Chalk white pools, brimming with clear turquoise water. Hundreds of pools; big ones, small ones, all oddly shaped; sprouting like fungi all over the hillside. You can see the geological oddity that is Pamukkale from miles away; the bright white travertine cliffs stand out like a spill of white paint on a patchwork quilt. It looks unnatural; like a quarry on steroids, or some kind of terrible industrial accident. But it is, in fact, one hundred per cent natural.
Hot springs are the culprit. Seventeen of them, in close proximity, spewing out calcium-carbonate-loaded water all over the place, which deposits and builds and shapes and moulds and eventually turns into these beguiling travertine dams.
The Romans, those lovers of baths from days of yore, were smitten with Pamukkale. They acquired the site in 133 BCE – it had been passed around between the Phrygians, the Seleucids, and the Attalids prior to this – and turned Hierapolis, the settlement adjacent to Pamukkale, into a grand Roman city. They even gave the site the status of neocoros, giving it the right of sanctuary. People have been travelling here from far and wide, to avail themselves of the purported medical benefits of Pamukkale’s hot springs, ever since.
Until not all that long ago tourists were allowed to bathe directly within the turquoise travertine pools. Hotels were built here, there, and everywhere, and began pumping spring water away for their own uses. There was even a trafficable road constructed through the centre of the site. Eventually there were just too many tourists, and their free rein over Pamukkale came to an end.
Tourists can still bathe in the travertine terraces, but they may only enter the shallow, semi-artificial dams created along the alignment of the old road.
The water in these pools is milky white, rather than turquoise, and it is only knee deep. But that doesn’t mean that bathing here isn’t a treat. It is. Or it can be, if you are able to find a pool that isn’t already overflowing with tourists.
May I have a photo?
Ami and I opt for one of the lowest pools, those furthest from the main entrance. We find one that is relatively empty, just a half dozen or so others are present.
Already in the pool, in the ankle deep section, are two Russian girls, one in a skimpy white bikini, the other in a skimpy black bikini – their bikinis are a bit of a shock at first as the custom in Turkey is for females to be covered up; but there is a free pass, I suppose, in highly-touristed areas. The Russian girls are making the most of this excuse to photograph themselves, taking shot after shot after shot, and striking up all manner of outlandish, catwalk model poses.
Sitting in knee-deep water, on the opposite end of the pool from the Russian girls, are four young men of indeterminate origin – two appear to be of African heritage, and two European heritage. They converse in French for the most part, but occasionally flip to English, and speak it with equal ease. Each is trim and muscular, and is lounging in the water in their briefs; six-packs ripple sporadically across the group. They could, from the right angle, pass for underwear models.
One of the group chooses this moment to pull himself to his feet and lope towards the far end of the pool, where his bag – and pants – are located. A small point-and-shoot camera is extracted from the bag. He slinks back to the group.
The two Russian girls continue with their photography shoot as he walks by; their poses switching between comical and raunchy. White Bikini is currently standing with one leg crooked forward, the other leg pushed back, her body half twisted around, one arm in the air; her head back, mouth open with teeth bared as if in mid-roar. Black Bikini is preparing to take the shot, but there’s something about it that is not to her liking; she tilts her head to the side, moves the camera this way and that, squints her eyes. Finally she makes a suggestion to her friend.
White Bikini brings her hands to her chest, uses them to clear away the locks of hair that are obscuring the view of her décolletage. Black Bikini gives her a thumbs-up. The photo is taken.
It’s at this time that the underwear model, returning to his group, asks for a photo.
‘May I have a photo?’ is what he says, and, while I intuit that he means a photo of himself next to his friends, I can see why, considering the current pose of White Bikini, that she imagines he wants a photo of her.
‘No,’ she says, her voice dripping scorn. Her faces screws up in disgust.
‘No, I mean can you take a photo of me, of the four of us, please?’
White Bikini isn’t convinced, and maintains her screwed-up face as she takes the camera. The underwear models pull themselves out of the water for the photograph. They lock their arms together in comradely cheer, abdominal muscles rippling like flags in the breeze. The look of disgust drops from White Bikini’s face. She takes the photo, and returns the camera. Her gaze lingers on the taut foursome.
The two groups go about their business, the underwear models drop back into the milky white water, the Russian girls return to their posing. White Bikini is again in front of the camera. She hams it up for the next couple of snaps, but cannot help making furtive sideways glances at the underwear models. Her friend is doing likewise.
Black Bikini has an idea. She motions for White Bikini to take a few steps to the right, and thereby line herself up with the underwear models. Many sneaky shots of the boys follow, the girls posing in front of the underwear models with eyes exaggeratingly widened, or with eyebrows raised approvingly, turning into sex objects the very people whom they, only moments before, accused of the same.
Smile for the camera
The models are quickly replaced by three solemn ladies of East Asian extraction, each dressed in the best sun-smart fashion; floral-patterned long-sleeved shirts, baggy long pants, floppy brimmed hats and visors. They are completely silent; not a single word exchanged. They even seem to walk quietly.
For all I know they are a bunch of happy-go-lucky pleasure seekers, but if this is the case their faces do a good job of hiding it from the world. Each maintains a downturned mouth, a heavy brow, unsmiling eyes. They express no joy when, having put their bags at the edge of the pool, they strip down to their swimmers and put their toes in the water. They express no joy when they lower themselves bodily into the water. They express no joy when they look around at their sublime surroundings.
Too mundane for them maybe?
The water too murky? The weather too hot? The scenery at Pamukkale not all that impressive? Perhaps they are just disinclined to express elation?
One of the ladies has brought a phone with her, and she uses it now to take a photograph of herself immersed up to the neck in the milky white water. A stunning, toothy smile suddenly rears into being as the photo is taken. For an instant she looks perky, joyous, radiant. Then she turns the camera away and the smile is dropped. Her dour expression returns.
She waves the other two ladies over. They get into position, their faces expressionless masks. But then, on call, just as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction: brilliant smiles.
The photo is taken, along with a dozen more. They’re talking now, instructing each other as to the photos they’re after. The camera passes between hands. The photos are taken efficiently, without drama, without fuss.
It’s all wrapped up within the space of five minutes. The ladies exit the pool just as soon as they’re done; they pat themselves down with towels, and return to their sun-smart clothing.
The camera is packed away, along with their smiles.
Practical information and how to reach Pamukkale:
Pamukkale is 20 km from the city of Denizli. There are plenty of long-distance buses that stop in Denizli. The city also has its own airport (Cardak Airport) with flights to major cities within Turkey. From Denizli there are minibuses that run to Pamukkale. More transport info here.
Read more on Pamukkale in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.