A trip that changed my life

By Deirdre Good

How often can you say of a trip: it changed my life? I can say it of our recent visit to Turkey. I touched the Hellenistic and Roman worlds of Asia Minor, and because I saw where Paul was, where the cities of Revelation are, and where John and Mary may have been, these two thousand year old New Testament texts now seem new and alive.

We traveled from Izmir (ancient Smyrna) on the western coast of Turkey to Istanbul through Ephesus, Sardis, Pergamon, and ancient Troy, approaching Istanbul from the north. On the first day we went south to Miletus. We stood in the theatre where Paul, according to Acts 20, made his farewell speech. And we were able to calculate later how long the author of Acts envisaged it would take the Ephesian elders to get there and to return home knowing they’d never see Paul again. Two days later we gazed sadly at ruined buildings in Thyatira thinking of the judgment of Revelation 2:18-23 and wondering who “Jezebel” might have been. And who was the Lydia (Acts 16:14) of Thyatira offering Paul hospitality? Where did she live? In Sardis, we were awed by the central location and size of the synagogue. On the acropolis in Pergamum, we looked out across the valley at the sweeping view and just below us at the empty place where the Pergamum altar (now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin) had once been and we wondered if it would have survived without being moved.

What about Ephesus? Everyone should see it before they die. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Ephesus is one of the wonders of the ancient world. To visit Ephesus is to grasp what an ancient Hellenistic city looks like: you can walk down ancient intersecting streets. I’ve been down Roman roads in Europe. And I’ve been on Roman roads that intersect with other Roman roads but these roads are built up into modern streets. I’ve never been on Hellenistic streets that intersect with other ancient Hellenistic streets so that when you walk down them you can turn left or right at the end and keep walking.

At Ephesus, the main street is the Arcadian way. It is 100 feet wide and paved with marble slabs. At night it was lit by lanterns. Adjacent Curetes Street is named from the Curetes (priests serving Artemis) who guarded the sacred fire of the hestia (hearth). The most beautiful building on Curetes Street is the Temple of Hadrian (117-138 CE).

Halfway down is perhaps the most photographed building in Ephesus–the Library of Celsus built in 135 CE by Julius Aguila in memory of his father, Celsus, who was a Roman senator and governor-general of the province of Asia. Thousands of parchments and papyri were stored here long before books were thought of.

Opposite the Hadrian Temple we saw several of the best-preserved Roman houses for the elite in Asia Minor. Many had interior courtyards restored to show heating systems and clay pipes. On the floors are mosaics and on the walls are rich interior decorations including blue frescoes of birds and fish. Further on down opposite Harbor Street is the largest theatre in Asia Minor seating 25,000 people. Acts 19 locates the silversmiths of Ephesus there chanting, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” in opposition to Paul. We would have read the passage out loud in the theatre if it hadn’t been raining.

Our group was composed of religious professionals for whom sacred sites were important. Some of us prayed with Muslim women at the house of Mary, a place of religious devotion in the hills above Ephesus. At nearby Selçuk we visited the church of John where John apparently took Jesus’ Mother after the crucifixion to live out her days. In Istanbul, we spent hours in the former Byzantine church and mosque of Aya Sofia, now a museum. Scaffolding that had been on the walls for seventeen years had just been taken down. In the restoration of murals, a face of one of the seraphim had recently been revealed which our Muslim guide could hardly wait to see. Others of our group visited a display of sacred objects in a museum in the nearby palace of Topkapi. While the imam chanted verses from the Qur’an and vast crowds shuffled past each glass display case, we gazed at a footprint of Mohammed and at the rod Moses used to part the Red Sea.

We spent our final days in Istanbul. Istanbul is an international city at one and the same time both European and Asian, both secular and religious. The muezzin outside our hotel window called the faithful to prayer each morning. Shopping and drinking tea in the Grand Bazaar is like no other shopping experience in the world. The cash machines offer Turkish lira, Euros or dollars. But it’s the same everywhere. Even in the smallest villages, everyone makes change in lira, Euros or dollars. Turkey has something for everyone. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

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