Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Legendary Turkey and Pergamon

The first time I visited Pergamon (or Pergamum), I was 16. I was in Turkey as a high school exchange student and visiting some of the ancient sites along the west coast of Turkey with my host family. I remember sitting at the top of the theater, gazing out over the modern city of Bergama, hawks soaring below me, and thinking that I couldn't imagine a more magical landscape. Perched there, at the top the world, I felt weightless, like I could fly out into space if I didn't hold on. I looked to the terraces above me and, dizzy, I looked down to the orchestra of the theater far below and felt it anchor me to the hill.

The Greek theater of Pergamon

The Greek theater of Pergamon could seat up to 10,000 people and had the steepest seating of theaters in the ancient world.

There was so much I didn't know about Pergamon when I was 16. But that visceral experience of the city was something I have never forgotten, even as I have learned about the city in great detail. I didn't know then that the designers of the city had planned that very experience—that they had sited the theater with its unforgettable view to serve as the linchpin for a radical departure in city planning. I didn't know that Pergamon had an experimental design, a radial plan playing off the shape of the theater. No plodding rectangular grid plan for the innovative rulers of this feisty Hellenistic kingdom. And I didn't know that Pergamon had a high tech aqueduct system with pressure pipes and secure underground tunnels to bring water from mountain springs up to the city on the ridge. The monumental center of Pergamon along the ridge top was high value real estate, visible for miles, and it sent out clear messages of power and wonder. This powerful little kingdom could handle all comers. Just ask the Gauls!

I sat there that day on my vertiginous perch wondering how anyone could watch a play from such a height. I had just read the Oresteia in English class that spring. I tried to imagine figures cloaked in white dancing and singing the choruses of the tragedy down in the orchestra of the theater and other figures in great masks with dramatic expressions, mouth openings functioning as megaphones, casting the words of Aeschylus upward on the wind to the seats at the top. How could one concentrate on a play in such a place?

I recall one more thing about that day so long ago. That was the day that I decided to be an archaeologist. Many years and many journeys and much thinking about cultural landscape later, that sense of awe remains. My heart still races when the ridge top site of Pergamon comes into view and I get a catch in my throat when I climb to the top of the theater and look down at the hawks flying in the clear blue skies over the Caicus River valley far below.

See Pergamon for yourself join our Study Leaders along the Turkish coast this summer and fall.

Or, check out our other options for travel to Turkey.