Photographing Pamukkale and Hierapolis

“Pamukkale, the “Cotton Castle”, where ancient giants laid their cotton to dry.”

Photo by donggun kim

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The travertine terraces of Pamukkale paint the rim of a valley’s edge in Southwestern Turkey a gleaming white. Atop this surreal blanched cliff stand the remnants of Hierapolis, an ancient Greco-Roman Spa city. Pamukkale is the most popular tourist destination in Turkey, and has been for thousands of years. And yet, most people outside of Turkey’s borders have never heard of it.

Pamukkale Terraces - Photo by Arns Civray
Pamukkale Terraces - Photo by Arns Civray

Pamukkale Terraces

First and foremost, do not expect the terraces to quite look like the tourist photos when you arrive. Standing at the bottom, it appears a bit like a dirty snow hill. The yellow and brown discoloration will immediately make you suspicious, and you may find yourself shouting “Shopped!” at the nearest postcard vendor.

This ancient paradise is in recovery, as the eighties were hard on it. To be fair, the eighties were hard on all of us, but for Pamukkale, cocaine-fueled tourists revelling in holiday hotels did some real damage. In 1988 the once magical location was declared a UNESCO heritage site, and the party palace hotels came down. The terraces are in recovery and well managed to ensure its return to natural beauty.

Pamukkale Pools - Photo by Anon
Pamukkale Pools - Photo by Anon

From the ticket counter, you will need to remove your shoes to ascend the travertines. You and your now freshly exposed bunyons will walk up the curiously white polished surface of the terraces. Little rivulets and pools will appear and depending on the time of year you may find your little toesies getting coldsies. But do not despair, these are hot springs, and as you near the top, you will soon soak your feet in warm waters. As your well-pruned feet enjoy a warm mineral bath, you can contemplate the meaning of it all while admiring the stunning view of the valley below. Trust us; this part is heaven.

View from Pamukkale - Photo by WASD42
View from Pamukkale - Photo by WASD42

Eventually, you will be ripped from this slice of idyllic peace by a random person’s choice of bathing costume. As you try and wipe this horrific vision from your mind, you will discover oyster shaped cups of calcium-rich water. These pools are the majestic beauty you saw in the postcards. They emerge and accent each level of this natural geological cascade help up by limestone stalactites echoing waterfalls frozen in time.

Pamukkale Sunset - Photo by donggun kim
Pamukkale Sunset - Photo by donggun kim

Its name, Pamukkale, translates aptly to “cotton castle.” The principal crop of the area is cotton, and legend tells of how Pamukkale was initially formed by giants laying their cotton out to dry. Scientists would disagree and instead suggest that the terraces from from calcium mineral deposits. As mineral-rich hot spring water flows down the hillside, it gradually solidifies creating limestone. Obviously, we’re intelligent people so, and we’re going to go with the giants’ explanation.

Whatever the cause, the result is scatter-shot pools held up by milky white stalactites.

The Ruins of Hierapolis

Frontinus Gate - Photo by Esther Lee
Frontinus Gate - Photo by Esther Lee

Perhaps the most exceptional site in Hierapolis is the amphitheatre. Constructed in 60 AD at the behest of Hadrian it is breath-taking. The stages columned facade is 300 feet long and looks out at 50 rows of concentric seating. It is awe-inspiring, and a great place to push someone you don’t like.

Hierapolis Theatre Ruins - Photo by Little MiMi
Hierapolis Theatre Ruins - Photo by Little MiMi

Next up on our tour of the area is the Antique Pool, which we hear is awful.

The Antique Pool

The Antique Pool - Photo by Shankar S.
The Antique Pool - Photo by Shankar S.

Adjacent to Hierapolis is the Antique Pool. Ancient legends suggest this construction was one of Marc Anthony’s many attempts to get the attention of his love Cleopatra VII. No word on if this gift curried any favour from his wife, however, we’re sure she thought it was lovely.

This once magnificent monument to stalking came crashing down in a 7th-century earthquake. The ruins of ancient columns now rest submerged in a pool of water that appears at times both beautiful and contrived.

Sadly this is also where the worst of the touristic tendencies have taken hold. Nowadays bikini and speedo clad bathers frolic here, filling the historic site. Surrounding this pool of tourists lobster red dad bods queue for burgers and hum along to the strains of Macarena. Nothing is appealing to us about the Antique Pool, and we certainly don’t recommend spending an extra $10 to join them. Unless of course, you are the sort of traveller that enjoys queuing for burgers under a hot sun in your skivvies. But then again, we’re Canadian…Sorry.

Travelling Photographers Tips

Visiting Pamukkale and Hierapolis is a must for any photographer in the area. We always recommend the offseason for any popular tourist site and this area is the most prominent tourist draw in the region.

November-December is probably the best time for a photographer to visit, and we recommend later in the day. At this time of year, westerly views of the surrounding countryside from the terraces will be at their best. The sun will set just across from the publicly accessible portion of the terraces, and a small pond with island inset into the valley will provide some fantastic photographic possibilities.

Some Final Tips

  • Either shoot with your camera or frolic in the water in your bikini. It is difficult to do both without risking your camera bag growing legs and walking away. Valuables should be left at the hotel unless you are coming to shoot.
  • Don’t even try to shoot Pamukkale at noon. The bright whites will suck all the colour out of your photographs. Shooting midday only works if you are placing a stunning model in the middle of your otherwise white picture. So, getting the light right here is essential, and the afternoon light will add depth to your photos. Early morning can work, and there will be fewer tourists, but the light is really at its best closer to golden hour.
  • Pack light, and bring a backpack with a bag for your shoes and other stuff.
  • Wear a swimsuit under your clothes. While there are bathrooms on-site, it’s easier just to peel off outer layers. Besides, if it’s warm enough for a dip, it should be warm enough to dry off in short order.
  • Sunscreen if you’re a pasty white Canadian like us.
  • Sorry drone dudes and dudettes, flying at any UNESCO site ist verboten. That’s German for you no flying your mechanical whirlybird.
  • Be prepared to take some Instagram shots for people. Nothing screams “can you take a picture of me” like having a camera bag. It’s up to you if you do it or not, but be kind about it, eh.
  • Sunglasses are a must. The travertines are bright white, wet and shiny. On a sunny day, your retinas will burn out of your skull if you are not prepared.
  • Stay in Denizli. Buses to Pamukkale are easy enough to find, and Denizli is full of more than enough sites to see and photograph. Including the Old City, Kaklik Cave, and the ruins of Aphrodisias.
Pamukkale at Sunset - Photo by Salih Altuntaş
Pamukkale at Sunset - Photo by Salih Altuntaş

Conclusion

Pamukkale is a natural wonder well worth adding to anyone’s bucket list. And with the bonus of the ruins of Greco-Roman city, we highly recommend a visit. A wandering photographer will have a lovely day or two at this ancient leisure site. Who knows, you might even get a chance to relax at least until someone crosses your field of vision showing just a little bit too much lobster-red skin.

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