Today was our day to finish up the sites of the seven churches of Revelation. The remaining three were Smyrna, Thyatira, and Pergamum, in that order. Between these sites were drives of 90 minutes or so, so our day was quickly broken into smaller pieces.
Ancient Smyrna is modern-day Izmir, the place where we slept last night. So our first stop was just a skip from our hotel. Atop a mountain looking over Smyrna, we snapped some photos of the city and harbour, while talking some about the life and death of Polycarp. He was the first bishop of Smyrna and one of the most famous martyrs in the early centuries of Christian history. At age 86, he was told that he’d be spared and even honoured if he simply denied his faith in Christ. His response has become a well-known example of faithfulness: “Eighty-six years I have followed Christ and he has never been unfaithful to me. How then could I deny my Lord?” At that point, the authorities stoked the fires where Polycarp was to be burned at the stake. It is here that some of the best sources available speak of a miracle. It is said that witnesses watched as the body of Polycarp did not burn. It was as if a pocket within the flames formed around him, and the a scent of sweetness like incense was smelled. Upon observing their failed execution, those in charge ordered soldiers to stab the flame-surrounded Polycarp to death. So is told the story of the death of Smyrna’s great Polycarp.
Before leaving Smyrna, we stopped to walk around the ruins of the agora (marketplace). This is really all there is to be seen of ancient Smyrna these days. To be sure, there is much more to be found, but it lies beneath the new city so it’s never been excavated. The agora looked like… well, a lot like the other ten agoras we’ve seen so far. Charles said early on that the thing about seeing Roman ruins is that if you’ve seen one, you’ve sort of seen them all because they were serious about their city-planning and that makes their cities very patterned in some ways.
After a stretch of highway, we arrived at modern-day Akhisar (ancient Thyatira). Besides Philadelphia, this may be the site with the least to see of the seven. Within a fenced area of the modern city stand the remains of a 6th century church. Behind it is a bit of a Roman road that might date back closer to the 1st century. Besides that, the lot is filled with with fallen columns and other marble pieces of buildings long forgotten. Apparently, Pliny the Elder had some very uncomplimentary things to say about Thyatira back in the day—he felt it to be a very un-special place. As an archeological site, it pales beside most of what we’ve seen, but I’m glad that we stopped all the same—long enough to read Jesus’ words to the believers there and to have some discussion about the unique challenges that faced that congregation. Interestingly, the Thyatira church is one of the few NT churches about which we have no idea of how they begun. No shortage of speculation exists, but neither Scripture nor later tradition give us anything firm to go on.
Throw in a lunch break and another stretch of highway, and Pergamum (modern-day Bergama) awaited us. Opposite to Thyatira, this is a serious site to behold, second only to Ephesus of the seven churches, in terms of size and excavation. The setting here was pretty magnificent. The ancient city’s acropolis (high place) is more impressive. An approaching visitor in the 1st century and beyond would have beheld the steeply-inclined theater alongside temples for Trajan, Dionysius, Athena, and Zeus on the slope of the mountain—impressive indeed. As well, the largest library in the region would have stood there, though its ruins today are limited to a basic outline of columns; much less impressive than the famous ruins of the Ephesian library. As has become our custom, the theater provided with a spot to sit. We read Jesus’ words to the church here and discussed his message to them. The theme of compromise in a very pagan environment is central to that letter, and it wasn’t hard to make that subject relevant to our personal contexts. We are in need of Jesus’ words to be faithful witnesses for him in our gives places just as our brother and sisters in Pergamum were 20 centuries ago.
The other site needing a visit in Pergamum was that of the Asclepion. At first thought, I figured we were visiting a temple to the god Asclepios (the god of healing). That was only partially right. There was a temple here, but it was only a sliver of the site. The Asclepion was basically an ancient medical centre. It was surprisingly holistic in nature and involved a wide range of therapies: Massage, drinking sacred waters, mud baths, and use of herbs and ointments. Diagnosis was often pursued by dream analysis. Charles mentioned several times that some historians claim that if Christianity had not come to dominate the region, Asclepios likely would have been the god of choice.
Even today, this site is used by groups for conferences and meetings about alternative health approaches and therapies that wouldn’t be considered “mainstream” by most of us. This, along with the history of the site, provided us with some good discussion on the place of healing with Christianity (both “back then” and today), along with an emphasis on the holistic sense of salvation that is described in the New Testament. The Greek term for “save” that so often gets taken to speak only of sins being forgiven and a spot in heaven being reserved is a much wider word in its historical usage. It speaks of healing and wholeness and wellness and health—all in the fullest senses. THAT is an intriguing line of thought to talk through. I sense today won’t be the last of that discussion for this fellow.
One more stretch of road led us to our hotel and a great supper. We’re spending the night in the city of Ayvalik. Tomorrow will see the end of our biblical sites, I believe. We’ll wrap up that portion of the itinerary at Assos and Alexandria Troas. Throw in a visit to the site of Troy, and that should round out another fascinating day. If I see Brad Pitt hanging out around the Trojan Horse, I’ll say “hi” for you.
I hope this finds all at home exceedingly well. I’ll send word again from our next stop.