In search of the seven churches of Asia Minor
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.