Galen and the Asclepeion of Pergamon - The Maritime Explorer


Galen and the Asclepeion of Pergamon

In the last post we continued our tour of western Turkey with Adventures Abroad by visiting the ancient city of Pergamon, capital of the Roman province of Asia. There was a lot to see on the acropolis of Pergamon, but our visit to the area is not complete. After we descend from the acropolis by way of the gondola lift we take the bus a short distance away to visit one of the most famous healing sanctuaries in the ancient world, the Asclepeion of Pergamon where the legendary physician Galen once practiced his craft. Won’t you join us for yet another amazing adventure in this wondrous country we call Turkey?

Our Bus at the Asklepion of Pergamon

As you can see from the fact that we are one of only two vehicles in the parking lot, we continue to benefit from the absolute dearth of tourists outside of Istanbul. If every cloud has a silver lining then this is the one provided by Covid. I very much suspect that it will take some time for tourism to rebound in places like this so visiting in 2022/23 will pay dividends for intrepid travellers.

Note the lovely forest of pine trees which are the source of pine nuts for which the region is well known.

What Exactly is an Asclepeion?

Asclepius was the Greek god of healing and a tragic figure in his own right. He was the son of Apollo and Coronis, a mortal. As a youth he was entrusted to the care of the Centaur Chiron who taught him much about medicine and healing, but it was a mysterious snake which Asclepius healed that told him of things that made his powers godlike. This is why ever since this healing power was given to Asclepius that snakes have been associated with medicine in the form of the Caduceus or Rod of Asclepius that is still in use today.

The United States Army Medical Corps Crest.

Asclepius was so good at healing that he could even bring back people from the dead. With the prospect of eternal life for mere mortals on the table Zeus had to act and so he killed Asclepius. Asclepeions were healing sanctuaries that are found in a number of places throughout the Greek classical world including on the island of Kos where Hippocrates learned his craft. Other asclepeions are found at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, Athens and the one we are visiting today in Pergamon where the famous physician Galen was based.

Galen very much followed the four humors theory of medicine first propounded by Hippocrates. This theory maintained that there were four basic elements or humors within the human body – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These humors had to remain in stasis for a person to stay healthy and if you got sick it was the physicians job to realign these humors to make you get better. The methods of healing at the asclepeions obviously did not involve modern techniques, but more so on the healing powers of certain plants (pharmacology) and the power of suggestion. Some people have compared what went on inside the asclepeions to ‘faith healing’, particularly as one of the forms of treatment was to give the patient powerful hallucinogenics which would put them into a trance. While in this state, which was called incubation, the patient would supposedly get direction from Asclepius or one of his children such as Hygeia or Panacea and when he/she awoke would tell the physician what they saw while under and a regimen of treatment would be prescribed. Carlos Castenada would definitely have approved.

Believe it or not, the four humors theory remained the basis of western medicine right up until the late 18th century. Thus the practice of blood letting to get the blood humor back in stasis when in fact it did the opposite. So with that very cursory introduction let’s take a walk around the Asclepeion of Pergamon and see where Galen practiced his craft.

In the Footsteps of Galen

The Asclepeion was founded in the 4th century BC apparently by physicians from Epidaurus. By the time Galen started his training here at age 16 it was already 500 years old and had been connected to the city of Pergamon by a processional way. Here is a map of the Asclepeion as it would have appeared in the time of Trajan which was when it was at its height of fame.

Asclepeion of Pergamon

You enter the Asclepeion via the Sacred Way of which this is the oldest part replete with Doric columns.

Doric Processional Way, Asclepeion of Galen
Doric Processional Way

These columns in turn give way to Ionic columns dating from the Roman period.

Roman Processional Way, Asclepeion of Galenp
Roman Processional Way

Standing at the end of the processional way you can look back up at the acropolis high above the Selinus Valley. Each year priests would lead a sacred procession from the acropolis of Pergamon to the Asclepeion and on a day like this with virtually nobody around it is easy to visualize thousands of people carrying candles and chanting as they made their way to this holy place.

View of the Acropolis from the Asclepeion

Our tour of the Asclepeion is being led by our Adventures Abroad guide Yasemin Reis and she seems to possess far more knowledge about this place than I can find on any web site. Much of what follows is based on Yasemin’s narrative of how people were actually treated as patients of Galen and the other physicians who practiced medicine here.

This is a very interesting inscription that anyone entering the Asclepeion could not help but see. It translates as “Beware. Death cannot enter here.” Now there’s a reason for this inscription which underlies the success of the Asclepeion and the fame that people like Galen garnered as almost miracle workers. Nobody wants to run a hospital or healing facility where people die, rather than recover. That’s just bad for business. So according to Yasemin and this is very plausible, Galen was very knowledgeable about what symptoms prospective clients might have that could be fatal and what symptoms he could heal, particularly psychosomatic ones. He is often referred to as the first person to use psychological methods to cure patients and instilling confidence in them that this talisman banning death from the premises was really true, was the first step. And those with obvious fatal symptoms? Sorry, this is not the place for you.

Beware. Death Cannot Enter Here

Near the talisman is this truncated column with the two snake symbol of Asclepius. More reassurance that you were in the right spot to get cured.

Rod of Asclepius at Galen's Asclepeion
Symbol of Asclepius

The map shows that the Asclepeion was essentially a large rectangular area with stoas on three sides. Stoas were essentially covered porticos where people mingled and conducted business. This is the well preserved north stoa.

North Stoa, Asclepeion of Pergamon Where Galen Practised
North Stoa, Asclepeion of Pergamon


Ionic Columns on the North Stoa

Near the end of this stoa is the entrance to the small theatre. This might seem like an unusual thing to have in what was essentially a hospital, but people came here for long term stays to get rehabilitated just as they do today in places like the Betty Ford clinics. The patients needed entertainment and it was here that they could see a play by one of the great Greek tragedians or maybe one of Aristophanes’ satiric comedies.

Theatre of the Asclepeion

But let’s get on with the actual treatments that were done here. Before undergoing the incubation treatment I mentioned above the patient had to be purified by undergoing a catharsis which involved ritual bathing and the taking of purgatives. Most asclepeions were founded at places were ‘sacred’ springs flowed and Galen’s asclepeion was no exception. This is the sacred fountain at Pergamon. It doesn’t look like much, but either would you if you had been flowing constantly for 2,500 years.

The Sacred Fountain at Pergamon where Galen Practiced
The Sacred Fountain at Pergamon

There were also a number of baths and bathing pools that the patients would use in their purification rites.

Galen's Bathing Pool
Bathing Pool

Again, it doesn’t look like much, but hey, the turtles like it.

Turtle Bathing at the Asclepeion

And so do the geckos.

Lizard at the Galen Asclepeion

OK, we’ve been purified now we need to see a physician. To do that we need to go underground and enter a tunnel to the treatment rooms.

Tunnel to the Treatment Room at the Asclepeion where Galen Practiced
Tunnel to the Treatment Room

Why there needed to be a tunnel still seems to be a mystery that even Yasemin didn’t know the answer to.

The Tunnel at the Asclepeion of Galen

If you look at the map you can see the circular treatment centre with six alcoves. We are standing in one of these now and instead of telling Galen our symptoms we are getting a lesson from Yasemin. There was definitely something mysterious about this places and I could almost sense the presence of the great healer. This was a man I first learned about around Grade 6 or 7 and now I was standing in his office. It made me give my head a shake.


In the Room Where Galen Practiced

From here the patients would be prescribed treatment that often involved dream or trance inducing drugs. They would then be led to ‘recovery rooms’ where they would lay in a daze and see visions brought on by Asclepius who would reveal to them a road to recovery such as depicted in this bas relief.

Asclepius Visiting a Patient

These are the remnants of the recovery rooms at the Asclepeion of Pergamon.

Recovery Rooms

Recovered or not it is time to move on as we have a way to go to get to our day’s end destination of Kusadasi. However, before we get back on the bus I do not want to leave the impression that Galen was a quack, even though many of his theories of medicine have proven to be wrong. He was in fact a gifted surgeon and had an encyclopedic knowledge of treatments that did work for both physical and psychological conditions. He was so well respected that he was called to Rome to become the personal physician of the emperor Commodus who ruled jointly with his father Marcus Aurelius and then solely after his father death in 180 until his assassination in 192 by a wrestler who strangled him in his bath. This was the same emperor portrayed as a raving lunatic by both Christopher Plummer and Joaquin Phoenix in the movies, but that’s a story for another day.

Please join us as we head for Kusadasi and the many sites associated with ancient Ephesus.