Pamukkale, Turkey – Romans bathed in these milky pools; why can’t we?

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.

Pamukkale from afar, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Pamukkale front on, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White


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.

Turquoise pools, Pamukkale, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Strange white wall, Pamukkale, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Pamukkale with ruins of Heiropolis, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Turquoise pools, Pamukkale, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Milky white pools, Pamukkale, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Turquoise pools, Pamukkale, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Crowds gathering, Pamukkale, Turkey

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

More on Turkey:

Istanbul – Obelisk of Thutmose III, the Basilica Cistern, and mosques galore

Fethiye – painterly sunsets, Lycian tombs, and full English breakfasts

Aphrodisias – Temple of Aphrodite on the River Maeander

Edirne – former capital of the Ottomans + UNESCO listed mosque

Posts on the Middle East:


Chogha Zanbil – the original ziggurat, built by the Elamites

Shushtar – downfall of Valerian, ends in triumph for Roman engineers


Petra – Al Siq: narrow, magical chasm leading to Al Khazneh

Petra – Ad Deir: the monastery?


The Balcony Walk – it’s Jebel Shams lite

The archaeological sites of al-Khutm, Bat, and al-Ayn


Doha – Souq Waqif, a spiral minaret, and a masterpiece by I.M. Pei

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