Ancient Cities, Lasting Truths

A recent visit to western Turkey has brought many things back to mind. It’s also provided new impressions, while emphasizing the value of learning about people in their environment. The Republic of Turkey is in the news because of its shared border with Syria and the steady flow of refugees from that war-torn land. But the reason for our journey was to visit the locations of seven cities that flourished in the first century. And though I’d visited these sites before, each return helps one reflect on those lasting truths that illuminate the underpinnings of history.

A Muslim society ruled by a conservative government, modern Turkey is a member of NATO. Its economy makes it an important trading nation with partners that include Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet Turkey is also an ancient nation with Hittite, Lydian and Phrygian lines of descent. Its Greek and Roman periods are familiar from the many archaeological sites visitors frequent.

In the first century AD the most well-known ancient city in the Roman province of Asia was Ephesus. It boasted a population of about 250,000 and today is an extensive World Heritage Site. As such it’s still high on the list of places to visit. In Roman times it was also a place to visit because it housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis. The goddess was named Lady, Savior, Queen of Heaven and Queen of the Cosmos.

The city’s large theater, which seated 20–24,000, is well known as the location of a riotous gathering of artisans and craftsmen during the first century. The situation was triggered by the local guild’s opposition to the apostle Paul, who had been teaching against the many idols that they were manufacturing. It was a tense moment as the angry mob had worked itself into a frenzy and was on the verge of a riot. Fearful for Paul’s safety, his friends, who were among the city’s leaders, insisted that Paul not enter the theater to plead his case. Wisely, he did not and managed to leave Ephesus and continue his work in other places. The city remains a popular site for tourists from all around the globe.

About 80 miles north of Ephesus is the impressive Roman city of Pergamos. Famous for its ancient library and center of healing arts, its acropolis rises over the surrounding countryside and is dominated by the remains of the Altar of Zeus and the Temple of Trajan. When John wrote the final book of the Bible, Revelation, most of these structures were visible. In his writing he references “Satan’s seat.” This may have referred to the impressive pagan altar that once stood here and has since been relocated to Berlin, or to the city itself as a center of Roman persecution of those who refused to worship the emperor.

Whether you’re a student of history or not, a visitor to these sites cannot help but be impressed with this ancient land that lies at the crossroads of East and West. Through these windswept hills over many thousands of miles of Roman roads, you sense the ebb and flow of bygone civilizations.

About 150 miles to the southeast of Pergamos are the ruins of Laodicea, well known in the first century for superb black wool, eye salve, banking and commerce. Over the past decade, many impressive remains have been unearthed in sections of this once-wealthy city, including streets, temples, houses and gateways. With reconstruction in progress, one can imagine that one day Laodicea may rival Ephesus as a tourist destination.

But why visit these dusty places except as historical curiosities? The 80 or so people who accompanied me on the recent journey enthused about the experience for several reasons. Culturally, it was a mind-expanding experience; we came to appreciate a high culture in a moderate Islamic setting, to enjoy the warmth and hospitality of a people with a long history. Historically, it put human endeavor in a valuable context: human beings have had the same stresses and strains, struggles and accomplishments for thousands of years; no room here for arrogance about 21st-century life. And biblically, the setting and lessons of the seven church congregations to whom John wrote deliver a powerful reminder that values are worth holding on to, and that compromise never brings lasting reward. Only by overcoming human nature’s downward drag will we attain life forever.