A morning bus ride took us from Antakya to Tarsus, hometown of Saul. Upon arriving, we approached the St. Paul Church (because you KNEW there had to be one of those!) in Tarsus. The building was occupied when we arrived so we sat in a garden outside, finding some highly valued shade from the heat, and were led in a discussion about the life of Paul. Much of the discussion centered on how the supernatural and natural phases of life interact with each other. For example, Paul’s life and path included supernatural visions and gifts. At the same time, a simple fact like his Roman citizenship played a key part in his road several times. The natural and the supernatural may not be as far apart as we sometimes like to think.
Upon entering the building, we were told quietly by Charles that this building is a church but not a church. It was a church, but the Turkish government refuses to allow it to be a place of worship now. So three Italian nuns look after it as it serves officially as a museum and pilgrimage site. Here’s where the story gets dark.
How do you suppose a church that was once a church ever stops being a church? Well, all those who were once part of this community left. Where did they go? A number of them were of Armenian blood. In speaking of them, Charles kicked me right in the gut. During and after World War I, Turkey’s Ottoman government took action against undesirable groups, including the Armenians, many of them Christians of Catholic or Orthodox heritage. What does “took action” mean? I dare you to look up “Armenian Genocide”.
All the images and feelings you’ve ever felt about the Jewish Holocaust—how would you feel if you heard of another such event? One that you’d never even heard mentioned before? The fact that it killed “only” a quarter of the number of Jews in WWII is irrelevant. I felt completely kicked in the gut. Honestly, I felt shaken.
Apparently, when Hitler was brewing his plans for Europe’s Jews, an adviser of his asked him how such plans would be executed once the rest of Europe found out. It’s reported that he replied, “Who even remembers the Armenians?”
And for nearly 100 years, almost nobody has.
But, as Charles said today, the truth pushes to the surface relentlessly. New research is being done, evidence coming forth, testimonies of past soldiers and family members—one book has been written recently that has received no response in the academic world. Why no responses? Because nobody knows what to say. The evidence put forward has stunned historians right in a state of shocked silence… for the moment.
So back to St. Paul’s church. Those who called this home were either Armenians who were driven away. Or they were non-Armenians who decided that conversion to Islam was safer than remaining.
I really don’t know what else to say about this. It made my heart heavy to listen—heavy as in I-need-to-sit-down heavy. The day’s other events have reduced some of that feeling, but I can never forget hearing what I heard. And I certainly intend to learn more about these events.
From St. Paul’s, we walked to a Roman temple dated to the 2nd century AD. Mystery surrounds this place for historians. Nobody knows exactly the spot was used for. It’s a large structure using the Roman version of cement of the day. It was likely covered in marble at one time, but that has all be stripped off. From what is known, two dominant theories have arisen. One: It was a grave of some sort. The second is more intriguing. Roman history sometimes speaks of “mystery religions”. Some speculate that this temple may have been dedicated to an Egyptian god who was “all the rage” back in the day. Some within Rome’s empire may have seen the significance of this foreign god in Egypt and decided that a temple to him in Tarsus would raise the city up, bringing blessing and prominence.
As I said, discussions like this are all about theorizing and debating, but our group has enough knowledge among its leaders that we get to see this speculation and discussion right in front of us. It’s enlightening to see how the whole process of trying to interpret history plays out, whether we get the right answers or not.
The rest of “Tarsus time” was spent visiting a church that was converted to a mosque in the 1500’s, the ruins of a Roman bathhouse from the 200’s, and a well that’s supposedly dated back to Paul’s day. We also saw the plot of land that some traditions say Paul lived upon when he was here. Nothing but tradition to build that on, but it was the old part of town, so the odds that he lived somewhere near there are pretty good. And that’s a bit crazy to think about! We also stopped by a plot of land in the middle of town where a Roman road from NT times has been excavated. There it sits with ruined columns on either side. Who knows that Paul didn’t walk those stones with his own feet? Again, crazy just how close history is in places like this!
Lunch consisted of fish on a deck hanging over a small waterfall in town, and that was followed by a bus ride to Nevsehir, which we’ll call home for the next three days.
For now, my bed is desiring me to call it home. And I am compelled to listen! Good night from Cappadocia. More tomorrow…