BIBLICAL CITIES THROUGH MODERN EYES
After leaving Istanbul, Aspen and I went south to the Turkish city of Izmir (its ancient name was Smyrna). As we tried to get our bearings, both geographically and historically, we walked the sea wall, from which we could look across the Aegean Sea and see into Greece, at least into the plethora of islands that belong to Greece despite centuries of arguments with the Turks over their rightful ownership. One of those battles between Greeks and Turks (back when some of them were called Trojans) was brought to mind when we found a city named “Troy” on a map not far from where we were staying. We discounted the possibility that it was the Troy because the town was not coastal, so we reasoned that Odysseus’ Greek ships could not have sailed up to its beach as they did in Homer’s story.
We had booked a tour to Ephesus which began very early the next morning before the city was awake. We wondered if we were in the right place as we waited in the deserted street for the tour bus, but the driver did finally find us. We then went on to pick up a college student from Toronto, a couple from Columbia and several others. Seven in all, we represented four countries on three continents. Traveling in Türkiye and Jordan was an international experience, not only because we were on foreign soil, but because we were with a wide variety of people from all over the world, but rarely from the U.S
Our present company wasn’t the only
multicultural feature of the tour. Nazim, our tour guide, started us off with a stop at an overlook, from which we could frame the work of five civilizations and three religions in one photograph. In the foreground stood the Greek Temple of Artemis, or what is left of it—many of its stones have been recycled into the rest of the view. Some of that recycled marble was hauled up the hill and used in building the Roman Basilica of St. John over the tomb of the Apostle John in the sixth century A.D. Further up the slope, the Seljuk Turks continued to depleted Artemis’ stash of stones in the 1374 A.D. construction of the isa Bey Mosque. At the top of Ayasuluk Hill, an Ottoman fortress is silhouetted against the sky as it overlooks this valley of antiquities, and in the distance, we could see a neighborhood of modern homes.
For thousands of years, people have built here, lived here, and sought God here, not always understanding Who they were searching for or how to approach Him, but seeking just the same. The draw to find Him is universal. As we came looking for an ancient city for which a chapter of our Bible is named, were we, too, seeking Him among these stones? And how is that different than seeking Him amidst the still-occupied schools and churches and houses in our own cities? We walked the same granite-paved avenues that John and Paul trod two thousand years ago. Did that make these stones special? Or were they merely tangible reminders that the stories we read in our Bible happened in a real time to real people who left us their impressive buildings as unintentional reminders to continue seeking the same God Paul preached about here?
We went on to Ephesus, which had been moved to the seacoast from its original site in a marshy area on the other side of the hills because of a malaria outbreak. Many of the enormous marble stones had been recycled from the previous town’s buildings, so that some of the inscriptions were pertinent to the buildings on which they were written, while others were just indelible scraps from whatever edifice had been deconstructed to provide stones
for the builders of the new city (one of these recycled inscriptions is even upside down). We visited the amazingly-intact ruins (excavated from beneath six meters of mud) of Ephesus’ massive theater, its public latrines with marble toilet seats, its fancy mosaics, the open-air market, a hospital bearing the symbol we still recognize as signifying medicine, a carving of a goddess called “Nike,” and the iconic library façade, still guarded by statues of its four lady-virtues: Wisdom,
Intelligence, Fortune, and Knowledge. Once upon a time, this was the third-largest library in the ancient world, containing 120,000 documents.
Our tour guide recounted the story of the bustling city with its booming merchant economy that grew in wealth and importance. Its residents enjoyed the luxuries of seemingly-modern public works including running water, a sewage removal system of clay pipes, and buildings with columns built of flexible joints to protect them from the seismic tremors common to the area. All of this came to an end when a 7th-century earthquake shook the land so hard that it moved the ocean. What had once been a busy port city now sat five kilometers from the water.
Aspen and I realized that our own assumptions about history can be woefully uninformed. The “Troy” on our map could very well have been the site of Homer’s war (though no one knows for sure even whether the battle actually took place outside Homer’s imagination). Like Ephesus, it had indeed been a coastal city before the earthquake deprived it of its coast. How many other assumptions do we make about ancient peoples or even about those of our time who live in cultures and circumstances different from our own which are, in fact, inaccurate because we view them only through our own lens, limited by only what we think we know?
Our tour guide later took us to a craft guild where they make Turkish rugs out of linen,
wool, and silk. They showed us how the silk is unwound from the cocoons of the silkworms and demonstrated the weaving of rugs, thread by thread by hand on large standing looms. It takes a weaver 4-12 months to make a single 8x10 foot rug—no wonder they are expensive!
And of course, they wanted very much to sell us one. The showman (and he was very much that) took us into a huge room with woven colors and patterns jumping out at us from the floors and the walls all around. They served us apple tea (a standard among rug sellers) and began rolling out carpet upon carpet, inviting us to take of our shoes and walk on them. Then they began picking up the rugs and spinning them through the air to land so that we could see them from the opposite direction (I feel quite sure that the old legends of flying carpets come from the showmanship of Turkish rug dealers). Only then did we notice that, because of the knap in the weave, the rugs appear in different colors when viewed from the other side.
The next day took us to the white-stone deposits that surround the still-flowing hot springs of Pamukkale (which means “Cotton” in Turkish). We waded through the hot pools and admired the view of the lake far below, into which the cooling water drained. It was stunningly beautiful (and hot) in the shimmering sunlight.
We later figured out that we were looking down at the modern homes and mosques built near the site of the ancient city of Laodicea—John’s luke-warm city.
We were next headed for Amman, Jordan. On the map, it looked like a short hop on a plane, but flying over Syria is not a good plan, so the trip would require 14 hours, three
airplanes, and a very brief
visit to Athens.
In Christ’s Peace