Up close the cliffs of Pamukkale look like banks of dripping, blue-white icicles, or cascades of frozen surf suddenly exposed to the bright Aegean sunlight. From afar they look like great mounds of fluffy cotton—the reason, apparently, for the Turkish nickname, "Cotton Castle." The cliffs, however, are much more durable. They are formations of calcium carbonate, the material which builds underground stalactites and stalagmites. But unlike the stalactites and stalagmites the cliffs of Pamukkale were not constructed out of the drippings of icy underground leakage but from hot spring water gushing from an ancient hilltop source and streaming over a wide cliff. The temperature of the water is about 95° F—roughly blood temperature—and it is full of minerals: calcium, chlorine, carbonic and sulfuric acids, sodium, iron.
Since Hellenic times men have come to this hilltop in southwest Turkey to bathe in the soothing water and in the minerals, dissolved in the water like white talcum power, seek a cure for a list of ailments as varied as asthma, rheumatism, acne, heart disease and hardening of the arteries. They still come, but today it is easier. Visitors swim in pools built almost on the edge of space, with the lovely valley of the Meander River more than 300 feet below. At one lovely pool they can float in turquoise waters among white marble pavement and the fluted columns of some ancient monument strewn on the bottom. In winter, they can even dash from heated rooms in motels that adjoin the spa and plunge into steaming water with scarcely a moment's discomfort.
Hierapolis, the sacred city whose massive ruins share the plateau above the cotton cliffs with the modern motels and swimming pools, was probably founded by Eumenes II, King of Pergamum, in the second century B.C. Later, as a Roman possession, it prospered and grew. In A.D. 300 it was graced with a gymnasium, a theater seating 10,000 spectators and the great marble-lined baths whose remnants can be seen near today's pools. One of the city's attractions was a deep, mysterious pit near the hot springs called the Plutonion. It seethed with suffocating carbon dioxide and was believed by some to be a door to the underworld where men's souls reposed. The Greek geographer, Strabo, wrote that when he threw sparrows into the hole they died before they could fly away.
In Byzantine times Hierapolis became the seat of a bishopric, and in the fourth century one of the great vaulted baths was converted into a Christian basilica dedicated to the Apostle Philip who was
said to have been martyred there in the year 80. In 1354, an earthquake leveled the area, the inhabitants deserted the site and the hot mineral waters, shaken from their ancient channels and left untended by man, began to plunge freely over the broad front of the promontory—to build the now dazzling travertine parapets.