Prophetic writings have always interested and intrigued people who long to take a glimpse into the future. Nostradamus is unquestionably the most famous secular prophetic writer. Yet for nearly two millennia one book has been read and reread in order to unlock the mysteries foretold in its very dramatic language.
The Apocalypse, written by John the Theologian, in AD 90, while in exile on the remote island of Patmos off the coast of modern Turkey, predicts a monumental battle of apocalyptic magnitude that is still to come. John wrote his predictions, also known as The Revelation, as a lengthy letter addressed to seven churches, in seven cities, in ancient Asia Minor.
Ancient Asia Minor is basically the area of modern Turkey forming a large peninsula on the western boundary of Asia protruding into Europe. Mt Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark, lies to the east, while the Black Sea is to the north, the Aegean Sea to the west and the Mediterranean to the south. It is in this south-western coastal region that we find the seven cities.
Not Much Digging
During the Ottoman Empire there had been little excavation in the seven cities mentioned by John and not much was ever known about the material culture of these early Christian places. The Empire was Islamic and not at all interested in Christian holy sites. At the sites where some archaeological excavation had been performed, it had revealed traces of many religious buildings belonging to the Early Byzantine Period but none older than the 4th Century AD. Carved dedicatory crosses on marble entrance columns of churches were excavated in Selcuk.
History of Asia Minor
Excavations have shown that the western coast of Anatolia was thickly populated during the late Bronze Age, about 1500 – 1200 BC. Some settlements, notably Smyrna, have shown evidence of continuous occupation. Around 1200 BC, the peaceful picture of the region suddenly changed as nomadic marauders overran the Aegean Islands and Anatolia. Over the next 400 years the wealthy region diminished into decay and the great trading capitals were destroyed or abandoned.
The beginning of the Hellenistic Period brought the centre of commercial and artistic activity from Greece to Asia Minor. To build the new temples, theatres, gymnasiums, libraries, and bathhouses, stonemasons, carpenters, artists, and potters moved east to Anatolia. With the emergence of Imperial Rome came careful administration and the region enjoyed Pax Romana, long-term Roman peace. Archaeologists have discovered finely detailed Roman baths in Ephesus with an intricate frieze of sacrificial bulls dressed with garlands of oak branches and ribbons.
By the time of the early Christians, the region was divided into several provinces and the first three hundred years of the Common Era was a period of unusual peace and prosperity. It was during the beginning of the period of affluence that the author of The Revelation travelled from Israel to Ephesus.
At Ephesus, John was shocked to see how some Christians had adopted pagan practices and addressed this matter in his epistle. Ephesus was the first city to be instructed through the letter. Each of the other six, in turn, would be rebuked for some transgression. The cities mentioned by John refer to their ancient names: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyateira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Most of these ancient sites today lie in ruins.
Great Cities in Ruin
The grandest is Ephesus covering many square kilometres. Its ruins have become an iconic tourist attraction. Ephesus has never been rebuilt unlike many of the other ruins that find themselves surrounded and built over by modern cities and bustling populations. In the centre of the modern city of Akhisar is one small, fenced off, block of land with protruding broken marble columns, plinths, and excavated capitals strewn across the ground; the only reminder of the ancient city of Thyareira. In contrast, a barren rolling hillside near the Lycus River is the unexcavated site of ancient Laodicea.
John’s literary style to the Christians of these cities was once thought to be purely figurative, highly stylised, and full of symbolism, needing interpretation from a prophetico-theological sense to gain understanding. However, archaeological survey and excavation at these ancient sites have uncovered striking finds that illuminates the letters to the seven churches as a literal genre easily understood when viewed through the context of their time.