Pamukkale and Hierapolis ancient city ruins in the Denizli region of Turkey is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nicknamed “Cotton Castle” because of its white calcium thermal pools solidified on the side of a hill, along with the landmark structures of Hierapolis, they were the country’s most visited tourist attraction in 2014.
Sitting inland within an agricultural province, the last time I went to Pamukkale and Hierapolis was in 2002 but I didn’t fully absorb the significance of the natural phenomenon, didn’t take any photographs and over the years, my memories became hazy. However I was always conscious that I never talked about it on my blog and so in June of this year, I made a return visit.
Arriving in Pamukkale
Most people visit Pamukkale on a day trip from surrounding holiday resorts. Others pass through for the night on their way to other places. I chose the latter as a way to break up a long bus trip from Cappadocia and so booked into a modern hotel on the outskirts since the closer the hotel is to the thermal pools, the more expensive it is.
Walking around the village is an interesting and comical insight into a community desperate to make money from everyone passing through. It is certainly traditional with local women wearing village clothing, herds of roosters roaming the streets and rusty farmyard equipment sitting in backyards.
Every so often, an old Cortina car whizzed by followed by the latest model of Ford or Opal, reflecting Turkey’s ad-hoc tendency to combine modern with the old. An Asian restaurant seemed quite popular and then of course, there are the louder than life and brash ticket touts, selling guided tours and paragliding experiences.
Had it been my first time in Turkey, it is likely I would have bought something, because of the overwhelming and hard-core sales patter but anyway on this occasion, I decided to go it alone. Despite the mish-mash of old and new and overbearing ticket touts, the village is charming and as a single female, I felt safe. I was also pleased that I had stayed overnight since this allowed me more time to explore.
Things to do at Pamukkale and Hierapolis
- The Ancient Ruins of Hierapolis
- The Thermal Pools
- Cleopatra’s Pool
- The Pamukkale Museum
Ancient Hierapolis City Ruins
Looking at the map, I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk around everywhere in Hierapolis, of which origins date from the 2nd century BC. The name meaning “sacred city” reflected its sprawling masses of temples but most of the ruins date from the Roman period instead and are spread out over a large distance. In truth anyway, the only structure I wanted to see was the large theatre reached by a strenuous hike up a small hill. Walking around in the mid-day heat often has that effect.
I walked in via the back entrance and from there, sat on the top step for roughly 20 minutes. A barrier blocked off the impressive front façade but behind it was a stunning landscape view far into the distance. Truthfully, I think this ancient theatre is better than the larger one seen at Ephesus but many would disagree with me.
Other structures to see from the ancient city of Hierapolis include the Byzantine gates, the Necropolis, and the temple of Apollo but I was eager to see what was in my eyes, the queen of the region and that was the thermal pools.
Pamukkale Hot Springs Thermal Pools
I felt like I was visiting for the first time. Everything seemed so different from when I had come 13 years ago but something else caught my eye even more. There were more dried up travertines than water filled ones. Three sections were spread out on the landscape in front of me but only the middle one was open, packed with bathers swimming and paddling in a milky white water that averages a temperature of roughly 33 degrees. The rock leading up to the pools was a rusty-brown and every so often, the security guard would blow their whistle when people stepped onto it with their shoes on.
I overheard someone else ask security about the dried up thermal pools and the reply was that they shut them for cleaning. Somehow that didn’t sit right with me. This is a natural landmark made from deposits of calcium carbonate, which has existed for thousands of years.
Romans used it as a spa center because the origin of the water is hot springs. Since when did Mother Nature need our help to preserve the earth, unless it is us who have damaged it in the first place! Rumors of the demise of Pamukkale have existed for years. At one point, hotels backing the pools were polluting them but they have since been shut down. At another period in time, bathing in the water was forbidden.
It is also important to remember that Pamukkale and Hierapolis receives millions of visitors every year who each pay 25 lira entrance ticket, 5 lira to the museum and the huge amount of 32 lira if they want to swim in Cleopatra’s pools. Add to this the revenues generated by the souvenir shops and onsite restaurants and that is a humongous amount of money passing through Pamukkale.
So in my eyes, really what the security guard was saying was…
“Actually, the thousands of tourists that are tramping through it every day are disrupting the ecological balance but it generates so much income that we need to keep it open.”
While Pamukkale might not disintegrate during our lifetime, I question whether future generations will see this marvel of Turkey.
Cleopatra’s Pool at Pamukkale
After seeing white Pamukkale, I headed to Cleopatra’s pool because it had restaurants and toilets facilities. A sign at the entrance boasting of the healing qualities of the water said it relieves symptoms of many ailments including teenage acne, high blood pressure and varicose veins.
The cynic in me wondered if it is just a gimmick to justify the high cost of swimming in the pool, which at the bottom contains fallen columns from the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis but it was irrelevant because I wasn’t paying a huge amount of money just to swim.
There is also something seriously wrong about an establishment boasting about super-healing water covering ancient ruins, playing the f***** Macarena dance song from 2011 at loud volume. The ambiance was ruined!
It was confirmation that Pamukkale despite being one of Turkey’s most beautiful landmarks has firmly been stamped, caged up and boxed by the seal of tourism that can make or break a destination. Tutting loudly to myself, I left and headed to the onsite museum.
Pamukkale and Hierapolis Archeology Museum
Situated in 3 rooms and within the gardens, the museum displays artefacts from the ancient ruins of Hierapolis and also other excavated places such as Laodicea and Aphrodisias. The most impressive of them all was the sarcophagus room. I felt a shame that there was only me and four other people touring the museum, whereas the Cleopatra’s pool was jam-packed but not everyone enjoys history, a fact I remind myself of every day.
Despite being blighted by the pitfalls of mass tourism, Pamukkale and Hierapolis is definitely a good place to visit while in Turkey, simply because it is a natural and striking beautiful landmark. People can also take a hot air balloon trip in the early hours of the morning or paraglide over the travertines at any time during the day. Rather than just passing through for the day though, stay overnight because you will appreciate it much more.