A Revelation: unexpected lessons from the Seven Churches of Asia
The Book of Revelation is perhaps known best for the Apocalypse, the “end times,” and destruction of the world. Even non-Christians know that. Yet the word “apocalypse” literally means “revelation,” that which is uncovered.
This past summer on our annual vacation to Turkey—my husband Kemal’s country of birth—we were in for quite a few revelations as we traveled the geography of the Seven Churches of Revelation, also known as the Seven Churches of Asia. All are in the western Aegean region of modern-day Turkey.
What started out an exciting and unique adventure--I certainly never expected to visit these places with such odd Biblical names—became something much more. The realization grew with each site that expectations were being far exceeded as we learned the history, saw how people lived, and, through museums and ruins, saw the evolution of civilizations.
These seven churches were not church buildings, but rather early Christian communities in Asia Minor that happened to be located along an established trade route that brought together the most populated and influential parts of that area. Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia, was one of the first places where Christianity spread, and for a thousand years, it was the center of the Hellenic world. In the Book of Revelation, John is directed by Jesus in a vision to deliver apocalyptic messages to these seven early Christian communities. In fact, the entire Book of Revelation is one long message to them.
Our first stop was Smyrna, a city going back to at least 3000 BC and legendary birthplace of the poet Homer. Smyrna is now known as Izmir, a city familiar to me as a place with a U.S. military presence since at least the 1950s and a “best kept secret” in the U.S. Air Force. But I did not know about its long and gloried history.
Many wars and earthquakes destroyed old Smyrna, but a new city was built by Alexander the Great. By the time that Christianity was introduced—both John and Paul spent time in Smyrna--it was known as one of the great cities of Asia. Christianity flourished in Smyrna, and the city kept the religion and its Greek heritage alive even through the Ottoman conquest and into the 20th century. It ended with the Great Fire of Smyrna, 100 years ago this year, during the Greco-Turkish War. Only recent archeological excavations have turned up the ancient ruins.
Today, Izmir is on the Tentative List for the UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Roman era Smyrna Agora and the Acropolis of Smyrna, a rare architectural find with layers of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods. A basilica in the Smyrna Agora is home to some 3000 wall engravings, or graffiti, which offer insight into daily life in the Roman period and evidence of Christianity’s growing influence. A water fountain has flowed there for thousands of years. We toured the Agora ruins, but the graffiti section is closed to the public.
From Smyrna we drove to Pergamon, today called Bergama. I knew that Pergamon, as one of the Seven Churches in the Bible, was called the place where “Satan’s throne is” a description that always caught my attention! That description is believed to have come from the huge Temple of Zeus, which is no longer located in the ruins of the acropolis there. It was taken, piece by piece, to Germany, where it resides today.
Bergama/Pergamon has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014. Its acropolis was the capital of the Hellenistic Attalid dynasty and was a major center of learning in the ancient world. Later, during the Roman era, it was known for its Asklepion healing center. On the lower slopes of the acropolis there are burial mounds and remains of the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman empires. That is a lot of history in one place. It was truly magnificent.
Down the road from Bergama was Thyatira, today known as Akhisar. You might have heard of Lydia of Thyatira, mentioned in the Bible for providing for Paul and Silas during their missionary journey. She is regarded as the first convert to Christianity in Europe and is designated a saint in several denominations. Thyatira was the center of the purple cloth trade during the first century AD, and today is one of Turkey’s largest tobacco and olive growing regions, but it is not a historical site. Though much might lie beneath the surface, there is no evidence of the ancient city or of early Christianity.
Sardis, on the other hand, known as Sart today, had plenty to see. Like Smyrna, it is on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But unlike Smyrna, Sardis always had one foot in the west and one in the east. The Greek historian Herodotus said that Sardis was founded by the sons of Hercules. Sardis was one of the preeminent cities of the ancient world, one of the important cities of the Persian Empire, the capital of the Lydian Empire that ruled western Asia Minor, the place where gold coins were first minted (it was the home of King Croesus), the location of the Temple of Artemis and the largest Jewish synagogue in the ancient world. That is quite an impressive resume, and so were the ruins. We spent hour after hour walking through the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, the Byzantine church ruins that were attached to the Temple, the Roman gymnasium and bath, and the Jewish synagogue. Our only regret is that we had hotel reservations and could not stay longer.
I wanted Philadelphia to be a striking example of an ancient civilization, noteworthy and living up to its name as the “City of Brotherly Love.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t really anything to see. Today, Philadelphia is named Alasehir. It is known for raisins and mineral water and its 45 mosques. At one time, people called it “Little Athens.” Like Smyrna, Philadelphia was also burned to the ground during the Greco-Turkish War in 1922.
From Philadelphia, we made our way to Denizli, an extremely popular tourist destination in Turkey today because of the thermal springs in Pamukkale, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hierapolis. It is also the location of Laodicea, another of the Seven Churches and a location on the Tentative List of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Laodicea was situated in the ancient region of Phrygia and was founded in the third century BC. It had a large Jewish population; the king transported 2000 Jewish families from Babylonia. Since the city was on a trade route and had a bustling black sheep trade, it became very wealthy. Its wealth was mentioned in the Bible.
The extensive archeological remains—a stadium, baths, temples, gymnasium, theaters—are testament to its former greatness. Laodicea has been greatly overshadowed by the proximity of Pamukkale and Hierapolis and the marketing of those sites to tourists.
The last of the Seven Churches for our trip was a place I have visited frequently: Ephesus. Ephesus was once considered the most important Greek city and the most important trading center in the Mediterranean region. Today it is one of Christianity’s most revered sites.
Ephesus is a magical place, the touchstone of western civilization, where the Greeks, the Romans, and then Christianity built upon one another’s learning and culture. It is more than that, of course. Christianity came from Judaism, and all of Asia Minor was under the First Persian Empire for hundreds of years. Later, the Seljuk Turks swept in and changed everything. That’s civilization. Change upon change, culture building upon culture.
Ephesus truly captures something special. Maybe it is the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (just a few stones remain today). Or maybe it is my memories of the passage in the Bible about the riot at the theater with the people shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Or the façade of the imposing ancient Roman library.
Just down the road from Ephesus in the town of Selcuk is the Basilica of St. John and what is believed to be the tomb of John.
Many scholars believe that he authored the Book of Revelation in Ephesus. Close by is the House of the Virgin Mary. Did Mary spend the last years of her life there, brought by John acting upon Jesus’ command to take care of his mother? The small stone house, whose material and construction date back to the Apostolic Age, has been given the status of Holy Place by the Catholic Church and it is venerated by both Christians and Muslims.
It will come as no surprise that Ephesus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A week and five UNESCO World Heritage Sites (or tentative sites) later, we were ready to head to the Aegean coast for some rest and relaxation. That’s the kind of vacation most people look forward to, as we did. But we were so affected by the revelations we had seen and felt more connected to those who had come before us.