Pamukkale – Turkey’s ‘Cotton Castle’

7 Minutes

Pamukkale is located in Turkey’s inner Aegean region, and has a temperate climate for most of the year. This region is famed for its snow-white limestone that has been shaped, over millenia, by the calcium-rich springs that drip down the mountainside. The name literally means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish, and the ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis was built on top of these white formations, and the remains of this city can be seen from the hills on the other side of the valley – in the town of Denizli – around 20 kilometres away. The area is also famous for its thermal pools, and has been drawing guests to its thermal springs for eons, becoming a natural tourist attraction for centuries. Pamukkale’s lesser-known tourist attractions include Roman ruins and a local museum, but these are overshadowed by the white stalactites and the thermal pools, as most tourists come to see Pamukkale’s natural attractions. 


Pamukkale is easily accessible, with routes available by car, bus, train, or airplane, and many tour packages offer day-long trips as guests travel between cities in Turkey, as Pamukkale is a fantastic weekend getaway, or a fun place to visit and stay overnight. From the Roman ruins in Hierapolis to Pamukkale’s travertine structures, guests are invited to study the natural and man-made formations that are historically significant. 


Hierapolis (meaning ‘Holy City’) was an ancient Greek city that is located on the hot springs in Turkey, adjacent to modern Pamukkale. The remains of the city currently form an archaeological museum, and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surrounding hot springs, too, are famous for being used as a rudimentary spa since the 2nd century BCE, with many patrons choosing to retire by the hot springs. The city’s ancient history is difficult to decipher, and there are almost no known facts about the origin of the city, with some scholars saying that Hierapolis was first founded as a thermal spa early in the 2nd century BC, with the city slowly expanding over the years, eventually becoming a healing centre where doctors would recommend the thermal spas as some form of treatment for their patients. In 133 BC, the city shifted to Roman rulers, becoming part of the Roman province of Asia. In AD 17, however, an earthquake destroyed the city, sparking a series of renovations and rebuilding attempts in an effort to maintain the city. The apostle Paul helped found a church here in the area, and the apostle Philip spent his last years here as well.

In the year 60, during Nero’s rule, another earthquake destroyed the city, and was rebuilt in a more Roman style. The city flourished, and became an important centre for Christianity, particularly during the Byzantine era. In the early 7th century, however, the city was destroyed by the invading Persian armies and by another earthquake, before eventually being rebuilt. In the 12th century, the area came under the control of the Seljuk sultanate, and the town was eventually abandoned in the late 14th century. In 1354, another earthquake destroyed the remains of this glorious city, and excavation attempts are still being carried out to uncover the remains under the limestone that was formed over the years. 

Guests are invited to check out the Hierapolis Theatre, an amphitheatre that can house over 10,000 people. The theatre was first built in the 2nd century AD, under the ruling of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, during the first set of renovations after an earthquake in 60 AD. The theatre has fort-five rows of seats, with a large carved, curved seat of honour that covers the fourth, fifth, and sixth rows in the central seating section, with scholars guessing that these seats would have been used for priests and dignitaries. The theatre is a fascinating space to visit as it has some of the best-preserved features of the theatres that are still standing in Turkey, with many decorative friezes still intact over the years, with some friezes depicting Emperor Septimus Severus in procession with his family and the gods, while another portrays the life of the Greek god Dionysus. Hierapolis itself was first excavated in the late nineteenth century, and excavations and restorations had continued over the years; the Hierapolis museum was first built in 1970 to house the many artefacts uncovered in the area; prior to the museum, artefacts were sent to museums in Izmir and Istanbul.

History enthusiasts are invited to check out the archaeology museum in Pamukkale as well, as this structure houses artefacts of Roman archaeology, and was originally a 2nd-century Roman bath and gymnasium, before being converted to the museum it is today.  The artefacts of the museum include sarcophagi from nearby archaeological sites at Laodicea, along with smaller artefacts, like jewellery and stamp seals, from Hierapolis and surrounding areas. The museum also contains a room with statues from the Roman era, along with artefacts from the agora in Hierapolis, and from similar sites in the area. 

The Turkish Cotton Castle 

The geological phenomenon that’s commonly known as Turkey’s ‘cotton castle’ is made of travertine, a sedimentary rock that was deposited by water from the thermal springs. Located around 300 metres away, the water that emerges from the spring drains down to the head of the travertine terraces and deposits calcium carbonate (giving these structures that white colour) on a section that covers around 30 metres, and can reach heights of 70 metres. When the water reaches the surface, calcium carbonate gets deposited as a soft gel, which eventually crystallised into the tall travertine structures we see today. Along with Hierapolis, these two sites have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to this unique natural formation. The site has become a popular tourist attraction as the white structures stand out in contrast to the blue pools that are formed by the water, and is a truly breath-taking phenomenon. 

When planning a visit to Pamukkale, there are a few things to keep in mind. Pamukkale is one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, so there will be a sizable crowd amongst the pools. However, these crowds tend to focus within the pools themselves, leaving plenty of empty sites along the stalactites, where you can take in a panoramic view of the cotton-white structures and take a bit of a breather away from the crowds. For those who want to avoid the crowds altogether, try and plan an early-morning trip, to reach as soon the site opens, or plan your visit to Turkey during the winter months. Pamukkale in the winter can get quite chilly, as the weather has been known to drop to -5 degrees Celsius, so make sure to pack warm, comfortable clothing if you wish to explore the travertine terraces in wintertime.

When planning a trip to Pamukkale, keep in mind that there isn’t a place to store your belongings, so you will have to carry whatever you bring with you. Some important items to carry include sunscreen, water, comfortable shoes, and sunglasses – the structures will reflect a lot of sunlight, so be prepared to walk in the sun. The pools are open to wade through, so bring a swimsuit if you’re planning a swim.

Pamukkale’s thermal pools

The hot springs and thermal pools here at Pamukkale have been a major tourist attraction since time immemorial, and has been used as a source of healing, a place of rest and retirement, and are now a great way to relax in warm waters while soaking in Pamukkale’s rich, vivid history. 

According to local legend, the thermal pools have healing properties, thanks to the minerals formed by the water sources underground. Though this may have a bit of myth sprinkled into it, the warm, rich waters are good for your skin, and most visitors come to bask in the natural pools and relieve stress. The surrounding ruins that formed the ancient city, Hierapolis, can be admired from the pools, and visitors can enjoy the views of the ruins that once formed the temples, bath-houses, and theatre of the Greek-Roman city that once served as a spa and treatment centre, before growing to become a city in its own right. 

The thermal pools are still open for guests to visit, though it is important to keep a few things in mind – wear appropriate clothing (like a bathing suit), and footwear isn’t allowed near the pools, so keep a steady hand while walking and tread carefully. 


Laodicea, an ancient city near the village of Goncali, is approximately four miles from Denizli, and is being recreated through archaeological excavations. Earlier digs have revealed artefacts that date from 3500 to 3000 BC, with the name of the city coming from the Seleucid king, Antiochus II, who named the city after his wife, Laodike, in the 3rd century BC. This ancient city was destroyed – either due to invasions or natural disasters – and rebuilt over the years, with many of its structures still in ruin, though there are extensive renovation projects underway. The city was handed to the Roman empire and thrived from the 4th to the 6th centuries, and was home to one of the Seven Churches of Asia, one of the seven major churches of early Christianity, as described in the Book of Revelation. The city was set in an earthquake-prone zone, resulting in a series of destruction and renovation, but by the early 1200s, the city was abandoned, with renovation projects being undertaken now to recover some lost history. The entire site is spread over 5 kilometres, making the trip to Laodicea a fun day-trip to take, after visiting the terraces of Pamukkale.  Renovation projects include excavating the ruins that once formed this rich city, along with reconstruction efforts to showcase and highlight the importance of biblical Laodicea – though there are continuous excavation projects, guests are still invited to come and study the ruins that have been unearthed, and witness the work that is continually being done to restore this city to its former glory.

Pamukkale has always been a tourist attraction for all and sundry, for a variety of reasons, and is one of the few sites that has maintained its awe-inspiring splendour and its stunning natural architecture. Though there are other dramatic natural sites around the world, from China to Afghanistan to India and beyond, but Pamukkale (and Hierapolis) offers the unique tying in of two formations – both natural and man-made. It’s a rare sight to see towering travertine formations built over millenia, sitting side by side with man-made architectural marvels, like the bath-houses, necropolis, theatre, streets, and temples of Hierapolis. 

See also fethiye.

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