On the last morning of a three-day tour of the “seven churches of Revelation,” we set out to visit Laodicea, Philadelphia, and Sardis – but not before a long stop at Hieropolis (Pamukkale), a large city that sat atop a wide shelf on the side of a mountain range, just above a huge calcium formation resulting from hot springs rich in calcium bicarbonate combining with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to produce calcium carbide.
Hierapolis has been developed as a tourist attraction that’s a favorite for Russians, who come in droves to swim in the lukewarm spring and plaster themselves with mud. That leads to dissonance of seeing people in bikinis and Speedos posing inside the city’s amazing theater, where much of the stage area has been preserved: you can still see where gladiators fought in a pit-like area, or performers acted on a stage above.
On the opposite side of the Lycus River valley from Hierapolis is Laodicea, a large commercial center whose church was charged with being neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm – like the tepid water from the springs across the way at Hierapolis. Hot drinks can be good and cold drinks are terrific, but lukewarm drinks – like the bottled water we’re drinking on the bus – can be hard to swallow.
The long road back to Philadelphia (Alasehir) passed through Turkey’s wine and raisin country, a beautiful mountainous area where field after field of white grapes were laden with fruit. The modern city of Alasehir is built on top of ancient Philadelphia itself – the only church of the “seven” that received no criticism. As a result, the closest thing one comes to ancient remains are standing columns of brick that once supported the archways of a sixth century church dedicated to the Apostle John.
By this point in the trip, I confess to having found them less interesting than the melon man parked outside, or a topiary mosque in the foreground of one of the columns. But, that’s not entirely inappropriate. The church in Philadelphia was promised “an open door,” and the area remains filled with opportunities for a positive witness.
The seventh church we visited was Sardis, just outside the modern town of Sart (where we had an amazing lunch cooked over an outdoor wood-fired grill). There the remains of an expansive temple to Artemis continue to impress with gargantuan columns that could have been seen for miles. In later years, a small church was built against the back side of the temple.
Down the hill, the remains of a public gymnasium have been partially restored in spectacular fashion. Just around the corner, a third-century Jewish synagogue was the largest of its kind. A thousand persons could sit in a large rectangular room featuring two large Torah niches at one end, and an ancient marble table (older than the synagogue) at the other. It is presumed that scrolls would have been ceremonially carried from a niche to the table, where they could be unrolled and read to the congregation. Elaborate decorations included marble panels and fresco painting on the walls, along with delicate mosaics in a variety of patterns – surprisingly unprotected – on the floor.
When the bus brought us to yet another hotel at the end of another long day, we were happy to have glimpsed the ancient world, but happier still to live in the modern one.