A journey to Pergamum, Turkey- the Third Church of Asia

A journey to Pergamum, Turkey- the Third of the Seven Churches

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Let’s back to ancient times, about 1900 years ago. This is the time of the Book of Revelation- one of the most famous and mysterious books in human history. A part of its prophecy consists of seven messages to the Seven Churches of Asia. One of them is the church of Pergamum, in the ancient city with the same name, located in Western Turkey. So, let’s visit and explore this city and its secrets!

But before diving into the ruins of Pergamum and its history, let’s first take a look at a very special book- the Book of Revelation! Because Pergamum is not just one of the many other ancient cities, but there is something unique, and the answer is in this book.

The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible, known as “Apocalypse”. While the word “apocalypse” today is considered “the end of the world” (by horrible disasters), its original meaning is just “revelation”- a prophecy for the future. And yes, it speaks about the end of this world, but also about the beginning of a new, perfect world.

The Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation

This book is structured as a complex prophecy in several parts, given to John the Apostle around 95 AD, while he was exiled to Patmos Island in Greece. This prophecy reveals secrets for the future (from John’s point of view)- from the 1st century AD to eternity. It starts with an introduction where Jesus Christ reveals to John. What follows next is the first main part of the Book of Revelation- the messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.

These churches were Christian fellowships established consequently in seven cities in the Roman province of Asia (not the whole continent of Asia!), in today’s Western Turkey. They were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

And while the messages to them consist of certain instructions, promises from God, sin exposures, and encouragements, they are at the same time prophecies for Christianity in the following centuries, as a part of the whole Apocalypse.

This makes Pergamum- the city of the third one from the Seven Churches a special and unique place. So, let’s take a look at the message to the church of Pergamum!

Read the Book of Revelation!

The message to the Church of Pergamum

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of Him Who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live- where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to My name. You did not renounce your faith in Me, not even on the day of Antipas, My faithful witness, who was put to death in your city- where Satan lives.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

As you can see, this text raises a lot of questions: about the throne of Satan, the man called Antipas (who was he?), the teachings of Balaam and Nicolaitans, and more. And of course, what does all of this mean? Let’s try to find answers, but to do it, let’s first start with another obvious question: Where is Pergamum?

Remains of Pergamum
Remains of Pergamum

Where is Pergamum

The ancient city of Pergamum (called also Pergamon, or Pergamos) is located on a high and steep mesa-type hill (elevation: 335 m above sea level), not far from the Aegean coast of today’s Turkey (at 26 km from the coast). The hill of Pergamum is not alone, it is a part of a larger low mountain system, yet this hill is more prominent than the other hills and mountains nearby.

Today, the hill of Pergamum is covered by the ruins of the ancient city, and the modern Turkish town of Bergama (obviously taken its name from “Pergamum” or “Pergamon”), is established at the foot of this hill.

But here, what today are the ruins of Pergamum, once was a living city. And there was a Christian society living in this city that was chosen by God to be a part of the Apocalypse. Why and how? Let’s dive further into the past, to discover how the city of Pergamum was established and what is its history before the Book of Revelation.

The ancient history of Pergamum

To make it simpler, let’s generalize the ancient history of Pergamum.

Pre-Hellenistic times

The earliest traces of humans on the hill of Pergamum date from the 8th century BC. Later, this place was in the territory of the Kingdom of Lydia, then it was conquered by the Persian Empire.

During the time of Persia, Pergamum was involved in revolts against the empire but didn’t gain its independence until the conquest of Alexander the Great.

Hellenistic-Attalid Kingdom (281-133 BC)

The army of Alexander conquered the area around Pergamum in 336 BC. After Alexander’s death, the Macedonian empire entered into the Wars of Diadochi era, when it gradually disintegrated into several smaller kingdoms. In this political chaos, a local Greek lieutenant called Philetaerus who was based in Pergamum found a new independent kingdom and the dynasty of Attalids. It was the Kingdom of Pergamum, and the Attalid Dynasty ruled it from 281 to 133 BC.

About a century later, in 188 BC, the Kingdom of Pergamum reached its greatest territorial extent and King Eumenes II of Pergamum started an ambitious development of the kingdom’s capital. He built a massive city wall and remodeled the Acropolis and the Library of Pergamum as the highest class of the ancient world.

Many Greek temples were built. King Eumenes II constructed the Altar of Zeus, the Theater of Pergamum (one of the steepest theaters in the world), the Temple of Dionysus, and more. He also renovated the Temple of Athena and the Sanctuaries of Demeter and Hera.

The ancient Theater of Pergamum
The ancient Theater of Pergamum

Early Roman age (133 BC – 314 AD)

In 133 BC, the last Attalid king Attalus III bequeathed the whole kingdom to Rome. So, the city of Pergamum became a Roman city in the constantly expanding Roman Republic. The Romans created the Province of Asia. Only around 88 BC, Pergamum was temporarily captured by Mithridates VI Eupator of Pont but was regained by the Romans soon later.

And in 30 BC, the Roman Republic became an empire under the first emperor Augustus. He established the first imperial cult in the empire in the city of Pergamum. Many other religious buildings were established too, presenting Roman and even Egyptian deities like Asclepius, Serapis, and Isis. Both the Sanctuary of Asclepius and the Temple of Serapis were built at the foot of Pergamum Hill.

Finally, Pergamum reached its apex in the days of Emperor Trajan. He built the Temple of Trajan (the so-called Trajaneum), presenting himself as a “god”, and extended the city further.

Pergamum in the 1st century AD and its church

So, as you can see, Pergamum gradually became a center of many religions- literally the pagan religious center of the Roman Empire. Many people from all over the empire came to visit Pergamum for various needs and purposes.

If someone needed wisdom- he went to the Temple of Athena. If someone wanted just a happy party, he went to the temple of Dionysos, built near the stage of the Theater. Someone needed wealth- the Temple of Demeter was here. Maybe someone was sick? There was the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the largest and most famous “hospital” in the Roman Empire. Or someone wanted power? The best way to gain power was to worship the emperor in the Trajaneum.

The first Christians in Pergamum

It was how the city of Pergamum looked in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. And because it was a pagan religious center of the Roman Empire, Jesus says in the message to the church of Pergamum that this was the place of Satan’s throne. Definitely a hostile for Christianity place to live!

So, around 52-56 AD Paul the Apostle came to Ephesus- another ancient world-class city in the Roman Empire. He lived there for 2 years and the Gospel spread from Ephesus to the whole of the Province of Asia, including Pergamum. Thus, the first Christians in Pergamum were a fact, and the Church of Pergamum was born (at that time “church” meant just a “congregation of Christians”, not a building).

These Christians sincerely believed in Jesus Who can provide wisdom, healing, provision, joy, and position. While others look for these things from the pagan deities in Pergamum, the Christians could get all of them in a much better version directly from Jesus. In other words, their behavior spoke: “Your deities are nothing, only Jesus can provide all of this, and much more!” At the same time, they remained firmly far from idol worship and this made them outsiders- they were rejected from the “normal social life”.

Here was the altar of Zeus
Here was the altar of Zeus

Persecutions

As a result, the pagans didn’t like Christians. They started persecutions in various forms- from official oppression to chaotic mob outrage. One of the first Christian leaders in Pergamum was Antipas, mentioned by Jesus in His message. He was killed by a fanatic mob in the Temple of Serapis at the foot of the Pergamum Hill (or, according to other sources, he was killed by the sword of the Roman governor). But even during the most severe persecutions, many of the Christians remained firmly faithful.

The heresies

Some Christians were weaker. They tried to find a way to remain in the “normal social life”, and at the same time to be Christians, somehow “in the middle”. So, they embraced some heresies like the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, mentioned in the message of Jesus as a basis of their behavior.

What was the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans? In general, it was a twisting of the Biblical text so that Christians can proceed to practice idol worshiping and religious sexual activity (sex with temple prostitutes). If they could do it, they would not have a problem being a part of the pagan feasts in the temples, although still calling themselves “Christians”. However, they can’t lie to God. Jesus knew what they do and what they want and told them to repent.

The manna and the white stone

So, in His message, Jesus encouraged the Christians in Pergamum to remain firm in the hostile environment. Yes, He perfectly knew that it was difficult for them to endure all of this, but He offered them a goal in the future world, after the resurrection: They will receive “manna”- all the provisions that they need, for everything. And they will receive a white stone (in the Roman world, if someone had to be invited to a feast or a party, the master gave him a white stone with his name) for the much more superior heavenly feast in the future.

So, the message of Jesus to the church of Pergamum is also a prophecy for all other churches and Christians in the following centuries that would be in a similar situation like the Christians in Pergamum- as a part of the larger prophecy, named The Book of Revelation.

The Temple of Asclepion
The Temple of Asclepion

The later history of Pergamum

So, what happened after the time of John and the Revelation? What happened with the city and the church of Pergamum? Did they withstand? Did those “in the middle” repent?

This situation remained until 314 AD when Emperor Constantine I The Great stopped the persecutions against the Christians and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Byzantine Age (314-1300 AD) and aftermath

What happened first in this period was that the old pagan religions were rejected, and the temples were abandoned- they became ruins. Later, the city shrank into a smaller settlement, only around the acropolis on the top of the hill, and was turned into a fortress. In 663 and 716, the Arabs conquered it twice temporarily but were expelled by the Byzantines soon later.

After that, the city started declining. The church of Pergamum still remained, but just as a religious institution, far from what it once have been during the time of the Revelation. The Seljuks attacked and destroyed the city in 1071, 1109, and 1113.

Pergamum was partially restored in 1170, but just as a small settlement. It already looked like a village of wooden huts among ancient ruins. Finally, after 1300, it was included in the beylik of Karasids and the Ottoman Empire. At that time, it was completely abandoned and the church of Pergamum disappeared. The Turks- the new settlers established a new town at the foot of the hill, today known as Bergama.

The ruins of Pergamum remained in oblivion until the second half of the 20th century when the Turkish government turned it into a tourist site. We can enjoy visiting it during our travel vacation, but only if we understand its secrets and research the Book of Revelation, we can penetrate more deeply into the history and the future.

Our trip to Pergamum

So, all of this was the reason why we included Pergamum in our Western Turkey itinerary. We traveled by car on a route from Bulgaria, crossed into Asia at Çanakkale with the ancient Troy, and proceeded along the Aegean coast of the country. And Pergamum was the first one from the Seven Churches of Asia on our route.

The Red Hall- temple of the Egyptian gods
The Red Hall- temple of the Egyptian gods

The tourist sites of Pergamum

When we arrived at the site of Pergamum, we explored it for about 3 hours. The main tourist site itself includes the main core of the ancient city on the hill of Pergamum- the acropolis and the surrounding constructions.
Entrance fee: 100 TL; audio guide: 50 TL, or combined ticket with audio guide: 150 TL.
Working hours:

  • April-October: 8:30-18:30, site closes at 19:00
  • November-March: 8:30-17:00, site closes at 17:30

And the other points of interest like the temples of Serapis and Asclepion are different tourist sites, located downhill in the modern town of Bergama. In addition, there is an Archaeological Museum that also can give you good information:

  • Temple of the Egyptian gods, called Red Basilica, or Red Hall. Entrance fee: 20 TL
  • Temple of Asclepion. Entrance fee: 90 TL
  • Archaeological Museum. Entrance fee: 20 TL
  • Other sites. They include historical buildings from the later centuries, mainly from the Ottoman era: Kurtuluş Camii, Old Mosque, Şadırvan Mosque, and the Education Museum. Entrance fees: free.
  • In addition, you can just walk around the streets in the old part of Bergama, they are colorful and full of souvenir shops, local craft shops, and small restaurants with local food.

How to reach Pergamum

The best way to reach Pergamum is by car. You would have the freedom to arrive there whenever you want. The town of Bergama is well-connected to the main starting points for travel in Turkey- Istanbul, Izmir, Çanakkale, or Ankara, by good-quality roads.

Find the best rental cars in Turkey!

Once you arrive in Bergama, you can drive on a 3 km narrow road that ascends from the town to the main site of Pergamum, on the top of the hill- there are signs pointing to the site.

But be careful: when this 3 km road goes out of the last houses of the town, it reaches the station of the cable car and it is closed further. Instead, you have to turn left on a shortcut before the last houses that will lead you again to the main road.

The cable car

The cable car is a convenient (although a bit expensive) way to get to the main site of Pergamum (the acropolis). It has two stations, and the top station is located exactly at the main entrance of the site.

Cable car tickets: 130 TL for a two-way trip, and 100 TL for a single trip.
Working hours: from 8:30 to 18:30 (summer) and 8:30 to 17:00 (winter).

However, have in mind that sometimes the cable car can be closed (as in our case)- it is usually when large tour groups arrive.

On a street in the old part of Bergama
On a street in the old part of Bergama

Traveling by bus and taxis

There are a lot of buses connecting the main bus station of Bergama (Bergama Otogarı) with the big cities in this part of Turkey, including Istanbul. Once you arrive in Bergama, you can go to Pergamum by taxi to the entrance, or by city bus No. 835 to the foot of the hill. From there, you just have to walk on the road for 3 km (about 40-45 min).

Check for transport options to Pergamum!

Accommodation

Bergama is a touristy place. So, there are plenty of choices for spending the night. Hotels are a bit expensive, starting from USD 38.

Check for Bergama accommodations on Agoda!

But there are also a lot of Airbnb properties, and if you are a budget traveler, Airbnb is a much better option. You can find properties for less than USD 20, at the same time with better quality than the cheapest hotels. Just don’t forget first to communicate with the owner and see the reviews, to avoid scams (yes, Airbnb scams are possible).

Check for Bergama accommodation on Airbnb!

If you are more adventurous, basically, you can go wild camping in Turkey. But better avoid doing this around Bergama, because there are a lot of ancient remains in the area. Camping near ancient remains in Turkey is suspicious and you may get in trouble with the police that would check whether you want to steal ancient artifacts.

Pergamum tour

The best way to visit Pergamum is to include it in a longer trip to all of the Seven Churches of Asia. Although it might be difficult to visit the churches following the order in the Book of Revelation, where Pergamum is the third one, you still can do it, just in a different order, especially if you come from Istanbul, Izmir, or Çanakkale.

But if your first stop is Kuşadası, the best you would do is to follow the right order, starting from Ephesus and ending with Laodicea. And of course, you can always combine this with a longer itinerary, including other destinations.

Finally, you can join a tour. Today, there are a lot of tours to the Seven Churches of Asia, including Pergamum. Although their tour guides would not certainly explain to you all of the details in the Book of Revelation, it is still useful and very convenient, and you can learn a lot of things.

Take a look for available tours to Pergamum!

Take a look for available tours to the Seven Churches of Asia!

We didn’t follow the right order in the Book of Revelation, because we came from Çanakkale. So, after Pergamum, we proceeded on our trip to the ancient city of Smyrna, the second of the Seven Churches, which is now the modern Izmir. But we still included all of the Seven in our big Western Turkey journey, along with the best of the history and nature of this amazing region of the Earth.

Take a look at this video for more impressions from Turkey and Pergamum:

Check some travel books about Turkey and Pergamum:

 

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This is a guide to Pergamum- the city of the third church from the Seven Churches of Asia in Turkey, with facts and travel tips. This is a guide to Pergamum- the city of the third church from the Seven Churches of Asia in Turkey, with facts and travel tips.

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