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The AcropolisTheatre at Pergamum, Turkey
Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant), Whitman College. 2003
The Hellenistic theatre at Pergamum (Pergamon) is the centerpiece of the acropolis of the ancient city, which is located just north of the modern-day town of Bergama on Turkey's northern Aegean coast. The first theatre on the site was built in the earliest days of the Attalid Kingdom (late 3rd century BC). Fragments of polygonal masonry from the retaining wall (analemmata) of the theatre remain, but ruins such as the stone tower above and behind the theatron are of Byzantine origin.
The theatre whose ruins we see today was built during the reign of Eumenes II (197-159). Eumenes used the acropolis of Athens as inspiration and expanded the city accordingly, building such landmarks at the famous Pergamene Library and the Altar of Zeus. The theatre was renovated and enlarged as part of Eumenes' overall plan for the acropolis of his city. The theatron is sited against the steep acropolis incline preserving the building space at the top for the municipal buildings of Pergamon.
The theatre at Pergamum has seventy-eight rows of seats and is divided into three horizontal seating sections. Two horizontal walkways (diazomata) separate upper and lower sections of theatron seating. Radiating stairways (klimakes) divide each of the three seating sections into wedge-shaped seating sections (kerkides). The seats are made from andesite and trachyte, except for a marble seat of honor, which was located above the center of the first diazoma. Because of the physical limitations of the building site, the theatron could not be larger than a semicircle, as was standard for Hellenistic theatres. To make up for the lack of width the theatre was extended vertically to 122 feet above the orchestra. It is the steepest theatre of the ancient world. Despite the Attalids' mastery of Hellenistic architecture, the steepness of the acropolis imposed design restrictions on the theatre. Consequently, the proskenion at Pergamon overlaps Vitruvius' basic circle of the orchestra by twenty-three and a half feet.
Another unique feature of the theatre is its lack of a permanent stage or stage building. Post holes remain as evidence that plays were performed on a portable wooden stage that was removed between performances. Three rows of quadrangular holes remain in the floor of the theatre terrace that once held the wooden support beams for the temporary stage. The 64 holes were cut in groups that allowed for different architectural arrangements of stage and scene building. The holes are cut into slabs or light-colored, hard stone that differs from the darker stone of the rest of the terrace. Three openings were left between holes for doors at the front of the stage, and diagonally arranged holes at the side of the stage indicate two side entrances (parodoi). When the stage was stored away, the holes were covered by slabs of smooth stone.
Several reasons are suggested for the lack of a permanent stage and skene at Pergamum. First, the theatre terrace overlooks the plain of the river Kaikos, a beautiful vista that a permanent stone stage and skene would have destroyed. A colonnade lined the road that passes in front of the theatre leading to the temple of Dionysus, thus creating a popular locale for meetings and walks. It would be a reasonable assumption that strollers would typically walk on the theatre terrace or sit in the theatron when performances were not scheduled. It is further assumed that city leaders would be inclined to preserve the panorama that the city's residents enjoyed. They also wanted to preserve the natural background for Dionysian and other religious festivals that were held in the theatre each year. But, aside from the aesthetics, a very practical reason exists for "no permanent skene" there was insufficient space to construct a stone skene between the orchestra and the road that led to the Dionysian temple. Some scholars believe however, that eventually under Roman rule, a small stone stage only 9'2" deep was constructed. The Romans also demolished the first few rows of seats to expand the orchestra from 50'6" to 76'6" in order to accommodate gladiator and animal fights.
Three additional theatres are associated with Pergamum. Visiters to the site today can veiw the much-restored theatre (seating capicity of 3,500) at the Asclepion (ancient medical center) and the scant remains of a large Roman theatre (seating capacity of 30,000). These are located below the acropolis, on the eastern outskirts of modern Bergama. On the acropolis and adjacent to the upper gymnasium a small Roman odeum (seating capacity of 1000) can be found.
Pergamum was first excavated in 1878 by Germans Carl Humann, Alexander Conze, and R. Bohn. In 1876 Humann was in charge of the Istanbul-Izmir railroad when a worker brought him a fragment of the frieze from the Pergamon site. Humann took the artifact to Conze, a museum curator in Berlin, who recognized its importance. The Ottomans granted permission to excavate in 1877. The German Institute of Archaeology took over the excavations in 1900. German excavations have continued to the present, interrupted only by the two World Wars. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin houses archives and artifacts collected before 1936 including the alter of Zeus and Ahtena. In 1936 Ataturk built the Bergama Museum, which holds all artifacts collected since.
- Author: Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant), Whitman College. 2003
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Bean, George. Aegean Turkey: An Archaeological Guide. London: Earnest Benn Ltd., 1966. DS156. I6B4
Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1939.
Cimok, Fatih. Pergamum. Istanbul: A. Turizm Yayinlari, 2001.
Dinsmoor, William Bell. The Architecture of Ancient Greece: An Account of its Historic Development. Reprint of 1950 rev. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1975.
McDonagh, Bernard. Blue Guide Turkey. London: A&C Black, 2001.

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Copyright © 2003 Thomas G. Hines, Department of Theatre, Whitman College. All Rights Reserved. The Ancient Theatre Archive is a non-profit, educational project, located at Whitman College, USA. Research and Publication Partially Funded Through Grants from Whitman College, The United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and The National Endowment for the Humanities.
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