Today Christians are a small minority in Turkey, with more than 97% of the population being Muslim. However, Turkey was the setting for some of the most important happenings in the history of Christianity from its earliest beginnings. Here pilgrims can gain understanding of Biblical history and inspiration for their lives of faith.
Ephesus is among the most important and popular tourist destinations in Turkey. The excavations done by Austrians are considered to be the largest excavated ruins in the world. Following the white marble paths of Ephesus, one sees its former greatness in the Roman theater, Library of Celsius, town hall and the gigantic temple, dedicated to Artemis, that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. An important site for Christians is the basilica where, in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council took place, proclaiming the divine maternity of Mary. In 449, the basilica became the first church dedicated to Mary.
Several other sites found in Ephesus and its surroundings have significance for Christians. From the southern entrance, visitors will first pass the presumed tomb of St. Luke on the right. The structure dates back to the 2nd century. It was built over the remains of an earlier building, but the purpose of that building is unknown. Later, in the 5th or 6th century, the structure was turned into a church. During excavations in the 19th century, a pillar with the relief of a cross and a bull, symbol of St. Luke, were found. There is no proof, however, of a connection between these building remains and the place where Luke is buried.
St. John the Evangelist came to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary. The Emperor Domitian wanted John executed but he escaped every attempt to kill him by performing a miracle. After spending time in exile on the island of Patmos, St. John returned to Ephesus. It is believed that he lived and died in the foothills of Ayasuluk Peak and the first monumental tomb dedicated to him was built there in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. In the 4th century, a church was built to honor him and then some changes were made to it by the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who also was responsible for the building of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It is believed that the tomb of St. John The Evangelist is in this church.
Most scholars agree that the Virgin Mary spent her last years in Ephesus in a small house on Mt. Bulbul, although some dispute that she died there. It is plausible that Mary would have been taken to Ephesus by St. John for her protection after persecutions broke out in Jerusalem. Also, a letter to all clergy from the Council Fathers of the Third Ecumenical Council stated that the Council was conducted in Ephesus "in which place John the Theologian and the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God were." In addition, the discovery of the small house in 1881 that is thought to be the dwelling pace of the Virgin Mary is based on a book written by a German nun named Anne-Catherine Emmerich. In her book, which is based on visions she had, she describes the location of the house of the Virgin Mary despite the fact that she had been bedridden for twelve years and never saw Ephesus. At the end of investigations, a ruined house matching her descriptions was found on Mt. Bulbul. The walls of this building appear to be from the 6th century; however, its foundation has characteristics of 1st century workmanship. Also present was a fireplace in the center of the room and spring water, as described in the book. The shrine is now a holy place of pilgrimage for Christians. The House of Virgin Mary was visited by Pope Paul VI in 1967, Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.
JOURNEYING WITH ST. PAUL
Along with St. Peter, St. Paul is acknowledged as the most famous of the early Christian missionaries. In large part, it is due to him that Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Turkey and then to the heart of Europe. Although he also traveled in Syria, Cyprus and Greece, it is in Turkey where Paul preached the most, covering a vast territory. Pilgrims in Turkey can follow in his footsteps on ancient roads, visit the cities to which he traveled on his journeys and step foot into some of the earliest of Christian churches. Information concerning the life of St. Paul is found in the Acts of the Apostles and his Epistles in the Bible. After his vision of Jesus, described in Chapter 9, Paul goes on to make four missionary journeys. Throughout these trips, the names of places in Turkey are mentioned often.
1) ST. PAUL IN ANTIOCH:
From the aspect of Christianity, Antioch (now Antakya) is an important site. There were already believers there in the first century AD. It was one of the first places from where Christian teaching spread and it became the starting point for St. Paul's journeys. On his first journey, he and Barnabas started from Antakya and visited Cyprus and the southern coast of Turkey, preaching and performing miracles before returning to Antakya.
For the first time in history, the name "Christian" was used for the congregation of The Church of St. Peter in the northeast of Antakya. As well as being the oldest church in the world, it is also where an early Christian congregation met; and it is where tradition indicates that St. Peter and St. Paul prayed together. It is thought that the cave church was the site of a meeting between them when St. Peter came to Antakya. The church was constructed in front of a small cave located on Mt. Stauris. On the floor of the church, there are remains of mosaics dating from the fifth century AD; and to the left of the altar is a tunnel which was presumably used as an escape route by Christians in times of persecution. The church was extended by several meters in the 11th century by the crusaders; and in 1863, Pope Pius IX had it renovated with the help of Napoleon III. The inside of the church contains remains of frescoes and mosaics, an altar, a statue (put there in 1932) and a stone throne, but little can be seen of the original church.
2) ST. PAUL IN PERGE:
Perge is one of the cities that St. Paul visited twice during hist first journey. He came by sea at the start of the journey and returned on his way back to Antioch. The second time, he preached the Gospel to the population. He probably entered the city through the symmetrical towers (still standing) that are situated in either side of the city's most important entrance gate. Perge is also the starting point of the St. Paul Trail. Those who want to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul by walking on ancient roads can follow this route or at least some parts of it.
3) ST. PAUL IN PSIDIAN ANTIOCHIA:
Another city visited twice by St. Paul on his first journey is Yalvac. The old name of this city was Psidian Antiochia. It is believed that Paul's preaching there was the very first done on his missionary journey. His first speech affected many to such a degree that they wanted him to address them again. When he preached the second time, a very large crowd assembled to hear him and many were converted to Christianity. However, some opponents of Christianity started to persecute St. Paul and St. Barnabas and the two of them were thrown out of the city leaving behind many new believers.
In Yalvac, one can still see the ruins of the Church of St. Paul, built in 325 AD on the site of the synagogue in which Paul first preached. It is believed to be the first church dedicated to St. Paul. Among the mosaics on its floor, one can find the name of Bishop Optimus who attended the ecumenical council held in Istanbul in the year 381.
When St. Paul visited Yalvac, it was one of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire and had a population of approximately 70,000. Among the remains of the city are the Temple of Augustus, its entrance decorated with the winged figures of Genius and Nike; and also, a theater, a monumental fountain and the Roman baths. The seven churches in the city, in which several saints preached after St. Paul, indicate that Yalvac was a center of Christianity for a long time.
4) ST. PAUL IN KONYA:
After leaving Yalvac, Paul and Barnbas went to Konya where they succeeded in converting many people to Christianity. One of the most important of these was St. Thecla who went on to become one of Christianity's missionaries and the first female martyr.
Paul preached in Konya for a long time even though a section of the population was against him. When St. Paul and St. Barnabas learned that some people were planning to attack them, they escaped, going next to the cities of Lystra and Derbe.
Sille, one of the most important centers in the early Christian period, is located 8 km to the northwest of Konya. There one can see the AK Monastery (St. Chariton) with its rock-cut church. It was one of the first monasteries in the world. Also, when St. Helena, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, saw the rock churches of Konya while on a pilgrimage, she decided to have the Church of St. Helena built in Sille. Pictures of Jesus, Mary and the apostles can be seen on the stone walls.
5) ST. PAUL IN LYSTRA AND DERBE:
In Lystra, St. Paul cured a man who had been crippled from birth and had never walked. The people of Lystra (now Hatunsaray) were impressed by the miracle and assumed that Paul and Barnabas were pagan gods and wanted to sacrifice animals in their honor. Paul preached about the one true God and prevented the sacrifice. However, people against Christianity, from outside the city, turned the people of Lystra against Paul and had him stoned. Paul and Barnabas then went to Derbe, where they converted many people to Christianity. This city was the final stop of the first journey. St. Paul returned to Derbe and Lystra on his second journey to encourage his earlier converts. He then met Timothy in Lystra; and together with him, he continued his journeys.
There is not much in Lystra today. However, in Gokyurt (Kilistra) 12 km to the west of Lystra, there are monuments thought to be from a settlement founded by Christians from Lystra who left on account of persecution, although research has shown that most of the remains date from a later period during the 8th or 9th centuries. Nonetheless, it is likely that Paul used the stone paved road from Lystra to Kilistra that continued into the city. Within the city, there is a church carved out of rock with a wooden roof. The area around the church is referred to as "Paulonu Mevkii" (Paul's Locale). The hundreds of churches in the area around Lystra and Derbe, mostly dating from between the 4th and the 9th centuries, demonstrate how quickly the teachings of Jesus were spread through the efforts of St. Paul.
6) ST. PAUL IN MERSIN:
Mersin, on Turkey's southern coast, was visited by St. Paul during his second journey. Today one can see the places where he was born and where he lived as well as early Christian churches dedicated to him and other Christian saints.
Tarsus is the city of St. Paul's birth. He is named as Paul of Tarsus in the Bible. From time to time, after he accepted Christianity and started to work to spread it, St. Paul returned to Tarsus. Visitors today can step onto the ancient stone road that was used by St. Paul when he was in Tarsus and they can see the Church of St. Paul, dedicated to him and built in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. Another place of pilgrimage for Christians is St. Paul's Well. It is located in what is thought to possibly be the courtyard of St. Paul's home. The water level never drops and it is thought by some to have healing powers.
Silifke, another district in the province of Mersin, is home to Ayatekla (St. Thecla) Church. Originally from Konya, St. Thecla was Christianity's first female martyr. She was greatly affected by St. Paul's preaching during his three day ministry in Konya and listened to him without eating, drinking or sleeping. She became his disciple, strived to spread the Gospel and performed several miracles. St. Thecla's Basilica was a natural cave in which she worshipped in secret and which was used by Christians for secret prayers during the years they were persecuted for the practice of their religion. This cave where St. Thecla died and was buried was converted into a church in the fourth century. The church, called Ayatekla, is now in ruins, but the cave beneath is a place of pilgrimage for Christians.
In Narlikuyu, 20 km from Silifke, one will find the remains of another early Christian church, constructed in the 4th or 5th century AD using the remains of a much earlier Temple of Zeus. It is located on the north side of natural caves known as the Wells of Heaven and Hell. An inscription on the entrance to another church in front of the Well of Heaven indicates that it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by a pious man named Paulus. The two churches are monuments to the success of Christianity over pagan beliefs.
Churches were also built in other places in which St. Paul stayed during his journey. One is the Alahan Monastery which has been placed on the provisional UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. It is located on the top of a hill overlooking the Goksu Valley. A few kilometers further there are rock-cut churches and churches decorated with geometrical designs of various colors. In Maya Village, part of Mut district, there is an underground church known as the Renkli (meaning colorful) Church because of the red and green tones which it has been painted.
7) ST. PAUL IN EPHESUS:
St. Paul's first visit to Ephesus was during his second journey. When he came back on his third journey, he stayed a long time, 53-56 AD. During those three years, he performed many miracles and gained many converts to Christianity. As the number of Christians grew, the silversmiths whose livelihood depended on selling statues of the goddess Artemis felt threatened by the new religion and they organized an uprising to get rid of St. Paul. He then departed to Macedonia. Later he wrote his epistle to the Ephesians, urging them to remain steadfast in their faith and warning them against false prophets.
Carved out of rock on the northern slope of Mt. Bulbul is the Cave of St. Paul. A Christian sacred site since the 1st or 2nd century, the cave was discovered in 1906. Found under plaster on the walls are important 6th-century frescoes depicting the Virgin Mary, St. Paul and St. Thecla. This is the only known depiction of St. Paul at Ephesus. Unfortunately, the Cave of St. Paul is not generally open to the public.
8) ST. PAUL IN ALEXANDRIA TROAS:
St. Paul first visited Alexandria Troas (Canakkale) on his second journey. Here Paul dreamed of a Macedonian calling him across the waters to Philippi. Paul then altered his course and began the spread of Christianity into Europe. Although little remains of the ancient city, one of the sections of the antique stone road followed by St. Paul can be found at Alexandria Troas.
9) ST. PAUL IN DEMRE:
The first stop of the ship carrying St. Paul to be tried in Rome was Demre. Demre has a special association with St. Nicholas (Santa Claus), who was born in Patara on Dec. 6, 240 AD. Young Nicholas grew to be a generous man and entered the priesthood. When his parents died, leaving him a great deal of money, he gave it away to the needy and the poor. Later, as bishop of Demre, St. Nicholas did what he could to help all people, not only children. The annual tradition of giving presents throughout the Christian world dates back to his leaving gifts outside the doors of poor families for the first time in the year 270 AD. He was known especially for his kindness to children and in particular to young girls from poor backgrounds, for whom he often provided dowries so they could marry. Nicholas was so well loved that the citizens built a church in his honor after his death in 342 AD.
Those who visit the Church of St. Nicholas in Demre can also see carved rock tombs overlooking the Roman theater and sail the Kekova region, known for its picturesque islands, numerous bays and ancient cities.
10) ST. PAUL IN CAPPADOCIA:
The existence of hundreds of churches in Cappadocia is evidence of a large Christian community in the Byzantine period. It is thought that St. Paul may have established the first Christian community there during his second journey, although the name doesn't appear in his epistles. St. Peter's letter mentions Christians living there.
This region, unique because of its "fairy chimneys"(cone-shaped pillars of tuff capped with basalt) throughout its valleys, is considered the cradle of Eastern monasticism. After visiting monastic centers in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, St. Basil (330-379 AD) became a monk and founded a monastery in his hometown in the area of Pontus, bordering Cappadocia. He also wrote the two monastic codes that today remain the codes of monastic life in the Orthodox faith. Eventually, it is assumed that some monks sought the seclusion of the Cappadocia valleys. Small chapels and later bigger ones were cut into the rocks by monks and the rock churches came to be used by monastic communities and pilgrims who came seeking prayers and spiritual advice from the monks. In the Valley of Goreme, there is an open-air museum which used to house a religious community. According to local tradition, there were as many as 356 churches, of which about thirty are open to the public. All churches still standing in Goreme were built after about 850 AD and decorated up to the eleventh centuries with frescoes depicting the lives of Jesus and the saints. These rock-cut churches are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Archeologists tend to believe that the Hittites were the starters of Cappadocia's underground cities which were expanded by early Christians into very extensive complexes with air shafts, kitchens, living quarters, churches, water wells, horse stables and wine cellars. These underground cities were used against their enemies by people who had accepted Christianity. They were used both as shelters and also as safe places to carry out worship. The largest of 36 underground cities in the area is Derinkuyu Underground City. Located under a hill, it was found by chance and opened to the public in 1965. It covers a 4 square km area and was able to shelter 2,000 households on 7 floors beneath the surface. Another significant underground community in the Cappadocia region is the Tatlarin Underground City where existing Christian frescoes can be seen.
THE SEVEN CITIES OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION
The Seven Churches mentioned by St. John in the Book of Revelation are all found in Turkey and each was a founding community of Christianity. These sites now show marks of the passing empires and cultures of the Romans, Byzantines, Selcuk Turks, Ottomans and the modern Turkish Republic. Visitors find remains of pagan temples and Muslim mosques as well as Christian church buildings.
1) SMYRNA: The Letter to Smyrna encourages followers to have a willingness to suffer for Christ. Smyrna is now the modern city of Izmir, known in history as the "Pearl of the Aegean." St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyna in the 2nd century, proved his love for Christ when he was martyred there. Smyrna (Izmir) is the only one the seven churches that has had continuous Christian congregations meeting within the city. St. Polycarp Church is the oldest church in Izmir.
2) PERGAMUM: In the Letter to Pergamum, the church is commended for holding to the truth, but then reproved for tolerating some false prophets. "The seat of Satan" (2:13) may refer to this city being a strong center of paganism with many temples. Because of the strong worship of Asklepios, the god of healing, it became a center of medicine. Now known as Bergama, Pergamum survives as one of Turkey's finest archeological sites.
3) THYATIRA: The Letter to Thyatira gives emphasis to a holiness of life and warns against moral compromise and lack of righteousness of character. Thyatira, now the town of Akhisar, was the smallest of the seven cities and was was used to deter enemies from reaching Pergamum, 40 miles to the northwest. It was also a prosperous trading center. Lydia of Thyatira, a merchant of rare purple dye, is mentioned in the Book of Acts of the Apostles (16:14) as meeting St. Paul.
4) SARDIS: The Letter to Sardis (now SART) emphasizes the need for inward reality behind the church's outward show. Sardis was the wealthy capital of Lydia, and was home to monumental buildings such as the Temple of Artemis, the mint, a gold smelter, rows of shops, a gymnasium and a grand synagogue, the oldest parts of which date from the 4th century BC. The temple of Artemis was converted to a church after the rise of Christianity. The ruins unearthed give a glimpse of the city's wealthy past.
5) PHILADELPHIA: The Letter to Philadelphia (now Alasehir) reminds of the need for an evangelistic outreach to others. John had only good things to say about its inhabitants. In ancient times, the City of Brotherly Love was known for its humanity and tolerance. The city was devastated in a severe earthquake in 17 AD. Remains of a Byzantine basilica can be seen today.
6) LAODICEA: The Letter to Laodicea (Eskihisar) emphasizes a wholeheartedness in everything. Six miles north of the city were the thermal springs (not drinkable) at Hierapolis. To obtain drinking water, the Romans built an aqueduct that ran five miles south to an abundant spring. The cool spring water would become lukewarm as it passed through the aqueducts into the city. John gives this church the sternest of the seven letters. There is no mention of heretics or paganism, but simply that they were "neither hot nor cold." Extensive ruins cover several hillsides.
Traditionally, St. Phillip is connected with the early church in Hierapolis. It is believed that he was martyred around 80 AD in Hierapolis, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its white travertine terraces. Fairly recently, Italian archeologists have discovered his martyrium, an octagonal chamber forming a double cross surrounded by a square. Excavations are continuing around the tomb, located in the summer of 2011. The finding is mainly based on an apocryphal fourth-century text called the Acts of Philip.
7) EPHESUS: The Letter to Ephesus urges Christians to return to a love for Christ. The church in Ephesus encountered opposition from those who worshipped pagan gods and those and who participated in magical practices. False teachings in the church were also a problem. These conflicts caused some members of the church to lose some dedication to the teachings of Christ. The Christians who held true to the faith were promised to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.
DID YOU KNOW?
Nicea (present-day Iznik in Turkey) was founded in the 4th Century BC by the Macedonian king. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea was called by Constantine the Great, who had converted to Christianity a decade earlier. The Council of Nicea produced the Nicene Creed, a statement of doctrine on the nature of Christ in relation to God. This was the first of seven ecumenical councils that were held in modern day Turkey. It was the first general council in the history of the Church since the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, which established the conditions upon which Gentiles could join the Church. In the Council of Nicea, the Church took its first step to define doctrine more precisely in response to a challenge from heresy.
Istanbul (formerly calledConstantinople) became the center of Christianity in 330 AD and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in Constantinople.
Hagia Sophia, or the Church of the Divine Wisdom, the largest Christian church at the time, was dedicated by Emperor Justinian in 536 AD. It was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. It is famous for its Byzantine frescoes and mosaics.
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turksunder Sultan Mehmed II, who subsequently ordered the building converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, icons and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over. Islamic features, such as the four minarets, were added while in the possession of the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed to the public for four years. It was re-opened in 1935 as a museum by the Republic of Turkey.
The Chora Museum is an old Byzantine church known for its frescoes and mosaics. It is situated just inside the city of Istanbul. In the days of Constantine, when the church was built as part of a monastery, it was in the countryside outside the city walls. The church, Church of the Holy Savior in the Country, was so named since "chora" is Greek for "countryside." After Emperor Theodosius built the city walls a little further out in 431 AD, the name stuck even though the church was then inside the city.
During the reign of Justinian, the monastery was devastated by an eartquake and then rebuilt as a basilica. It was restored again in 843 and also during the 11th century. When the church was converted into a mosque after Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the artwork was not destroyed, but rather it was covered behind a layer of plaster. In 1948, the building stopped functioning as a mosque and a program was begun to restore the artwork. In 1958, it was opened to the public as Chora Museum.