Turkey: Well-healed

By Justine Tyerman

Peace descends on a boisterous busload after a trip to an ancient healing centre in Turkey.

The Sacred Way, Via Tecta, at the Asklepion. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The Sacred Way, Via Tecta, at the Asklepion. Photo / Justine Tyerman

The power of suggestion ... or the power of healing? A busload of lively, not particularly spiritual Kiwis and Aussies felt soothed and tranquil after a visit to the Asklepion of Pergamon, an ancient healing centre where ailments of the mind and body were treated 2000 years ago.

Some even used the term serene.

Built as a sanctuary to honour Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing whose trademark snake and staff are the well-known international symbols of modern medicine today, the magnificent ruins are near the present-day Turkish city of Bergama.

A sacred site existed at Pergamon as early as the 4th century BC and in its heyday in the second century AD, the healing centre was frequented by well-to-do citizens and powerful rulers such as the Roman emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla, our guide Mehmet Kaplan explained.

The famous physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen was born in Pergamon in 129 AD and trained at the Asklepion. After further study in Smyrna, Corinth and Alexandria, Galen became personal physician to Marcus Aurelius and returned to the Asklepion as physician to the Roman Empire's star gladiators.

Galen contributed greatly to the understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, neurology, philosophy and logic, and his theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1300 years.

Patients entered the healing centre along the 820m Sacred Way or Via Tecta, the ancient road linking the Asklepion and Pergamon's acropolis and spectacular hillside theatre, which had the steepest seating in the ancient world.

At the great arched Ruined Gate patients were inspected by priest-physicians and the terminally-ill and pregnant women were refused admission. An inscription on the gate read, "For the Sacredness of all Gods, Death is Forbidden to Enter Asklepion".

The final part of the Sacred Way was decorated with columns erected during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and a variety of vows and commodities were sold along the way to help in the healing of patients.

All that remains of the old temple of Asklepios is a remnant of the altar - the centrepiece in the first courtyard - a chunk of white marble with snakes coiled around the leaves of an olive branch.

The ancient Greeks believed snakes were immortal because they shed their skins and appeared to come back to life. Tame snakes were kept in the temples and sleeping chambers at the Asklepion as symbols of regeneration.

A later circular domed Temple of Asklepios, with a diameter of 23m, was built in imitation of the Pantheon 20 years after the structure in Rome was completed (129 AD).

Another colonnade, with 17 intact columns, leads from a library and Emperor's Room, to a restored semi-circular Roman Theatre which still hosts classical plays every May during the annual Bergama Arts Festival.

I climbed to the top row of seats and reflected on the staggering 2000 years of performances the theatre had witnessed.

Many of the treatments at Pergamon were based on a sacred source of water that was recently discovered to have radioactive properties, Mehmet explained.

Some brave souls sampled the water at the sacred spring which still runs freely from a tap, down the steps into an underground tunnel where patients would meditate and listen to the healing sounds of water from the spring and fountains.

We walked through the tunnel to the Temple of Telesphorus, a circular treatment centre, sacred water baths and sleeping chambers.

The in-depth analysis of dreams, an early form of psychotherapy, was an integral part of the healing process. It was believed that dreams recounted a visit by the god Asklepios, who held the key to curing illness.

Other treatments included massage, bathing in mud, the use of herbs, oils and wine, and physical exercise at a gymnasium.

There was a sense of lightness and calm at the Asklepion that even the cynics in the group found hard to explain. Several in our tour party who had received counselling in recent months after unhappy relationships confessed to feeling at peace.

The experts too hold the place in high esteem. International psychotherapy conferences hold receptions at the Asklepion in honour of the historical significance of the ancient healing centre, the world's first psychiatric hospital.

Justine Tyerman travelled on a 10-day Ancient Kingdoms Classical Turkey tour, courtesy of Innovative Travel Company and flew Emirates. Bookings by Elliott Travel, Gisborne.

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