With a Ph.D. in Islamic history from the University of Pennsylvania, Smithsonian Study Leader Gary Leiser has taught several courses in Middle Eastern history and published nine books, most on the early history of the Turks in the Middle East. For more on Gary and traveling with him, click here.
It is sometimes said that Turkey has better Greek ruins than Greece and better Roman ruins than Italy. Certainly, the classical ruins of Turkey rank among the best in the Mediterranean world. One site that has always intrigued me is ancient Pergamon (or Pergamum) in the northwest corner of Turkey. Ephesus, to the south, may get more tourist attention today than Pergamon because of the extent of its ruins, but its setting cannot compare to that of Pergamon. The acropolis of Pergamon perches atop a cone-shaped mountain that looms perhaps a thousand feet over the modern city of Bergama. It is approached by a narrow road that reaches the base of the upper walls. After a short but steep walk, you find yourself transported back to the late Roman Empire. Pergamon was the most powerful city in the Roman province of Asia before the rise of Ephesus in the first century A.D.
That power was expressed in everything around you: the Temple of Trajan, which is the best monument that he erected in Asia; the famous library, which was rivaled only by that of Alexandria; and the stunning theater, which falls away into space on the side of the mountain. Here was also a Temple of Zeus, so beautifully preserved that the Germans carted it off to Berlin! Seemingly standing on top of the world and, at the same time, among the tangible evidence of Roman power, your sense of awe immediately acquires a new dimension. In the spring, this sense can be tempered by waves of wild flowers that cover the mountain. But a thunderstorm can illuminate the acropolis with lightning and quickly remind you that this was no ordinary place.
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