Perge, one of the best preserved of Pamphylia’s cities, was founded on a wide plain between two hills 4 km. west of the Kestros (Aksu) river.
Perge was founded after the Trojan War by colonists from Argos under the leadership of Mopsos and Calchas. It was under Persian rule until the arrival of Alexander the Great. Perge later fell under Seleucid sovereignty, and became totally independent when the kingdom of Pergamum was turned over to Rome in about 133 B.C.
In 46 A.D., Perge became the setting of an event important to the Christian world when St. Paul journeyed from Cyprus to Perge, from there continued on to Antiocheia in Pisidia, then returned to Perge where he delivered a sermon.
From the beginning of the Imperial era, work projects were carried out in Perge. In the second and third centuries A.D., the city grew into one of the most beautiful, not just in Pamphylia, but in all of Anatolia.
In the first half of the fourth century, during the reign of Constantine the Great (324-337), Perge became an important centre of Christianity. The city retained its status as a Christian centre in the fifth and sixth centuries. Perge lost its remaining power in the wake of the mid-seventh century Arab raids. At this time some residents of the city migrated to Antalya.
Perge’s theatre contains 19 seating levels below and 23 above, which translate into a total seating capacity of about 13,000.The orchestra is wider than a semicircle. In the mid-third century, the orchestra was used as an arena for gladiators. To keep the animals from escaping, it was surrounded by carved balustrade panels that passed between marble knobs.
The partially standing two-story stage building dates from the second century A.D. The theatre’s most striking feature is a series of marble reliefs of mythological subject decorating the face of this podium. The first relief on the right portrays the local god personifying the Kestros (Aksu) river along with a nymph. From here on the reliefs depict the entire life story of Dionysos, the god of wine and the founder and protector of theatres.
Dionysos was the son of Zeus and Semele. Hera, (Mrs. Zeus), wanted to get rid of Semele. Hera assumed the form of the Semele’s mother and tricked her to persuade Zeus to let her see him in all his glory. Zeus aquiesed and descended from Olympos on his golden chariot. Semele , a mortal, could not withstand his radiance and was consumed by fire. As she was dying she gave birth to their son (before he’d come to term).
Zeus took the boy and sewed him into his hip for the remainder of his gestation. To protected him from Hera he was taken by Hermes to the nymphs of Mount Nysa, who raised him in a cave. Dionysos grew up and discovered wine.
On the right of the asphalt road running from the theatre to the city is one of the best preserved stadiums. This huge building is shaped like a horseshoe. The stadium was built on a substructure of 70 vaulted chambers. These chambers are interconnected, with every third compartment providing entrance to the theatre. The spaces were used for shops. The tiers of seats which lie on top of these vaulted rooms, provided a seating capacity of 12,000.
A large part of Perge is encircled by walls that in some places go back to the Hellenistic period. Towers 12-13 metres high were built on top of the fortifications. On entering the city through a gate in the fourth century walls one comes to a rectangular court 40 metres long. From this courtyard one continues through a second, highly decorated gate built in the form of a triumphal arch. This gate leads into a trapezoidal courtyard.
On the west wall of this court is a monumental fountain or nymphaeum. The building consists of a wide pool, and behind it a two-storeyed richly worked facade. The fountain was dedicated to Artemis Pergaia, Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna and their sons.
A large pool (natacia) measuring 13×20 m. covers the inside of an apsed chamber on the south portico of a broad palaestra; the palaestra is bounded in front by a portico. Pergaians cleansed themselves in this pool after exercising in the palaestra. From here another door leads to the frigidarium, a space that also contained a pool.
Before entering, bathers washed their feet in water flowing along a shallow channel running the full length of the pool’s north side. Existing evidence suggests that the frigidarium was adorned with statues of the Muses. Next are the tepidarium and the caldarium. Beneath these rooms one can see courses of bricks belonging to the hypocaust system that circulated the hot air coming from the boiler room.
Washing in a Roman bath took place in several stages. First the bather removed his clothing in the apodyterium and from there entered the palaestra where he took his exercise. Then he either rinsed in or washed himself in hot water in the caldarium. From there he went to the tepidarium or to the frigidarium for a cold water bath. A long marble bench extends along this room’s west wall.
At the northern end of the inner court is a Hellenistic gate. Dating to the third century B.C., it consists of two towers with a horseshoe-shaped court behind them. The towers had three stories and were covered with a conical roof. In the second century it was changed from a defensive structure to a court of honour. The walls were covered with coloured marble, several new niches were opened, and Corinthian columns were added. Figures of gods and goddesses like Aphrodite, Hermes, Pan and the Dioskouroi occupied the niches on the lower level.
The horseshoe-shaped court is bounded on the north by a three-arched monumental gate built by Plancia Magna. Statues of the emperors and their wives from the reign of Nerva to Hadrian, stood in the gate’s niches.
An agora 65 metres square is located to the east of the Hellenistic gate. All four sides were lined with shops whose floors were paved with coloured mosaics. A stone used in an ancient game can be seen in front of one store in the north portico.
A colonnaded street runs through the city centre going under the triumphal arch. On both sides of this 250 metre-long street are broad porticoes behind which are rows of shops. The porticoes also provided a place where people could both take shelter from the violent rains in winter, and protect themselves from Perge’s extremely hot summer sun.
The main road comes to an end at another nymphaeum built at the foot of the acropolis in the second century A.D. The water brought from the spring empties into a pool beneath the statue of the river god Kestros in the centre of the fountain, and from there flows to the streets.
Turning left from the triumphal arch of Apollonios, and passing the Hellenistic gate, one comes to the palaestra, Perge’s oldest building. Here, the youth of the city practiced wrestling and underwent physical education.
Perge has been under excavation by Turkish archaeologists since 1946.