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WALKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PAUL IN TURKEY
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THE LORD IN HAGIA SOPHIA
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February 3, 2009

                                                                             

 

                        WALKING IN THE

            FOOTSTEPS OF PAUL IN TURKEY

 

I had intended to go on a two-month journey this spring.  Beginning in Damascus, I was going to make my way up into Turkey to stay for about a month before crossing over to Greece and then returning to Syria by way of Patmos.  I wanted to "rough it" like Paul; camping out mostly.

 

However, circumstances that included an outrageously cheap airfare led me on a two-week sprint in the dead of winter through parts of Aegean Turkey, central Anatolia and one part of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

 

Why this nation with such an incredibly rich history isn’t a required stop for Christian pilgrims is beyond me.  I knew about Paul’s connection to this land by looking at maps in the back of my bibles and bible encyclopedia.  But it’s only briefly alluded to in sermons.  I was familiar with a great deal of Byzantine history and the thousand-year Christian empire through a multi-part documentary that aired on PBS. 

 

But, I was caught off guard by the vast importance of Turkey (still to this day).  Mind you, I wasn’t even able to scratch the surface of Tarsus (Paul’s boyhood home) or Antioch (where followers of Jesus Christ were first referred to as Christians).  I never even got to those places; there was too much else to see.  I didn’t even come close to Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark landed; or the town that claims to be the home of Abraham.  Indeed, there are monasteries and Christian heritage all over Turkey.

 

This land has been at the center of the maelstrom we call planet earth for thousands of years.  Alexander the Great marched through it; the converted Constantine the Great moved to its capitol and renamed it after himself; the emperors of Rome and Byzantium prized it; the Muslim Ottoman Turks overthrew the Christians; and at the end of WWI, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk unveiled a secular, nationalist governing model.

 

The main reason I came was to see the beautiful mosaics in Hagia Sophia, the former Church of Holy Wisdom that would later become a mosque and now is a museum.  The fact that I was physically stopped from praying unobtrusively (almost) hidden behind a pillar, and later prevented from quietly praying to myself in front of one of the most memorable images of Christ ever produced are significant enough for a lengthy post in and of themselves. 

 

Suffice it to say that, the incident stands as a testament to why this must be a stop on our mission field to reclaim this once Orthodox land.  But, it also stands as a warning to America and the West of what can happen to a society that bars religion from many public places.  Instead, of an obstacle to Christian travel here, that experience should be viewed as a clarion call for the pilgrimages to begin in droves.  If the guards repeatedly stopped groups of a few dozen teenagers or college students from praying or singing praise songs in front of this architectural wonder it might become a useful international incident…over and over again.

 

Another church turned museum in Istanbul, Chora (or “Kariye”) also contains famous frescoes and mosaics and should not be missed.  It is here that the emperors retreated in the waning days of the glory of Byzantium, to be near the walls in case of attack.  The Ottoman account of the fall of the city in 1453 describes a fearless king before the nearby city gates cutting down dozens of Ottoman soldiers before finally succumbing.  It was in Chora, that he said his final prayers before joining the fateful battle.

 

I could go on forever about Ephesus; the giant amphitheater where Paul probably once preached (see Acts 19:29-31), the fact that it was here that he brought the famed Aquila and Priscilla to spread the gospel,  and the House of the Virgin Mary built on a nearby hill probably to ensure her safety-- but it would take too long. 

 

The proofs that she lived here are compelling enough.  But, the clincher is the spring beneath the house.  There are a series of taps from which one can draw water.  After praying in the restored house I drank from each tap, poured water over my head, and filled up my water bottle.  I was on a natural Holy Spirit high for the entire day.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

 

The next stop was Pamukkale, home to legendary white mineral formations and a hot spring.  The underground heat produces geothermal energy at a large complex nearby.  This was the place of last resort for the sick of the ancient world.  Above the town is the ancient city of Hieropolis; mentioned in the Book of Colossians (4:13).  The numerous graves in the necropolis outside the old city prove that not all were cured, but I can attest that there is something to the legend. 

 

I skipped what is known as the Cleopatra pool in the city center near the temple of Apollo.  It just didn’t feel right.  I dipped my feet in a rivulet formed by the spring, and the next day took a brief dip in one of the pools formed by the hot water that emanates from the rocks further down the mountain.  But, the highlight for me was the Church of Philip.  He was likely martyred here and buried in what remains of an incredible octagonal basilica.  Looking down from this picturesque spot, the snow-capped peaks that loomed in the mist more resembled distant clouds.  What a beautiful setting.

 

If you love history, archeology and the Lord, Turkey is like heaven.  Next stop—Cappadocia (see Acts 2:9 (Pentecost) and 1 Peter 1:1). The biblical "Galatia" encompasses Cappadocia.  All of these places are mentioned in the New Testament for a reason.  In Cappadocia, the most special qualities of this land were revealed. 

 

For over a millennium before Christ, going back to the Hittites who lived during Old Testament times, locals dug caves out of the soft rock-like protrusions formed by volcanic activity here.  There is a UNESCO site that houses an underground city.  The Christians, like the others before them, resorted to a prehistoric lifestyle to protect themselves from invaders, and those who wanted to thwart the faith.  Many of the cave complexes were extensively developed.  Provision was made for thousands to stay underground indefinitely.  I saw an underground church, a monastery for teaching, winemaking facilities and areas to keep animals.

 

To think of pure Christian communities, sharing all that they had, and sitting down to Agape love feasts that included the Lord’s Supper puts our lives in perspective.  If these early Christians lived in caves with no modern conveniences; how do our sacrifices rank in comparison?  We owe these early saints (not just the famous martyrs) an incalculable debt.

 

Many caves, including the UNESCO-restored Dark Church contain vivid frescoes of biblical scenes.  What was most remarkable was that from humble beginnings that included oppression, persecution, and death the number of believers in Jesus Christ multiplied and spread like wildfire here in the first millennium AD.  It has happened before, obviously God can make it happen again.

 

I didn’t have time to do much planning for this trip but before I left something told me to go to Olympos, a small community on the Mediterranean.  Before I made it there, the Spirit told me to take a side trip in search of Lystra and Derbe—the home Paul’s “son” Timothy.  I went to Konya (the biblical “Iconium,” from which Paul and Barnabus were forced to flee) and spent $60 on a taxi to drive me 60 km or so out of town and back.  I was met with a vision of a few rocks on a field.  The driver blindly kept driving, I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t think the Lord would bring me out here just to look at a pile of rocks.

 

A few kilometers later, suddenly there it was off in the distance: caves in the cliffs…just like Cappodocia!  They may have beat Paul nearly to death in these parts, but his “resurrection” inspired Christians here too (Acts 14:19-20).  One of the caves, many of which are now used by locals as sheep pens looked exactly like some of the churches in the rocks of Cappadocia.  A pattern was emerging.  Unfortunately, I’ll have to save Derbe for my next trip[i].

 

After taking the bus to a surprisingly warm city called Antalya, the next day I took a short mini-bus ride to the road that leads to Olympos.  What I found at the bottom of the road, near the sea 5km or so later, brought the meaning of the trip home.  Again, a former Greek outpost had become Roman only to be converted by the Byzantine Christians.  The ruins of an old church and other structures provided an afternoon’s worth of hiking in solitude and visions of Indiana Jones.

 

But the message was this: despite the early brutal conditions and hardships there is not one nook or cranny of this country that did not have a significant and vibrant Christian community.  God has left us the evidence to give us courage so that we will be of good cheer.  No matter how bad things look, his faith will lead to prosperity.

 

But, what went wrong?

 

I can only surmise that, like their brothers to the west in Rome, the Byzantine rulers became too enamored of material things, status and power.  Too many expensive, big cathedrals and not enough food and education for the poor.  Could this be the reason He allowed a religion that emphasized social equality to rise up (Islam)?

 

Go look at the ruins yourself…and pray about it.  Clearly, Islam is not a panacea.  

 

But, it all makes me wonder.  Let us not fall into the same earthly trap.  From the cross, to cold and dark caves, to palaces, and back to a pile of rubble.  What’s the meaning? 

 

Remember our humble beginnings; the purity of the lives dedicated to faith and sacrifice.  In addition, the sheer magnitude of religious symbolism surrounding the early fellowship and the hard work necessary to produce it, proves that Christ was the center of their lives.  So, to my brothers in Christ, I say:

 

It’s time to “…rebuild the old ruins…raise up the former desolations…repair the ruined cities” (Isaiah 61:4).

 

 



[i] These areas are unexcavated.  Pending further research I may write an article on this possibly “unknown” site beyond Lystra that I found.  In this regard, also of interest on the web: Lystra (Wiki and another site with a picture) and Derbe (website with pictures).

 
 
 
 
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