. Beautiful pictures as always!

    1. I do too, in the newer cemeteries, especially when I come across graves of the very young. Pleasure to see you here CK 🙂

    1. Absolutely! Although there is a feeling of poignancy when I visit newer ones. Thanks Lynne.

  14. very moving and inspiring. you may want to read my blog for today. Great minds with but a single thought! Hugs, Barbara

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