The place first appears in Greek as Bambyce, but Pliny (v. 23) tells us its Syrian name was Mabog (also Mabbog, Mabbogh). As a centre of the worship of the Syrian goddess Atargatis, it became known to the Greeks as the (Hieropolis) 'city of the sanctuary', and finally as(Hierapolis) 'holy city'.
This worship of Atargatis was immortalized in De Dea Syria which has traditionally been attributed to Lucian of Samosata, a native of Commagene, who gave a full description of the religious cult of the shrine and the tank of sacred fish of Atargatis, of which Aelian also relates marvels. According to the De Dea Syria, the worship was of a phallic character, votaries offering little male figures of wood and bronze. There were also huge phalli set up like obelisks before the temple, which were ceremoniously climbed once a year and decorated.
The temple contained a holy chamber into which only priests were allowed to enter. A great bronze altar stood in front, set about with statues, and in the forecourt lived numerous sacred animals and birds (but not swine) used for sacrifice.
Some three hundred priests served the shrine and there were numerous minor ministrants. The lake was the centre of sacred festivities and it was customary for votaries to swim out and decorate an altar standing in the middle of the water. Self-mutilation and other orgies went on in the temple precinct, and there was an elaborate ritual on entering the city and first visiting the shrine. The Shawaya now dominates the area