I’ve never been hung up on John’s Apocalypse, so a “Seven Churches of Revelation” tour was never on my bucket list, but that’s what you do when you’re a Christian pilgrim in Turkey.
About 70 folk who attended the Baptist World Alliance July 6-11 – or who came over to join friends who’d been at the Annual Gathering – embarked July 12 for a three-day tour of the seven churches, even though none of the churches still exist. With luck, you can see ruins of the ancient cities where the churches were founded.
With Smyrna (Izmir) and Ephesus (Epes) down, Day Two’s mission was to visit Thyatira (Akhisar) and Pergamum (Bergama). So, after an early departure from Manisa, we traveled to Thyatira, whose church was congratulated in Revelation for growing in deeds, faith, and love – but criticized for tolerating a woman called Jezebel, who called herself a prophetess but reportedly promoted immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
What’s left of first century Thyatira is a small fenced-off area in the middle of modern Akhisar, where the remains are jumbled and largely from later periods. Trying to imagine what it looked like when Lydia (Acts 16:14) was purveying her purple cloth was as difficult as finding privacy in two tiny bathrooms with no ceiling between the men’s (bay) and women’s (bayan) side. No secrets there.
From Thyatira we drove through Soma, where 301 coal miners were killed in an explosion in May, sparking widespread protests at perceived government inaction. We observed a moment of silence.
Pergamum, though it has little presence in the Bible beyond its mention in Rev. 2:12-17, was praised for being faithful despite the presence of “Satan’s throne” (probably a reference to the city’s large temple and altar to Zeus), but taken to task because some members reportedly followed the teachings of the 8th century BC Moabite shaman Balaam, while others sympathized with the Nicolaitans, though no one now knows exactly what they taught.
No trace of that church is left, though the foundation of Zeus’ altar remains (the altar itself is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin). The acropolis of the city is reached by cable car, and offers splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Imperial quarters are detectable, and a temple to Trajan still sports a few restored columns. The steepest theater in antiquity was set into the side of the plateau. From its base, an arched passageway leads past huge vaulted storage rooms currently being used to store broken pieces of marble and granite, with hopes of restoring them.
You wouldn’t know if from the empty space before what’s left of a temple to Athena, but Pergamum once housed the second largest library in the world, with space for 200,000 scrolls. A political flap with Egypt, which had the largest library in Alexandria, led to an Egyptian ban on the sale of papyrus to vendors in Pergamum. A promised reward for an apt substitute led to the invention of parchment, a sturdy writing material made from the stretched and scraped skin of young goats and lambs. Parchment has the advantage of being impervious enough so that a scribe could write on both sides, which contributed to the development of books as a more practical substitute for scrolls.
At the bottom of the acropolis, near some natural springs, lies the Asclepion, a large healing center where guests who were sick (but not in danger of dying) were given spa treatments including hot baths, cold baths, and mud baths. Herbal treatments and a type of religious psychotherapy was a major part of the regimen: after their various baths, as patients walked through a relaxing underground tunnel with water running along side, they would hear voices as attendants hidden above ground would whisper encouraging words through small holes in the ceiling. In their sleeping quarters, a dose of wine or opium would be given before bed, and therapists would sit near to interpret whatever dreams they had. One way or the other, patients were bound to believe they’d received a message from the gods. When they felt better, they could walk a considerable distance up the steep hill to the acropolis, where they could thank the gods with offerings.
It’s a long way from Bergama to Pamukkale, where we were to have dinner and spend the night. Two bathroom breaks, one of which turned into a souvenir hunt, put us behind, but our expected 8:30 p.m. arrival was delayed further when a line in the bus’ cooling system ruptured, leaving us stranded by the road for an hour and a half. Fortunately, there was a magnificent moonrise to entertain us as we waited for a mechanic to arrive, and convenient bushes for the bladder-impaired. Tour members used cell phones as flashlights after a white-shirted man with a few tools and a replacement line drove up in a compact car and went to work.