EARLY CHRISTIANITY IN TURKEY
by Peter Jones
For eight hundred years following the crucifixion of Christ Christianity was shaped by events that took place within the present borders of the Republic of Turkey. The Seven Churches of the Revelation of John are located in Turkey. These churches are in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna (Izmir), Philadelphia (Alasehir), Thyatira (Akhisar), Pergamum, Laodicea and Sardis. Seven Ecumenical Counsels convened within what is now Turkey: Counsel of Nicea, 325 A.D., Counsel of Constantinople, 381 A.D., Counsel of Ephesus, 431 A.D., Counsel of Chalcedon, 451 A.D., Constantinople II, 553 A.D., Constantinople III, 680 A.D., Quinisect Counsel (Constantinople) 692 A.D. and the Counsel of Nicea II, 787 A.D. Thus, it is obvious that the personalities and events they participated in in Turkey influenced significantly the early Christian church.
In the decades immediately following the cricifixion of Christ Paul, John, Luke, Timothy, Philip, Barnabas, St. John the Theologian, John Micah and others, possibly even Mary, mother of Jesus, travelled to Turkey. The number of sites they visited and did missionary work in is extensive. Conversions followed, but met with resistance and setbacks. Paul in Ephesus on his third missionary journey spent over two years there converting followers and teaching before leaving as a result of a riot of the cities silversmiths directed against him. The riot, led by Demetrius, a silversmith, developed because Ephesus had for centuries been the principal center of worship for Artemis, goddess of fertility. The silversmiths produced and sold statues of Artemis, which the presence of Paul and his teachings affected, hence the riot to rid Ephesus of Paul for both religious and economic reasons. Paul spent some time held as a prisoner just outside Ephesus.
Of particular interest is the chapel built on the site of a 1st century A.D. structure that is alleged to have been the home of Mary, mother of Jesus. John is said to have brought Mary to this location after the crucifixion of Christ. The chapel, near the city of Selcuk and only a few miles from Ephesus, sits on a hill near a spring considered sacred.
Numerous Christians in Turkey contributed to the development of traditions and practices within the church. One of the most familiar traditions is the celebration of Christmas. Myra, the city through which Paul and Luke passed as prisoners bound for Rome in 60 or 61 A.D. is the location at which the story of St. Nicholas unfolded. Born in Patara near the close of the third century A.D., Nicholas secretly began giving gifts to the children and the poor. After moving to Demre (Myra) Nicholas continued his secret gift giving, especially gifts for the children. The church in Demre had a vacancy for a bishop and according to tradition Nicholas came to the church early one morning. The priests at the church that morning welcomed him as their new bishop. To a surprised Nicholas they explained that they had been experiencing difficulty determining who should be their bishop. God had told them they should select, as their bishop, the first person to arrive at the church on the following morning. Nicholas appeared and thus was declared their bishop. It was while Nicholas was at Demre that his secret gift giving was exposed, but he maintained the practice and as bishop continued to give to the children and others in need.
Early missionaries converted many and at times suffered martyrdom as did St. Nicholas. They also built churches and or adapted existing temples to their needs. And everywhere they carved the symbol of the wheel or the cross. Carvings of the symbolic wheel of Christianity are found at Ephesus near the great theatre ( capacity 24,000) on Mt Pion where Paul addressed the Ephesians. The ruins of churches, the carvings of the wheel and the cross are found also at Aphrodisias, Priene, Perge as well as numerous other sites in Turkey. These physical remains are a testament to the spread of and the vitality of Christianity in the centuries immediately after the crucifixion of Christ..
Modern Selcuk is the location of St. Johns Basillica. Originally it was the church of St. John where John was buried. Under Emperor Justinian a cathedral was constructed and within its walls the tomb of John is located. This cathedral was one of the largest Christian structures built during the Byzantine Empire and although the it does not rival St. Sophia it must have been impressive.
The Church of the Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, is a remarkable testament to early Christianity in the area we call Turkey. Built by the Emperor Justinian and inaugurated in 537 it remained the single most important Christian church until the building of St. Peters Basillica in Rome. Hagia Sophia was also the largest church until the construction of St. Peters about a thousand years later. In 1453 Hagia Sophia, under orders from Mehmet the Conqueror, became a mosque and four minerets were added. Ataturk in 1936 made Aya Sofya a museum and as such it remains today.
The dome of the church is 184 feet high and the structure supporting it is massive. Over the years the original building has been buttressed to strengthen and support the dome. Mosaics from the 9th to the 13th century, all of which remain only as fragments of the originals, are found in the church. The fragments are impressive as is the entire structure. Most of the mosaics are located on the second level and depict not only Christ, the Virgin and several saints but also Emperors of Byzantium and their Empresses. The mosaics are stunning.
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