Turkey: A Place Called Pergamum

The modern-day city of Bergama has a population of about 50,000, but twenty centuries ago when it was called Pergamum or Pergamon, 150,000 people lived there. Today you can buy a carpet where once upon a time multitudes came to be cured of their ills.

American physicians traveling to enjoy vacations and to touch, perhaps, Medicine’s past have many choices in the historical places of Europe.

Those wishing, for example, to see the second-century AD medical school Galen made famous in what is now West Turkey, however, might have to visit Berlin. The German archaelogists who discovered the treasures of Pergamon made off with them to a museum in Berlin created between the two World Wars. Nevertheless, those who want to get the feel for the legendary site itself - where Galen treated wounded gladiators - must visit Bergama, a little town 15 miles from the Aegean Sea.

Of dissected baboons and wounded warriors

The modern-day city of Bergama has a population of about 50,000, but twenty centuries ago when it was called Pergamum or Pergamon, 150,000 people lived there. Today you can buy a carpet where once upon a time multitudes came to be cured of their ills.

They came because, here, the great Galen practiced anatomy, disecting baboons since human dissection was forbidden, and taught students and treated wounded galadiators based on his acclaimed knowledge of ape anatomy. “We hear now,” says our guide, “Our Galen held back medical knowledge for fifteen hundred years!”

Children today stare at the strange Americans. Tourists are not common. A young boy sits on a decorated cart.

“He uses it to carry manure to the fields,” our guide says.

A few hungry chickens scratch disconsolately in the dirt where once Galen cured the worries of the world. Refuse from the military encampment next door blows forlornly down the Holy Road along which the afflicted stumbled. A peasant's dilapidated cottage looks down on the slabs of marble that once surrounded the Temple of Telesphor. A goat bleats at the empty sky.

Most of what you see was revealed by excavations started in 1878 and continued through the 20th century.

The Holy Road to the temple of cure was a long, difficult trail with significant variations in its surface. Patients were required to walk the entire distance unaided even if they had been delivered to the site’s entrance gate in some kind of transport. Thus the cure excluded many with real physicial problems.

This clearly contibuted to the high percentage of successes. Says our guide, “The really crippled couldn’t walk, couldn’t get into the system, and struggled home, presumably disillusioned.” Additionally, if patients’ disabilities were hysterical or emotional, the need to make the effort of the walk might well be the breakthrough they needed to get back their health.

The road opens into the ceremonial area near the base of a marble column carved with Galen's insignia, the snake. Beyond, the path leads to an underground tunnel down which patients stumbled after they had suitably cleansed themselves at the sacred fountain. The tunnel discharged its contents at the temple, the circular cure center where, sedated, the sick spent their restless night.

Historians describe rituals where through the long night the priests would creep to the patients’ bedsides and whisper suggestions. They’d murmur how the patients were already improving and in their drugged sleep the superstitious patients thought they were hearing the word of God. In the morning, they revealed their dreams, the priests prescribed the cures, and the world applauded.

The onsite Pergamum Museum has ancient friezes showing patients in their sickbeds, marble statues of Roman emperors and gold votive offerings presenting the body parts the temple had apparently cured.

And yet…

“Have you heard of Galen?” I later asked a Turk who lived in London. She was fluent in English.

She shook her head.

Sic transit gloria.

Perhaps the dogmas of Galen are laid to rest at last.

Eric Anderson, Physician's Money Digest's resident travel & cruise columnist, is a retired MD and former president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, and now lives in San Diego. The only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers, he has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.