Monday, May 23, 2016

In search of the seven churches of Asia Minor

In search of the seven churches of Asia Minor

In search of the seven churches of Asia Minor
Güvercin Adası, Kuşadası (Photo: Pat Yale)

“Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyateira (Ahkisar), Sardis, Philadelphia (Alaşehir) and Laodicea.”
Best known as a sun and sand holiday destination, Turkey is also popular with pilgrims in search of the sites associated with the early history of Christianity in what was once Asia Minor. Some of those pilgrims take to the road following in the footsteps of St. Paul, who visited Anatolia on several occasions. Others come in search of the so-called Seven Churches of the Revelation, a phrase rich in meaning to those who know their Bible, but somewhat more mysterious to the rest of us.

So what were those seven churches and what can be seen at the sites now?

The Book of Revelation is the mystical last chapter of the New Testament. It was written by St. John of Patmos who may or may not have been the same person as St. John the Evangelist (also known as St. John the Apostle and St. John the Theologian), the close friend of Jesus who was with him at his death. If they were indeed the same person, then St. John of Patmos would also have been responsible for the gospel of St. John, one of the earlier books of the New Testament that recounts the life of Jesus.

Unfortunately, we are talking about events that took place almost 2,000 years ago, hence the uncertainty. According to some stories after the death of Jesus, St. John took Jesus' mother Mary from Jerusalem to Ephesus, by then the largest city of Roman Asia Minor. There he may have fallen foul of the authorities by refusing to take part in the imperial cult, which accorded the Roman emperor the status of a divinity. Even if St. John of Patmos and St. John the Evangelist were not the same person, it is likely that a St. John refused to sacrifice to the Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96), for which offence he was exiled to Patmos, then a desolate penal colony.

Already elderly by the time he arrived on Patmos, St. John then had a vision that inspired him to write letters to seven communities (a better translation of the Greek word “ekklesia” than “churches”) scattered around Ephesus. Those letters seem to have been intended to shore up their sometimes-wavering Christian faith.

Assuming that this letter-writing St. John was a different person from St. John the Evangelist, it is likely that he died and was buried on Patmos, reputedly at the great age of 120. If, on the other hand, he and the Evangelist were indeed one and the same person, it would appear that he eventually returned to Ephesus and took up residence on Ayasuluk Hill, now in the center of Selçuk. There, he wrote his gospel before dying and being buried on the hill where a great basilica was erected over his grave.

Today, you can easily visit all the places that received a letter from St. John. However, in the first century the Christian congregations almost certainly worshipped either in their homes or in caves, synagogues or outdoor venues. The ruined churches to be seen at the sites all date from the fourth century onward, which means that they have no direct connection with St. John.


By far the best known of the communities was Ephesus, which may already have had a population of some 150,000 in the latter half of the first century. Aside from the link with St. John, Ephesus was home for some years to St. Paul until, after angering the trinket-sellers who profited from pilgrims to the Temple of Artemis, he was effectively drummed out of town.

According to legend, St. John returned to Ephesus by floating on a cork that bore him as far as Miletus. Back in the city, he soon had problems with the temple priests who wanted him to prove the power of his god by drinking poison from a chalice. St. John supposedly made the sign of the cross over it, whereupon the poison slithered out of it in the shape of a snake, an image that came to represent the saint in later icons. He then proceeded to restore to life two criminals who had also been made to drink the poison.

St. John is said to have performed other miracles at Ephesus, including restoring to life Drusiana, his erstwhile landlady whom he caused to rise from her coffin and trot off home to cook him a meal.

For today's visitor, the most obvious reminder of Christianity in Ephesus is surprisingly easy to overlook. The ruins of a huge basilica still survive to the west of the lower gate, the entrance nearest to Selçuk. Here the first church dedicated to Mary the Mother of God was built in the fourth century on the site of an older building whose purpose is unclear. Its sheer size aside, its most striking feature was its baptistery, which is still adorned with huge stone-carved crosses. It was in this building that the Third Ecumenical Council of 431 made the decision to expel Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, from the church, leading to a schism and the eventual birth of the Chaldean Church.


Ancient Smyrna stood on the hillside at Bayraklı, in the northern part of what is now İzmir. Although the site has been excavated, there is little to remind visitors that it once had a Christian community. St. John is said to have ordained as bishop of Smyrna St. Polycarp, who was burned to death, probably for refusing to swear an oath to the emperor as god in c.155.


Newly elevated to World Heritage Site status, the ancient city of Pergamum, north of İzmir, is best known for the fantastic Greco-Roman ruins both on the lofty Acropolis and across town where the Asklepion was a hugely important medical shrine. Many visitors barely glance at the huge but shattered ruin called Kızıl Avlu (the Red Courtyard) that started life as a temple to the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates. According to St. John, this was the very throne of the devil, so it's perhaps appropriate that a small church dedicated to him was built right inside it in the fourth century. St. John also mentions an Antipas, whom he ordained here and who was martyred for his faith by being roasted alive in a bull-shaped cauldron in 92 A.D.


Perhaps the least satisfactory of the sites in terms of what there is for a visitor to see is Thyateira, which sits right in the built-up center of modern Akhisar, near Sardis. Although ruins of a building with an apse survive, no Christian artifacts were found in it, so it was probably a civic structure. Otherwise, you can see only the scant remains of a porticoed street.

Interestingly, in the Acts of the Apostles, another book of the Bible, St. Paul reports having baptized a seller of purple cloth named Lydia, a native of Thyateira whom he met in Philippi in modern Greece at the end of his second journey.


The main archeological site at Sardis is dominated by the remains of a magnificent synagogue and a huge reconstructed wall from the Hall of the Imperial Cult. However, if you look closely at the row of shops excavated beside the synagogue you'll see what appears to be a font with huge crosses carved into it, apparently suggesting that this building was at some point converted into a baptistery.

If you then walk to the separate site of the Temple of Artemis you will pass on your right the remains of a small fourth-century apsidal church with its brick dome collapsed on top of it. More impressively, on the north side of the huge temple there stands an intact church where an apse was apparently added to a basically fourth-century structure 200 years later. Afterwards, it was buried by a landslide and was only dug out again in 1912, hence its fine state of preservation


As with Thyateira, so with Philadelphia, the slight remains of which survive right in the heart of modern Alaşehir, near Sardis. The difference here is that these remains consist solely of the soaring brick columns that once supported the dome of what must have been a colossal church dedicated to St. John the Theologian. It was destroyed in 1922 toward the end of the Turkish War of Independence.


In some ways the most rewarding of the seven sites to visit nowadays is Laodicea, near Pamukkale, where archeologists have been working hard to make sense of what was, not so long ago, just a mess of fallen stones. In particular, they are meticulously rebuilding the Byzantine church in the heart of the ruins which features a lovely mosaic floor.
Keywords: churches , Asia

Monday, May 9, 2016

Around the Sea of Marmara: Exploring İstanbul’s backyard

Around the Sea of Marmara: Exploring İstanbul’s backyard

Around the Sea of Marmara: Exploring İstanbul’s backyard
Gelibolu (Photo: Pat Yale)

Racing into İstanbul in a taxi from the airport, visitors rarely have time to appreciate the lovely stretch of water to their right. Then they wake up in their Sultanahmet hotels and find that breakfast is served on a roof terrace that offers a panoramic view of what some mistakenly assume to be the Bosporus but is in fact the Sea of Marmara.

Covering an area of 11,350 square kilometers, the Sea of Marmara has always held great strategic importance as the link between the Black Sea and the Aegean via the straits of the Bosporus to the northeast and the Dardanelles to the southwest. It's named after Marmara, the largest island in the Marmara group that lies to the south of the sea. That in turn is named after the marble (“mermer” in Turkish) that is still quarried in great quantities there.

The Sea of Marmara is effectively İstanbul's backyard, yet most of the settlements along its shore receive relatively few foreign visitors despite being easy to get to. The following is a summary of what to see if you drive around the sea in a counterclockwise direction.



Heading west out of İstanbul along the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara, it takes a long time to get clear of the urban sprawl and the build-up of holiday homes, but eventually you arrive in Tekirdağ, best known in Turkey for its rakı factory but also an active fishing port where you can stroll along the promenade and watch the men fixing their nets in the sun.

The main mosque is a minor work of the great architect Sinan, but more interesting are two small museums, the first the local archeology museum which is housed in a magnificent early 20th-century building, the second a monument to Prince Francis II Rakoczy (1676-1735), a Hungarian exiled to this then-remote Ottoman town after he took part in the Hungarian War of Independence against the Habsburgs. It contains some lovely watercolors of old Tekirdağ.



If you continue driving around the shores of the sea, you will eventually reach the mouth of the Dardanelles at Gelibolu, a very pretty little harbor town presided over by a tower that has been converted into a museum to Piri Reis (c. 1465-1555), a Gelibolu-born admiral who produced the first map to show the American continent in its entirety. Gelibolu is also home to a small Çanakkale museum as well as to the largest Mevlevihane (lodge for whirling dervishes) in the world. There's a beach at nearby Hamzaköy and fish restaurants dishing up fresh sardines all around the harbor.


Biga and Karabiga

If you take the ferry across from Gelibolu to Lapseki and then continue driving round the Sea of Marmara (the road diverts inland at this point), you will come to the small town of Biga, interesting only for a couple of surviving Ottoman mansions, one converted into a hotel, the other into a museum. Here, though, you can take the road that heads north to the shore at Karabiga, where pieces of an old castle tumble picturesquely down the cliffs of a much more rugged stretch of coastline. It was near here in 334 B.C. that Alexander the Great first defeated the Persians at the Battle of Granicus.



Once a glitzy holiday resort that attracted the moneyed elite, Erdek is now a faded shadow of its old self but filled with hotels that nonetheless boast priceless sunset views over the Sea of Marmara from their balconies. The only specific tourist attraction nearby is the minor archeological site at Cyzikus, one of those places where you come to ponder the strange turns of the wheel of fortune that rendered what was once a town as rich and powerful as Ephesus an also-ran in the touristic stakes.


Marmara Islands

Erdek offers one of the main access points to the Marmara Islands throughout the summer. If you fancy a quick sun-and-sand break away from İstanbul, then these islands might just fit the bill. Mainly catering to the Turkish-family holiday market, the main island Avşa in particular is full of small family-run pensions that don't charge an arm and a leg and are often very close to the sea. Marmara island is bigger, more mountainous, and perhaps more visually enticing. The smaller, less readily accessible islands of Ekinlik and Paşalimanı are predictably more exclusive.



Continuing eastwards along the Sea of Marmara, you will come eventually to Mudanya, a ferry port that played an important role in the final events of the Turkish War of Independence as the place where İsmet İnönü met the leaders of the British, French and Italians to thrash out the boundaries of the new Turkish Republic. The elegant Mütadele Evi (Armistice House) where they did this is now open to the public as a museum and offers a chance to see inside one of the fine seaside mansions built as summer retreats by some of İstanbul's wealthiest families in the early 20th century.



Just a little further east, you will come to the lovely little seaside town of Trilye, once a largely Greek settlement known for its fine olive oil and called Zeytinbağı. Here street after cobbled street is lined with lovely old Ottoman houses in varying states of repair, the centerpiece being the grand Taş Mektep (Stone School) that started life as a seminary for priests. Also worth seeking out are three small Byzantine churches, two of them in ruins, the third restored for use as the Fatih Cami.


One of the best-known destinations on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara is Yalova, one of the ports for fast-ferries from İstanbul and just a short bus ride away from Termal, a lovely wooded spa resort that found particular favor with Atatürk. Here you can swim in the open air in a large heated pool or sample the more discreet charms of assorted Turkish baths before taking a stroll around a large arboretum. You can also visit the newly restored summerhouse built for Atatürk, while in Yalova itself there is a more elegant sea-facing wooden pavilion for which he was also responsible. It's called the Yürüyen Köşkü (Walking Pavilion) because when the branches of nearby trees started to encroach on the view he had it painstakingly inched a little further along the coast.



Much less visited than Yalova/Termal, the small town of Karamürsel nonetheless boasts a pleasant landscaped waterfront whence you can hop on a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Kocaeli (İzmit). Karamürsel played a walk-on part in Ottoman history as the site of the first naval shipyard founded in 1327. Accordingly, there's a monument here to Karamürsel, the admiral responsible who also designed the kadırga, the prototype of the galleys that served the navy in its early years.



Near Karamürsel is Topçular, where it's possible to hop on a ferry and cross back to the northern side of the Sea of Marmara at Eskihisar, a small town that is more or less a suburb of İstanbul now. As you approach across the water, you will get an excellent look at the huge castle that still dominates the town. It was here that the great Ottoman artist, archeologist and museum-maker, Osman Hamdi Bey, kept a summerhouse. A lovely whitewashed yalı (waterside mansion), it's open to the public as a museum that shows off replicas of his paintings, the best known of which is “The Tortoise Trainer” that is on display in İstanbul's Pera Museum. Osman Hamdi Bey is buried in a shady cemetery nearby.



Heading back to İstanbul, you might want to make one last quick stop at Hereke, once the place where fine silk carpets were woven to adorn the İstanbul palaces. Today the old factory is intermittently open to the public, who can also pause to appreciate a small yalı built for Kaiser Wilhelm II, who introduced chemical dyes from Germany to Turkey. Despite the busy main road roaring behind it, there's still a very pretty little harbor here where you can tuck into one last fish supper before returning to İstanbul.


Crossing the Sea of Marmara

Fast ferries sail from Yenikapı in İstanbul to Yalova, Mudanya and Bandırma, near Erdek ( At the Dardanelles end, car ferries cross from Gelibolu to Lapseki ( At the İstanbul end, car ferries cross from Topçular to Eskihisar every 20 minutes.

In summer there are car ferries from Tekirdağ to the Marmara Islands ( All year round, there are ferries to the Islands from Erdek (

Keywords: Marmara , travel

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