By J. M. Bellew
In comparison with the Holy Land, the Seven Churches of Asia are almost a terra incognita to European travelers. At first sight, it may appear strange that contiguous countries–the eastern and northern seaboards of the Eastern Mediterranean, which Asia Minor and Syria are–should be, the one well known and well traveled, the other little traveled and little known. A perfect library of books has been composed by the journals and diaries of travelers in the Holy Land, while the works are very few indeed that give us any satisfactory account of the Biblically famous Seven Churches of Asia. The reason may, perhaps, be traced to two causes. In the first place, popular interest has been naturally much more directed towards Palestine than towards Asia Minor; and in the next place no facilities have, until very lately, been offered to the vacation rambler who could, with comparative comfort, during his autumn vacation, “do” his Jerusalem and Damascus, via Beyrout or Jaffa, but who, as the Austrian Lloyds’ steamer threaded its way among the Isles of Greece, en route from Smyrna to Rhodes and Cyprus, saw little to tempt him in the grey desolate, and rugged outline of the mainland, within whose borders, his map informed him, lay all that remains of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse.
The first English traveler who visited the sites of the cities which the pen of the Evangelist has rendered interesting to the Christian world, was Thomas Smith, Bachelor of Arts, and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1676, he published in Latin a small work, entitled “Septem Asiae Ecclesiarum Notitia,” which must have created a considerable amount of interest among the scholars of the reign of Charles II, since it was speedily republished, and, for popular purposes, subsequently translated. From 1676 to the present century, the English press yielded no work of any importance upon the subject.
During the last fifty years we have had travels by Arundell, Leake, Hamilton’s Researches (1842) and a few other works; but the only one which can be strictly called a book on the Seven Churches themselves, is that of Arundell (1828). It is a diary of a journey undertaken by him to visit the sites; but, unfortunately, the Rev. Mr. Arundell had not at his elbow that most necessary companion in Eastern travel–a good draughtsman. His descriptions are very brief and unhistorical. The consequence is, they are disappointing. The Journal of Fellows, and the magnificent French work of Texier (1839), superbly illustrated, are text books with reference to Asia Minor. They do not, however, pretend to give that particular information which a series of articles on the Seven Churches may attempt to supply.
It is unnecessary to enter into any lengthy description, geographical or topographical, of Asia Minor. Let it suffice to remark, that the country is mountainous, and from the seaboard presents the appearance of a naturally beautiful, but desolated land. Its bold and picturesque outline fatigues the eye with its reiterated grey and rugged hills, that only want the verdure and timber of English scenery to make the landscape perfection. Here and there, when the hills dip down into deep valleys, and the mountain rills swell through the vales into boisterous streams, tumbling over their rocky shelves, the eye dwells with infinite satisfaction upon the stunted foliage which revels in the life giving presence of those waters, for lack of which vegetation withers and perishes in a thirsty and dry land. The want of vegetation for which the eye longs throughout Asia Minor and Syria, must not be attributed to the nature of the soil alone, because we know well how fruitful those countries were in ancient times. No doubt the cultivators were always compelled to have recourse to Art in order to render the soil productive, evidences of which are continually traceable throughout Asia Minor and Palestine; but such art only did for those countries what British enterprise is doing for India in the present day by means of the Ganges Canal, and the scheme for irrigation. A political, far more than a physical cause, has operated to impoverish the spreading plains, which once were rich in corn and wine, oil, olive, and honey. The Turk reigns in Asia Minor; and where he rules depopulation ensues, lands fall out of cultivation, and in a very few years the burning sun reduces to a scorched aspect the provinces which only require labor to make them commercially rich. Through jobbing and oppression, the population of the Island of Cyprus has been reduced one half within the last forty years; and that island, which, if properly cultivated in its wine trade, would make immense fortunes for the growers of the vine, is practically profitless, on account of the grasping and oppressive tax gathering of the servants of the Porte, who rent from the government of the Sultan such possessions.
Owing to the thraldom of the Turk, wherever his power predominates the traveler meets with disappointment. Barren lands, desolate plains, and the dreadful fatigue of hills or mountains, blinding the eyes with their stony glare, beset him on every side. This is the character of Asia Minor and of Syria. There are, of course, many exceptions; but they are exceptions created by the self assertion of nature. She is in scattered spots green and luxuriant enough: but it is because she will be so, not because min has made her so.
Laodicea stands inland, 130 miles southeast of Smyrna. It is the most remote from the seaboard of any of the Seven Churches, except the adjacent Colossae ; and yet, such was the favor in which it was held during the Roman occupation, that, next to Apomea, it was, about the Christian era, the largest town in Phrygia.
If the reader wilt turn to a map of Asia Minor, and carry his eye from the Gulf of Scala Nuova, behind the Island of Samos, along the course of the Meander (now Menderes) for about 100 miles inland, it will be seen that it is fed by a tributary stream which was formerly known as the river Lycus. Two small streams rising among the hills to the south and southeast, and flowing down into the plain, meet at a point some sixteen miles from the Meander, and form in conjunction the river Lycus. About a mile and a half within the fork of those streams stands the site of the city of Laodicea, now known by the name Eskihisar–i.e. “Old Castle”–a term which is synonomous with the Greek παλεοκαστρο.
The Asopus and Caprus, by their streams, mark the course of two narrow valleys, between which a long spur of clustering hills runs down from the range of mountains to the east and south, terminated in the background by the snowcapped summits of Cadmus (Baba Dag). As this spur runs northwest, towards the continence of the streams it becomes subdivided into seven small hills, which, spreading out at the distance of about a mile and a half within the bifurcation of the Asopus and Cadmus, mark the ground formerly occupied by Laodicea, and now strewn with its ruins.
Laodicea was originally known by the name Diospolis, the “City of the Great God;” subsequently according to Pliny, it assumed the name Rhoas: and, at a later date, under Greek sway, the title Laodicea, in honor of Laodice, the wife of Antiochos Thetis, who built upon the site of the ancient town. It suffered terribly when besieged by Mithridates, King of Pontus; but when the Roman power was established, very quickly revived, and gradually expanded into that greatness which distinguished it at the Christian era. Under the Emperors, despite its distance from the seaboard, it rose into one of the most flourishing commercial cities of Asia Minor, in a great measure owing to its staple trade in wool, The extensive plain which spreads out beneath its feet, through which the Lycus and the Meander flow, afforded to the shepherds the most desirable sheep walks, upon which the Laodicean sheep browsed, particularly a breed of black sheep, for which the neighborhood became famous. With its commercial prosperity the wealth of the inhabitants increased, and its merchants in their pride sought to adorn the city with the Arts of the Greeks–a fact sufficiently evident to the present hour. Among others, Hiero delighted in embellishing it, and bequeathed at his death 2,000 talents to its people. Laodicea also became famous as a school of medicine. The flourishing wool trade of the city was the probable attraction to the Jews, who lived in great numbers within its walls. To this fact we may trace the cause of Christianity being proclaimed at Laodicea; and though there may be no demonstrative evidence that St. Paul actually preached the Gospel of Christ in it, yet its contiguity to the city of Colossae, and the allusion to Laodicea in his epistle to the Colossians, leave us little doubt that he must have done so. By reference to any good map, the reader will see that Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis were neighboring towns–Laodicea and Colossae forming the base of a triangle, and Hierapolis its apex
The distance between these three cities was inconsiderable. From Laodicea to Colossae, seated beneath Mount Cadmus, is about eight miles; from Laodicea to Hierapolis, is six miles. Their relation to one another, therefore, must have been somewhat the same as that of those knots of towns in Lancashire, in which it is hard to say where the suburbs of one end, and those of the next begin. This contiguity has not been familiar to the readers of the Apostle’s epistles, and therefore the meaning of his address to the Colossians has lost something of its clearness, when, alluding to Epaphras, he says, “I bear him record that he hath a great zeal for you (Colossians), and them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis.” Epaphras was “one of yea,” i.e. a Colossian, and necessarily familiar with the Christians at Laodicea and Hierapolis.
Having alluded to the early history of Laodicea, it may be well to sketch in outline its later destinies. It will be seen presently that one of its most important public edifices was erected subsequent to St. John’s writing the Apocalypse, and therefore we have evidence that the city was rising in splendor at the Christian era. Its importance became so great, that, Laodicea was chosen as the seat of a Metropolitan, who had sixteen suffragan bishops under him. This fact will in some degree account for the circumstance that it was selected as the place wherein that most important Council of the early Church was held, which decreed the Canon of Scripture, the authority of which is alike recognized by Protestants and Catholics.
The fall of the Roman empire, and the prevalence of earthquakes, seem to have been the leading causes of the decline of Laodicea. Fellowers, in his Journal, alludes to the popular statement of Laodicea having suffered from earthquakes, and states that the hills on which it stands do not show any signs of volcanic changes. This is certainly the case; but, when we consider that since the fourteenth century this place has been an absolute desolation, and that its natural decay caused by earthquakes, commenced centuries earlier, it is not difficult to understand that distinct traces might have vanished, while the historical tradition remained perfectly true, that in the reign of Tiberius it was almost overthrown.
In A.D. 1097, we find Laodicea possessed by the Turks; and then submitting to Ducas, a general of the Emperor Alexis. In 1120, the Emperor, John Comnenus, defeated the Turks, who were engaged sacking the towns of Phrygia; and taking possession of Laodicea, he restored its walls. In 1161, it was once more dismantled by the Turks; many of its inhabitants and its bishop were murdered, and its people carried off. Twentynine years subsequently, the German Emperor, Frederic Barbarossa, passing through the country to join the Crusade, was welcomed with joy by the oppressed and despoiled Laodiceans. But their relief was of short duration, for six years subsequently (1196), the sword of the Turk spread desolation once more through the city.
In 1255 the country suffered from another species of invasion. The Tartar hordes swooped down upon it, and the Sultan, in an emergency, gave the city to the Romans, who were totally unable to defend or retain it. It returned again to the dominion of the Turk, and finally settled down in permanent submission to Moslem power in the fourteenth century. When these historical dates are reviewed, we have little difficulty in understanding the gradual decline and eventual extinction of Laodicea –the Roman and the Christian. But the absolute desolation–the terrible and literal fulfillment of the prophetic vision of the Evangelist, so thoroughly and verbally fulfilled–is not so easily accounted for from natural causes. Smyrna still flourishes. It will be said it is a port, and its situation has preserved it. Ephesus also was a seaport, but situation has not preserved it. Though earthquakes may effect ruin, and the Turks may have cut off peoples with the edge of the sword, neither one nor the other are sufficient explanations for the absolute desolation of Laodicea. Therein is neither house, nor home, nor mosque. The eagles gather around it to devour their prey. The fox peeps forth from his hole among the displaced marble slabs, but man goeth not forth from its crumbling walls; and the only evidence it exhibits of being known to men is a graveyard.
Leaving the past, we may now proceed to the description of Laodicea as it appears at present. Such persons as have traveled through Asia Minor have commonly set out from Smyrna, descending southward to Ephesus and from Ephesus have gain traveled south to the valley of the Menderes or Meander, which conducts us, at a distance of one hundred to one hundred and twenty miles, to the sites of Laodicea and Colossae. Following this valley from the sea, a chain of hills called Messogis bounds the plain towards the north. These hills in several places rise several hundred feet in height, and consist chiefly of gravel and sand, singularly cemented or encrusted with drippings through limestone. The consequence is, that Messogis is remarkable for its caverns, which are frequently observed as the traveler follows the course of the Meander; and also for horizontal strata, and the conical shapes into which the hills are carved. Their appearance is frequently most fantastic, and calls to mind the sugarloaf chain of hills behind Jericho, that for a few miles skirt the Jordan before it falls into the Dead Sea. Having proceeded inland about one hundred miles, the traveler reaches the village called Caroura, from whence an object of peculiar interest, upon the face of the mountains of Messogis, presents itself to his notice, looking, at that distance, like two white spots, or dabs of paint. These spots, glistening upon the cliffs, are the ruins of the ancient Hierapolis to which St. Paul alludes in the passage before quoted. The modern name of these ruins is Pamukkale, i.e. the “Cotton Castle.” It has received this name from the natives, on account of the singular effect produced by the hot waters which flow from springs within the ruins of Hierapolis. The water, strongly impregnated with lime, leaves a species of stalactite deposit, or coat of cement, wherever it flows. Falling over the rock and sand of the steeps of Messogis, it has formed what appear from the distance to be two immense cascades. On approaching them, the traveler finds that they are metamorphosed into stone.
The appearance of these streams of cemented stone is very white from the distance, and hence the resemblance to cotton suggested to the native mind; and the name “Cotton Castle” given to the ruins. As it is not the object of this article to describe Hierapolis (which is one of the most interesting of the ruined cities of Asia Minor), a passing allusion to it is all that can be given, though it is impossible for any traveler to describe the approach to Laodicea and not to speak of Hierapolis; and it is equally impossible to separate the two places in the mind when once they have been visited, and the relationship in which they are placed by the Apostle is remembered.
The ruins of the city are between three and four miles in circumference, and are especially attractive on account of the amphitheatre being in a marvelous state of preservation. The remains of two Christian churches are traceable, the ponderous piers and buttresses of which, like parts of the Holy Sepulchre, carry us back to the times of the Crusades, and give us a conclusive hint of the European influence under which they were built. With regard to the hot springs of Hierapolis, it, is stated that, in ancient times, the inhabitants cut trenches for the water to run around their gardens or lands, and that in a short time the cementing quality of the streams created stone walls wherever they coursed. The statement appears to be perfectly correct. From the elevated platform upon which Hierapolis stands a magnificent panorama is obtained. The broad valley of the Meander stretches away, as far as the eye can travel, towards the sea. The chain of Messogis encloses it to the north, glittering with its arid and conical lines of sentinel bills. The river flows with deep and rapid waters, red in color, between sunken banks and ledges, like the Jordan. As the traveler traces its serpentine course towards the ocean, the windings of the stream may be clearly traced by the verdure of the swamps, often dangerous, which fringe it. To the south, beyond the river, the gentle hills begin to rise again, gradually climbing upwards into a mountain range, upon whose slopes the wearied and blinded eye gratefully recognizes vast forests, topped with brilliant snow. This is Cadmus–Cadmus that overlooked Colossae as Monte Pilate does Lucerne–Cadmus that formed the background of the panorama to the people of Laodicea, as Monte Rosa does to Milan.
The distance from Hierapolis to the ruins of Laodicea, across the plain, is about six miles. On descending, the hills in this neighborhood exhibit a much greater variety of color than nearer the sea. They show hues of red and brown, as well as the painful and blinding grey; and the rod coloring of the rocks explains the tinge which is given to the waters of Meander, flowing from the springs on the slopes of Cadmus. Around Hierapolis, tombs in the rocks are very common, and frequently rooms are attached to them, seeming to have been retreats for the friends of the dead, bringing forcibly to mind that passage in the history of our Lord, where we read of those who had their “dwellings among the tombs.”
On reaching the plain, the traveler has to be wary of the swamps into which the horses frequently sink up to the saddle girths. Having the course of the Lycus upon the right, after about an hour’s easy riding, the point of junction between the Asopus and Caprus is reached, and a partially ruined but massive bridge, conducting us over the narrow stream, brings us onto the site of Laodicea. The existing ruins are about a mile and a half to the rear of this meeting of the streams. Between them and the confluence of Asopus and Caprus, are the remains of an extensive burial ground, marked in several places by sarcophagi.
Approaching the dead city from this direction (north), the sense of desolation is perfectly oppressive. Barren sand hills of rounded shapes, one series after another, limit the prospect, and leave the eye nothing to rest upon but the space of hills before us, everywhere strewn with the remnants of architecture. From the bridge alluded to, a road conducts us to a massive remain of building with three arches, that may perhaps have marked one of the entrances to Laodicea.
The engraving accompanying this article will give the reader a clearer idea, at a glance, of the present aspect of Laodicea, than any amount of description. The chief objects of interest in the ruins are the remains of three theatres, and also an immense amphitheatre, which is shown in the engraving. It contains an area of about 1,000 square feet, and could easily have seated 30,000 people. At the west end of this structure there is a cavernous passage, 140 feet long, which was evidently designed for horses and animals entering the arena. On the molding at the entrance there are the remains of a Greek inscription, copies of which, made in the present century, are much more imperfect than that of Smith in 1676. As his transcript is much the most easy to be rendered into English, I here supply it, remarking that in the original the letters are all strung together without any divisions of words: “To the Emperor Titus Caesar Augustus Vespasian, seven times Consul, son of the Emperor, the Governor Vespasian, and to the people–Nicostratus the younger, son of Lycias, son of Nicostratus, dedicated….at his own expense–Nicostratus….his heir having completed what remained of the work, and Marcus Alpius Trajanus, the Pro Consul, having consecrated it.” From this inscription we learn that the amphitheatre was built after the Evangelist wrote the Apocalypse, and the city was not, at that date, one of those places in which the “lukewarm” Laodiceans showed themselves “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.” As the seventh consulate of Vespasian and the consulate of Trajan are fixed dates, we learn that it took twelve years to build this stupendous amphitheatre, which was finished A.D. 82.
Two of the theatres are cut out of the hills. The seats remain in singular preservation. One facing the east is extremely handsome, constructed with tiers of marble slabs, and the names of the occupants in several places carved upon the blocks. These theatres, one measuring 450 feet in diameter, and the amphitheatre, are the most prominent features of the ruins. There are, however, several remains of temples and vast walls. It is possible that some of these may be the walls of Christian churches. The ruins of a street, and a colonnade, and the shell of some very extensive edifice, with piers and arches, is likewise indicated in the engraving north of the amphitheatre. Beyond these, and facing the south, is the third theatre, the proscenium of which is strewn about in large masses of marble. Beyond that, once more, there is another series of arches and walls, that may have been a gymnasium. To the west, three other arches, crossing a small valley, reveal to us a bridge road, which was used by the Laodiceans. Everywhere among the ruins are pedestals and fragments of marble, with which the city was adorned; but it is somewhat curious to find that the Laodiceans, as a general rule, only faced their buildings with marble, while the carcasses of the structures themselves were built of the peculiar cemented rubble which abounds in this district.
To the south, upon the summit of one of the hills behind the city, there are the remains of an aqueduct, carried upon arches to the edge of the hill; but instead of the arches continuing, the water has been conducted through descending pipes, some of which remain, and can be traced into the city to the spot where they rose again in some fountain to their own level. It is evident that hydrostatics were understood at Laodicea; and it is also remarkable that several of these pipes are choked with incrustations of calcareous matter, proving to us that the water which fed Laodicea was as strongly impregnated with lime as we find it at Hierapolis.
Such is a general description of this member of the Seven Churches. Its candlestick is indeed withdrawn, and the desolation which its lukewarmness towards God brought down upon it is complete. No one can picture to himself a waste more thorough than the arid hills, the dreary swamps, the melancholy graveyard, and the shattered ruins of Laodicea, present to the eye of the traveler. “Is this the city that men called beautiful?” we involuntarily exclaim! “Is this the city that was the pride of the Roman, and the Jew, as well as of the Laodicean?” It is impossible to contemplate such a wilderness of ruin, without feeling that it needs the prophetic language of the Evangelist to unriddle the mystery of its downfall, for which the incidents of human affairs fail to render a satisfactory solution.
“Pride that her votaries doomed, still ushers in; Pride–that besetting, universal sin!
Mortal and proud! strange contradictory terms; Pride in death’s victims, in the Prey of worms.”
It was against the ungodly pride of Laodicea that the finger of Divine vengeance was pointed, and that ungodly pride worked out her destruction. The scattered remains of the city, as above described, will sufficiently prove to the reader that Laodicea was given up to luxury, indulgence, and pleasure. Her fate, like that of Rome, and many another ancient city, is a warning, to us, that what we call civilization, Art, and refinement, unless wedded to goodness of purpose and manliness of life, end in effeminacy, corruption, and licentiousness, and leave both cities and peoples easy prey to the incursions of Turks, or Goths, or those barbarians of war whose lust of empire is always ready to overpower the weak.