Man. What. A. Day.
Yes, I mean every one of those words. Whatever I write next, however I describe this day—it won’t be what I mean. Words are limiting and limited. But they’re the best we’ve got to work with, so I’ll keep typing.
The morning began at a site known as the Seven Sleepers. Truth be told, there are a dozen or so sites around Turkey by this name, so the goal here is not historical accuracy. Basically, these sites commemorate an old legend about some boys (I bet you can’t guess how many!) who feel asleep for a century and awakened to find their world radically changed. The thrust of the legend is focused upon the vast difference between the days of religious persecution under some Roman emperors and the vast freedoms that came in latter days. Our stop here was quick and far from profound, but that was first on our agenda.
Our next site, however, was a whole other thing. Ephesus—in the 1st century, it was the third largest city in the entire Roman empire. Nowadays, it receives the distinction of being one of the most extensive excavations in this part of the world. It’s said to receive 1.5 million visitors each summer—some call it the Disneyworld of ruins—and that’s not all good. But what it does say is that there’s a lot to see here, and I attest that to be true.
We progressed our way through the site over a four-hour period. It was by far the most crowded stop we’ve made so far, and the heat was intense the whole time. I’d made the mistake of getting too much sun the day before, so I was more cautious this time around. Before even entering the site, we passed by the ruins of a shrine that are thought be built upon the grave site of Luke. Often with sites like that, it’s easy to get skeptical: “How does anyone know where so and so was buried?” What we fail to understand is that these things are often based on tradition—and I mean traditions that are centuries old, being traceable all the way back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries often. And while “tradition” doesn’t sound like a very strong word, there is much that is held to have value, which is based on tradition because traditions don’t just spring up from nowhere. There is often reason to believe that some (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little) fact birthed the “tradition” in the first place. So it’s not like someone threw a dart at a map to fabricate a tourist spot. At the same time, it’s no certainty, and certainly not verifiable by DNA or anything. (But if you have an apostolic hair lying around somewhere, you should probably give it to the archeological authorities just to be helpful.)
Tradition tangent aside, we walked past the site held to be Luke’s resting place, and that’s a bit of a crazy thought.
Entering the Ephesus site, we were guided down what would have been one of the major streets of the ancient city. Along the way, we checked out an odeum (like a theater, but used for less entertainment and more debates/speeches), Hadrian’s temple (a temple dedicated to Hadrian—remember there’s a whole “emperor worship” thing going on in the Roman empire), and some public toilets (I’m not talking about ones for tourists; I’m talking about the 1st century latrines with fancy marble cut-out toilet seats and everything. If anyone has seen Beth She’an in Israel, these are like that, just slightly more refined in their style—hey, this is Ephesus!).
Heading up some stairs, we entered an active archeological excavation, where they are restoring some terrace houses. These are basically the expensive condos of 1st century Ephesus. They were in the heart of the city (because it’s all about location, right?) and were built into the hillside piled up like a staircase. Even today, one can see the extravagance that was there. Rooms are huge, floors were covered with mosaics (many still intact), walls were tiled with marble or painted with images and patterns. Our leader Charles had never seen these excavations and was like a kid in a toy store (he’s 58), so I was happy to see him so happy.
Just beyond these ancient condos was the major intersection of the city. And at that intersection was Ephesus’ famous library. To be clear, larger libraries were found in Asia Minor, but Ephesus’ was significant. But today, Ephesus’ library is the more famous because its ruins are most spectacular. If you Google Ephesus images, I’m almost certain that you’ll find the library as the “postcard shot” on the entire site.
Beside the library was the agora (the market place). This is where we started to pay attention to the story of Acts 19. It seems very likely that Paul was here, as it this is probably the spot where the silversmiths that Paul so angered did their business. In Acts 19:29, it speaks of the crowd rushing Paul’s companions into the theater. That was our next stop.
Sitting in the top rows, we sat together and read Scripture—Acts 19, Ephesians 5, and the letter in Revelation to the Ephesians. The church here is one of the most intriguing in the NT, it was pointed out, because of how much we’re able to know about them and how we’re able to see a bit of a spiritual continuum of how they did over a span of years from the writings addressed to them. As well, most would agree that Paul’s efforts here, though strongly opposed, led to some of his most significant fruit. Sitting in that theater, it was hard to believe that the same seats we filled were filled many days ago with worshipers of the goddess Artemis, filling the theater (and the city) with two hours of shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” Simply bizarre to me!
One other note of interest is the harbour of Ephesus. It could be seen clearly from our perch in the theater, and one could imagine travelers like Paul arriving at it and beholding Ephesus in its glory, with the theater and library among the first stunning structures to greet their eyes. The NT speaks of people sailing to Ephesus. The problem? I couldn’t see any water; it’s just dirt. After the pages of the NT, Ephesus continued to be a significant city (and a port city), but one major cause of its downfall was the silting in of the harbour from a nearby river. All attempts to deal with this problem failed, and the city faltered into nothing eventually. Today, the coastline is 6 km from where it was in Paul’s day!
Just before leaving the Ephesus site, we detoured to a seldom visited site at its fringe. It’s the ruins of a large church. Within it is a marker for the grave of John—yes, THAT John. Again, location can be debated if one desires, but the idea that John lived his final days here is sound. Why? Because Patmos, to which he was exiled, is easily reached from here. Upon a death of the ruler who sent John there, he was allowed back to the mainland. Where to call home? It’s thought that he pastored Ephesian believers right up to an age around or beyond 100.
Just beyond his grave, we came across a baptistery dating to the 500’s. Unplanned, this site stimulated a fantastic discussion about the significance of baptism. I grew up in the churches of Christ—we’re baptism people—but I’ve got to tell you that I heard powerful (I mean very powerful) things today that I’ve never heard before. I’d love to tell you more, but it’s still brewing in my head, and a sock-blowing-off sermon will be born down the road. The conversation chased topics other than baptism as well, and I’ve got to say that my soul felt touched among the ruins of St. John’s Church. A freshness blew through me—a chill almost—and I was moved in considering the hugeness of what God is doing, of what He wants to be doing in each life individually and in our world as a whole. It was one of those moments when everything goes clear for just a moment. You can’t catch it, and you can’t keep it. But it was undeniably there, even if only for a moment. And it is that peek, even a brief one, that fuels all the searching that follows. Suffice it to say that there is much searching to come, and I’m grateful for the ways that today provided the fuel for all that’s ahead.
As we left, our eyes were directed down into the valley. There was the site of the ancient temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was said to have 143 columns holding it up—a stunning structure to behold, obviously. What remains today? One column with a lonely stork perched on top. If you care to read a fascinating “story” that speaks of John entering that temple in his later years, go test your Google skills. It’ll factor into a sermon down the road that will deal with “cosmic conflict” in the early church.
Would you believe me if this took us to our lunch break?! As I said: Man. What. A. Day.
After dining at a roadside café, we hit the Ephesus Museum—no shortage of things to put in a museum here, I’m telling you. Rooms were filled with marble carvings of Roman emperors from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius or Commodus, depictions of gladiator battles, and a statue of Artemis (the regional goddess—remember Acts 19?) from the days of Paul.
On route to our hotel, we stopped briefly at a site thought to be the final living place of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Why would she have been in Ephesus? Because her care was entrusted to… who? Remember Jesus’ words from the cross. John was to take care of her, and we’ve already said that John was here. Not surprisingly, this site has become a pretty serious Catholic pilgrimage site, but Charles took the opportunity to speak about Mary and how she is worthy of greater attention among Protestants. He’s the second major voice that I’ve heard this from in the past 6 months. He also shared a fair bit of background on how doctrines around Mary developed over the centuries—when one hears some solid historical background, it’s amazing how much more light is shed. I’m not set to be voicing prayers to Mary; I’m just saying: There’s more to the Catholics’ attention on Mary than some crazy desire to worship “God’s mom”, as some might think.
A quick stop at our hotel gave us just enough time for a clean-up and a supper, before departing again for the Ephesus Meeting. This annual meeting was planned by Tuktu Tours, who our Turkish guide works for. It was hosted by a library in Ephesus, founded by a Christian couple to be a connection point for focused biblical studies and archeological studies in the region. The meeting was an evening of four presentations from four scholars, a couple of whom are renowned in their fields. All four papers had some connection to Ephesus, Acts, Paul, or something related. Along with our group, the other attendees were mostly college students on their own group tours. I’m sure that a number of them weren’t terribly enthralled by the papers—they were pretty serious scholarship. But I’ve got to say that it was wonderfully stimulating to me—made me remember why I love studying under sharp professors and being pushed to learn and search. Our own Charles was the final presenter, and he had the whole room walking with him every single word—once again, I was grateful for the chance to be gleaning form him for these three weeks.
We arrived home to our rooms after 11 PM, after putting in a 15-hour day. Vacation? Not exactly, but great all the same!
Today (as I write this a day after Ephesus now) is our free day. We’re in Kusadasi, a beautiful beach town that gets all the cruise ships from the Greek Isles. So far, I’ve explored most of the town on foot, enjoyed some good food and drink, caught up on my travel journal and email, and had a swim. For now, I think the pool is calling me again, with some reading to follow.
I trust this finds everyone at home well. We’re into the second half of the trip here, so the countdown to Canada is now on. Home will be very sweet to return to, but while I’m here, I’ll milk the experience for all that I can.
More tomorrow from Patmos…