Ancient Hierapolis appears to have been founded by King Eumenes II of Pergamon and its name is derived from Hiera, the wife of King Telephos, the legendary founder of Pergamon. The city became subject to Rome in 133 B.C. In 17 B.C. during the reign of Tiberius, it suffered a heavy earthquake that substantially destroyed the city, requiring it to be rebuilt.
Preliminary excavations at Hierapolis were undertaken by a German team towards the end of the last century. Since 1957, excavation and restoration work has been going on under the direction of an Italian group of archaeologists.
The ancient city was strung out on either side of a long colonnaded street called the Plateia. Measuring 13 meters in width, this street ran north and south from the southern gateway to the Arch of Domitian in the north. It is paved with huge blocks of limestone. The first structure one encounters on reaching the plateau is the city baths, which are in a very good state of preservation. The baths are Roman and from the 2nd century A.D. In the eastern part of the baths is a palaestra measuring 36.13 by 52.25 meters. Immediately to the north and south of the palaestra are two big rooms that were reserved for the emperor and ceremonial use. A large hall stretches the length of the western side of the palaestra and this was the gymnasium used by athletes. This salon led into the frigidarium from which one proceeded to the barrel-vaulted rooms of the caldarium. A small room adjacent to the large hall now serves as a museum in which works discovered in the Hierapolis excavations are on display. Since Hierapolis was principally a luxury resort town it was richly adorned with magnificent sculptures showing the influence of the Aphrodisias (q.v.) school and is well worth a visit.
The well-preserved theater of Hierapolis commands a magnificent view of the plain below. The original theater was located above the northern gate, but when the city was rebuilt during the reign of the Flavian emperors (60 A.D.) the theater was relocated here, and the seats from the old structure were used in the work.
During the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.) the theater’s scene was modified and richly decorated with reliefs. In 532 it was discovered that the sequence had been weakened by age and the almost daily seismic activity that takes place here and had to be reinforced. Since the theater has been restored, it is now possible to see the friezes of mythological scenes depicting Apollo and Artemis in their original positions. Thirty rows of the seats of this theater resting against the slope have survived. Originally there were 20 rows in the lower part and 25 in the upper separated by a diazo. The cave was divided into eight aisles.
Passing through the city walls above the theater we proceed to the Martyrion of St Philip. This is an octagonal building erected on a square measuring 20 by 20 meters. It was built in the early 5th century. Even in its present state of ruin, it is an impressive structure. Retracing our footsteps to the theater we may now examine the ruins below the theater.
Near the road is the Temple of Apollo, the principal deity of the city. While the foundations of this temple go back to late Hellenistic times, the present remains of the upper structure are from the 3rd century A.D. Next to it is a cave (called the Plutonian) from which poisonous gases emerge. (According to Strabo, an ox thrust into this cave would keel over and die. He himself experimented with doves.) The temple measures 20 by 15 meters and sat on a platform that was 2.5 meters high. Before the temple is a monumental fountain. Built during the late 3rd century A.D., the walls of this rectangular fountain are very well preserved. There was also a pool located before the fountain and the structure was richly adorned with statues and columns. The water for this fountain was brought here by aqueducts, remains of which may be seen in the vicinity of Guzelpinar and between Pamukkale and Karahayit. East of the present museum is a Christian basilica consisting of a nave and two aisles. It dates from the 6th century A.D. Walking along the route of the Plateia (which now passes through the modern swimming pool and motel) reminds us that this main street dividing the ancient city was once decorated with colonnades, porticos, and important buildings located on either side. The street runs directly toward the city walls passing through a gateway built in Byzantine times atop an earlier fountain. On the way is a basilical structure with two aisles and a nave whose eastern end terminates in an apse. The city walls were built in 396 A.D. and were reinforced by twenty-eight towers. Passing through the Byzantine gate we come to a rather well-preserved section of the Plateia. This part was built during the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.) and terminates with the Arch of Domitian. This monumental gateway was actually erected by Julius Frontinus, who was proconsul of the Roman province of Asia (middle western Anatolia) in 82 and 83 A.D. and dedicated to the emperor. The gate has two round towers and three portals. Excavations are now in progress to reveal the remains of shops and houses that once lined both sides of this street.
Northeast of the street between the Byzantine and Domitian gates was the agora of ancient Hierapolis. The traces of the city’s original theater may be seen above. As we follow the road in the direction of the necropolis we pass by the imposing walls of a building originally erected as baths around the end of the 2nd century A.D. It was converted to a church in the 5th century. The huge necropolis of Hierapolis spreads out on either side of the road for a distance of two kilometers. It contains tumuli, sarcophagi, and house-shaped tombs that range in date from the late Hellenistic period to early Christian times. It is one of the most extensive and best-preserved ancient cemeteries in Anatolia and a stroll through it leaves a deep and mystical impression upon the visitor, particularly on a moonlit night. The road proceeds on to the hot springs of Karahayit located 4 kilometers away.