Photo story: the ruins, rituals and otherworldly springs of Turkey's Pamukkale region

The shimmering limestone pools of Pamukkale are one of the country’s best-known natural wonders, but at ground level, a lesser-explored corner of Turkey unfolds: a land of fruit trees, patchwork fields and the quiet ruins of ancient cities.

By Nori Jemil
Published 1 May 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 18 Jun 2021, 12:17 BST
Overlooking the southwestern town of Pamukkale are its tiers of white limestone that shimmer beneath thermal ...

Overlooking the southwestern town of Pamukkale are its tiers of white limestone that shimmer beneath thermal waters.

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Cleopatra's Pool
Water is an important part of life around Pamukkale. Though the natural turquoise pools are largely off-limits to keep them pristine, it’s possible swim in Cleopatra’s Pool. Located at the top of the terraces, an earthquake in the 7th century sent the surrounding statues and marble columns crashing into the water. It’s since been turned into a modern pool, with changing rooms and a cafe, allowing swimmers to float over the ancient ruins.

Cleopatra’s Pool, a bathing area dating back to Roman rule in which the famous Queen of Egypt is said to have swum. 

Photograph by Nori Jemil

A bather looks out across the protected pools towards the town of Pamukkale. 

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Taking the waters
Pamukkale has been a place of pilgrimage for millennia thanks to its ice-blue thermal waters, which are reported to have healing properties. After rising up through limestone cliffs, the waters then cascade dramatically downhill. The result is almost other-worldly: the calcium in the water has, over time, built up to form ghostly white terraces of travertine rock.

Aerial views of Pamukkale and its limestone thermal pools, taken in from a hot air balloon. 

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Straying from the springs and into Pamukkale’s hinterland, including smaller villages or the nearby city of Denizli, allows for a wider exploration of the region’s culture. It’s where the locals will throw open doors, greet travellers with ‘hoşgeldiniz’ (‘welcome’ in Turkish) and serve cups of strong, frothy coffee. Proverbially, a cup of coffee commits you to 40 years of friendship, though it’s not the only speciality on offer: steaming cups of çay (tea), or cheese-filled Turkish pide bread are also staples on local tables.

In the small villages around Pamukkale, coffee brewing and drinking is a special ritual that bonds guests and hosts. 

Photograph by Nori Jemil

A Turkish gentleman bids vistors "hoşgeldiniz", or "welcome", in a small town near the Aegean coast.

Photograph by Nori Jemil

In a village outside Pamukkale, a woman sets about making 'gozleme', a local spinach and feta pie. 

Photograph by Nori Jemil

A ripe old age
The Aegean is dotted with ancient sites, but perhaps the best-known in this corner of Turkey is the ancient city of Hierapolis, close to Pamukkale. Elsewhere, Laodikeia and Aphrodisias remain largely uncrowded, surrounded by a landscape of cherry orchards and wheat fields. 

An arch at the quieter archaeological site of Laodikeia.

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Cherries are a seasonal speciality in the orchards surrounding Pamukkale and its ruins.  

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Up and away
Arguably the best way to appreciate this dramatic landscape of peaks and travertine terraces is to take to the skies. It’s only then that Pamukkale’s true scale and beauty become apparent: a snow-white daub on a green patchwork of farmers’ fields. 

Hot air balloon rides at dawn are a popular way of observing the region's vast and varied landscape.

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Pamukkale's patchwork of fields and thermal, limestone clusters as seen from the air. 

Photograph by Nori Jemil

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Read photographer Nori Jemil's behind-the-scenes interview about her time in Pammukale for tips on shooting for National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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