8-12 September 2015. I am angry and disappointed. We have walked a long way from the entrance and I can see the blinding white travertine terraces spread out before us and there is no water in them. Where is the classic view of the extraordinary tiers of Pamukkale filled with turquoise water? Where is the view that appears in all the advertising such as in the photo above from the official government site? Where is the view that I have come so far to see that appears on all the postcards? Nowhere. The travertine is dry.
I ask and no one knows, or cares, when, or if, there will be water. I am angry and disappointed.
We had walked up from the lower entrance. The ‘path’ is alongside a cascade of man-made terraces where the water runs continually, flowing down from pool to pool, as well as in a gushing channel to the side. People may bathe here in the calcite-laden waters.
The channel of warm rushing water runs the length of the artificial terraces from top to bottom. My enduring image is of watching a family at play. Dressed in swimsuits, the man and his two sons are sitting in the channel immersed up to their waists, playing and laughing as the water gushes over them. The sun is shining down hot upon us all. The wife and mother wears a long skirt, a top of some sort, a full-length and long-sleeved coat, and a scarf wrapped over her head and tied under her chin. She stands beside the channel in her stockinged feet watching them.
Pamukkale means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish. The landscape is formed by the mineral-rich waters continually flowing from above. A shifting fault line long ago allowed an opening for the water to escape from deep in the earth. On reaching the surface the calcium and hydrogen carbonate in the water react to create calcium carbonate, or travertine, and limestone. Slowly over the millennia as the water flowed away the minerals were left behind to harden and form the terraces. People have bathed in these pools for thousands of years. The dazzling white cliff of travertine is 2.7 kilometres (1.6m) long, 600 metres (1970ft) wide, and 160 metres (525 ft) high. From a distance it looks like a snow covered ski hill in the middle of semi desert.
We had arrived early hoping to beat the crowds,
but unknown to us there is an upper entrance where busloads of people were being dropped off. By the time we had walked to the top it was getting busy. No matter. The complex is huge, and there was the ancient site of Hierapolis to explore.
While keeping an eye out for water being released into the natural terraces we explored the nearby ruins.
The Attalid kings of Pergamom founded Hierapolis, meaning holy city, at the end of the 2nd century BC at the site of an even more ancient cult. Not surprisingly by the time of the Hellenistic period it had become a well-known spa town. Hierapolis became a healing centre where doctors used the waters as treatment for their patients. After it was ceded to Rome in 133 BC the town flourished, reaching its peak in the second and third centuries AD. It became one of the most prominent cities in the Roman Empire in the fields of the arts, philosophy, and trade.
I can imagine this street as a smooth thoroughfare before earthquakes made it rutted. There are colonnaded buildings on either side housing government offices and shops. It’s busy with people going about their errands, in and out of the buildings, some greeting each other, some walking slowly, some swiftly. Families gathering. Merchants and tradesmen making deals. Children playing. Maybe there are studios where artists work, and the ancient equivalent of cafes where philosophers gather to discuss the meaning of life. The street retains its essence as a main thoroughfare, but now only hints at what it once was: humming with activity, and a place everyone in town knew and frequented.
All the time we’re exploring Hierapolis I’m hoping that as we walk along by the terraces on the far side past our central entrance point that there will be water in them and I’ll get to see the classic Pamukkale panorama. But no. There is no water anywhere except in the series of man-made pools. I’m angry. I feel as if there has been false advertising – all the advertising, every picture I’ve ever seen of Pamukkale has tiers of beautiful blue pools in the travertine. I feel cheated.
I find out that the information booth is way up at the south gate, a twenty-minute walk away, but by this time we’ve been here for six hours and it is time to go home.
Later in the day I return alone. As earlier, everyone is directed to remove their shoes at the gate to protect the surface. Once again I walk from the lower entrance barefoot over the travertine up past the man-made pools. It is surprisingly smooth underfoot.
There is one section that has a little water in the upper level. I think it had been completely dry in the morning. Maybe for a while they’d directed the water in that area during the afternoon and I’d missed it, but I don’t see how it could have all drained away so quickly.
I walk the length of the travertine chasing the light. Off in the distance at the far end I can see a section that is clearly blue. Maybe that’s it! I hurry towards it only to discover it is just shadows in the dying light that makes it appear blue.
I am sad, but also glad that I’ve returned. In the soft golden light at the end of the day I experience a greater appreciation of this amazing landscape even without water. It’s not what I’d been expecting but it is still astonishingly unique and beautiful.
Next morning I wake up with the idea of driving to the south gate and asking at the information centre if they know when the water will be directed onto the terraces. The answer is today not at all, but tomorrow it will be, for most of the day. Please please please let it start in the morning because tomorrow we have to drive to Izmir to return the rental car. Today not at all. I think of the many tourists who come to Pamukkale on a one-day tour and are enticed by pictures of the blue water terraces.
Having established that it’s not worth another try at Pamukkale we drive for about half an hour to the beautiful and little-known Kaklik Cave.
Kaklik has the same travertine terraces as Pamukkale, but they are smaller and in a cave. It was discovered when the roof collapsed from natural weathering, and was opened to the public in 2002. It is 190 metres (623ft) long. In contrast to the crowds at Pamukkale we are alone in this extraordinary place. We are completely bowled over. It is stunning. We had not expected this. Wow! we keep saying. Wow!
Sunlight shining into the grotto at the entrance,
and inside the cave.
Next morning we are back at the Pamukkale information centre. The man there is unable to contact the people who can tell him when the water will be directed onto the terraces.
In the mid-twentieth century hotels were built above the travertine causing considerable damage and over-use of the water supply for spa pools. When the site was given World Heritage status the hotels were torn down, the man-made pools were built to help prevent further damage to the natural terraces, and the water flow controlled. All this is good, but in the two and a half days we spent there we did not ever see water in the natural terraces that remotely approached the images shown in all the classic scenes of Pamukkale, or in the images shown in all the advertising. If, like Don, I had not been expecting it I would have likely been enthralled rather than disappointed. On the other hand I had no expectations about Kaklik Cave and the experience was exciting and magical. A good lesson I think.
So we leave, and set out on the drive to Izmir. We drive through farming country:
trucks piled to twice their height with bales of hay or sacks of grain,
tractors with papa driving and mama and the kids in a flatbed trailer behind,
fields of olives, limes, corn, sugar cane, not yet ripe pomegranates, and figs,
and many roadside stalls selling figs and tomatoes.
Don passes a car doing about 120kph. The driver in the car waves his arm out the window signaling to Don to slow down. Sure enough police ahead! Phew! Thank you!
From Izmir we take an overnight train to Konya.
We are awake early, and I sit watching as the fields flow by in the golden glow of first light.
Next post: Konya – the birthplace of Sufism and the resting place of Rumi.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.