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
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
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
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).