The land, known to the Romans as Asia Minor and which now forms the more significant part of Turkey, is an extraordinary mosaic of culture, history, and geography. At the beginning of the year 2000, it seemed appropriate to take a look at an aspect of this historical diversity that contributes to the universal significance of Asia Minor.
The last book in the New Testament of the Bible records the revelations of St John, also known as St John of Asia Minor. The Book of Revelation’s main subject is the end of the world, and it relates messages sent by Christ to the seven churches as the Apocalypse approaches. All seven of these first Christian churches were situated in what is now Turkey.
In the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of St John, fascinating symbolic images are used. The Jewish symbol of the seven-branched candlestick here becomes seven candlesticks representing the seven churches of Asia Minor:
‘The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches’ (1:7). Jesus Christ appears to St John and gives messages to each of the angels (priests) of the churches, which are cited in order of their importance as Ephesus (Selcuk), Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamos (Bergama), Thyateira (Akhisar), Sardis (Salihli), Philadelphia (Alasehir), and Laodicea (Goncali).
The word church, as employed here, does not refer to a building but a community of Christians. In the early years, Christians were persecuted by Jews and pagans who felt threatened by the new faith, and they were forced to worship secretly in the mountains, in graveyards, and catacombs. Even in the smallest town of Asia Minor, there was no question of converts to the new faith gathering publicly at a church. The Apocalypse was written around the year 95, a time when Emperor Domitian had ordered Christians to be the most fearful tortures punished by.
The number of churches is significant, not in itself, but because of the underlying symbolism of the number seven. All religions and traditional beliefs attach significance to particular numbers, such as one, three, four, seven, nine, twelve, thirty-three, and forty. The number seven has mystic meaning in many cultures, as illustrated by the seven heavens, the story of the Seven Sleepers, the combination of squares and triangles in the Egyptian pyramids, the seven days of the week, and the seven-branched candlestick.
In Rome and its environs, the anti-Christian feeling was primarily motivated by political factors, whereas in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, economic factors predominated. Asia Minor, however, although also part of the Roman Empire, was remote from both these areas and offered relative safety.
There were large communities of underprivileged here, and besides, it was a place which had traditionally been home to very mixed ethnic and religious communities which had learned to coexist intolerance or at least indifference. This combination of conditions meant that the new faith was able to spread more easily in Asia Minor than anywhere else. Now let us travel to the Aegean region to visit the locations of the seven churches, starting with the last mentioned in the Bible. The seventh church was in Laodicea, a city founded in the 3rd century BC by Antiochus II. Its ruins are in the province of Denizli off the road leading to the ruins of Hierapolis at Pamukkale, and close to Goncali train station.
At a time when Hierapolis, with its hot mineral springs, was an important spa and its Temple of Apollo, a famous oracle, Laodicea was a significant center of trade where the roads from East and south joined and continued to the Aegean coast.
The existence of a large Jewish community in the city, its remoteness from political centers, and its cosmopolitan character, which enabled people of diverse faiths to coexist peacefully, made it possible for the early Christians to form a significant community here.
The sixth church was in Philadelphia, today’s Alasehir, founded by King Attalos II of Pergamum. Situated on the trade routes between the interior and western coastal region, this city, too, had an important role in transit trade. Sardis, where the fifth church was located, was one of the most important cities of Asia Minor, and the place where the first coins were struck from electron, an alloy of gold and silver, in the 6th century BC. The size of the synagogue and 3rd century BC Temple of Artemis amongst the ruins of this ancient city near the modern town of Salihli indicate the city’s importance. The fourth church was at Thyateira (Akhisar), which was well known for its wool, leather, dyeing, and bronze industries. The third church was in the city of Pergamum, alias Pergamos or Pergamon, and known as Bergama today.
Other marches by Ida were also published in Europe at this time, such as Cinq Marches Militaires pour Piano, five military parades for the pianoforte published in Paris, and a march which also appeared in The Illustrated London News of 27 May 1854.
It was celebrated worldwide for the magnificent library containing 200,000 scrolls which Anthony presented to Cleopatra, for parchment made of goatskin known as ‘Pergamum paper’ used as a substitute for Egyptian papyrus, and for the Aesclepion which was the most advanced medical center in the ancient world.
The largest of all Hellenistic theatres stand here, and the city’s temples are remarkable for both their size and beauty. Conditions here were ideal, and the Christian community flourished. The second church was in Smyrna, today’s Izmir, an important port halfway down the west coast of the Aegean. Throughout history, this city never lost the commercial importance deriving from its position.
The imposing agora, massive in scale and with two storey galleries rarely seen elsewhere, reflects this vital role in East and West trade. The first of the churches addressed in the Book of Revelation, and the most important of all was Ephesus. This was the second largest city of the Roman Empire and formed Rome’s link with the East. Imperial buildings like the Temple of Domitian, the Fountain of Trajan, and the Temple of Hadrian illustrate the esteem in which it was held by the Roman emperors.
The city also possessed possibly the most complex structure of any in the pagan world. It was here that, according to Christian tradition, St John brought the Virgin Mary after the crucifixion of Christ. They settled on the mountain known today as Bulbul Dagi (Mountain of Nightingales), 6 km from Ephesus.
The first Christian community began to live in the woods here, close enough to the city for convenience, but far enough away to keep a low profile. It was in this great city that the religious leaders of the Byzantine period convened in 431 and acknowledged St Mary as the Mother of God, and here that the first church was built in her name.
All the seven churches of Asia Minor referred to in the Bible were reasonably close to one another, every one or two days’ journey from the next. Only Ephesus, Pergamum and Smyrna are remembered by most people today, yet although the cities of the seven churches did not play an equal role in history, culture and the development of Christianity, discovering these sites is an evocative spiritual experience.