PAMUKKALE, Turkey — The dazzling white beauty of the Cotton Castle is visible for miles.
Nature took 5 million years to build the towering limestone terraces with calcium deposits left by hot springs spilling over cliffs that rise starkly from the plain. But men driven by greed needed only decades to cheapen one of the great natural wonders, which the government has now pledged to restore.
Ramshackle souvenir shops sit atop the terraces amid box-shaped hotels that have diverted the thermal waters for their own use, depriving the limestone of its chief whitening agent. Parts of the cliffs have turned black.
"My friends told me I should hurry up if I ever wanted to see Pamukkale," said Britt Godvik, a Swedish tourist. "I was told it did not have much time left."
The massive terraces, some rising more than 160 feet from the picturesque valley, extend for nearly 2 miles and cover 2,700 acres. Thermal waters cascade down and spread over the limestone, creating small pools where some tourists take the opportunity to bathe.
Pamukkale, 15 miles north of the provincial center of Denizli, also is the site of ancient Hierapolis (Holy City). The ruins of a Roman theater from the 2nd Century overlook the terraces.
Hierapolis became a sanctuary for early Christians and a base for the spread of the faith in Asia Minor. Philip, one of the 12 apostles, was killed there in the year 87.
Semra Sunucuoglu, a receptionist at one of the hotels, acknowledged that the building "sits on top of a Roman temple" and that some of the temple's columns were bulldozed "to open up a place for the thermal pool."
Columns are visible beneath the clear water of the hotel pool.
Another hazard for the terraces is the tourists, who roam over them freely.
The government recently announced plans to restore the Cotton Castle to its original condition, at an estimated cost of $160 million. The operation would involve moving everyone out of the area, which was uninhabited until the tourist boom began, and demolishing five big hotels.
"When they built these hotels with legal permission, the main concern was to gain money from tourism," said Altan Akat, director of the Cultural Ministry project. "The consciousness for the protection of natural heritages was not that developed at the time."
"Everything depends on finding the necessary funds in time," Akat said. So far, the ministry has allocated $3 million.
Some of the money has gone to print posters that depict children making this appeal to adults: "Keep the Cotton Castle white for us. Don't forget, you'll be remembered for your deeds."
Erdal Inonu, deputy premier, hinted that access to the site would be made more difficult, perhaps as a way of reducing the number of visitors.
"We built a road right to the middle of Pamukkale to attract visitors, but it further damaged the place," he said when launching the cleanup campaign in June.