If You Know Your Bible, You Know More About Turkey Than You Thought!

OLD TESTAMENT

In 2002, we were privileged to spend two weeks in Turkey. Although I knew that this country played a major role in the New Testament, I was surprised to learn how frequently the region of Turkey is mentioned in the Old Testament.

Turkey is a Cradle of Civilization, as verified by early cave drawings and archeological artifacts which have been discovered in this region. Wedged between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Turkey has always been an important center of civilization and trade. Camel caravans have crossed this region for thousands of years and you can find many impressive ruins of ancient “caravan hotels”, which provided accommodations and food for camel caravans. Some of these have been restored and are used for cultural functions today. The Tigrus and Euphrates River, often mentioned in the Bible, have their beginnings in Turkey and flow through Iraq. Noah’s arc landed on Mt. Ararat (Genesis 8:1-5) and after leaving Ur, Abraham and his family lived for a while in Haran (Genesis 11:31).

Many other ancient peoples named in the Bible were entirely or partly in Turkey. The Hittite Kingdoms (Gen. 10:15; 15:19–21), are especially worth mentioning. Until the twentieth century, the Hittites were known only from biblical accounts and skeptics pointed to these references as proof of the Bible’s unreliability. Secular Egyptian and Assyrian texts have been recently found and confirmed by archaeological discoveries. The Hittites are identified as the Kheta or Hatti. Their capital was at Hattusas (modern Boghazkoµuy), east of Ankara in Turkey. Hittite history is divided into two basic periods: the Old Kingdom (to c. 1500 B.C.) and the Empire (beginning c. 1460 B.C.). The two great periods of power and influence were around 1650 until 1500 and about 1380 to 1200 B.C..

Assyrians, mentioned frequently in the biblical narrative, have vanished from the face of the earth, but in the same region lives a mysterious people without a national government or territory. These are called Kurds and the area in which they live is called Kurdistan. Kurdistan covers the same area as ancient Assyria, partly in Iraq and Syria, but most Kurds live in Turkey. One of the most fascinating unfulfilled prophecies in the Bible is found in Isaiah 19:23 25. According to this prophecy, Assyria, Egypt and Israel will become friendly allies, enjoying the Lord's favor and worshiping together!

NEW TESTAMENT

Except for a brief stay in Egypt as an infant, Jesus lived, ministered and died within the borders of Israel, but much early church history following Pentecost took place in Turkey. The birthplace of the Christian Church may be Jerusalem, but Turkey is where the Church first thrived. In fact, many of the Jewish pilgrims who were on hand at Pentecost had traveled from Turkey (Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamhylia).

The first recorded persecution of Christians was carried out by a radical Jewish Pharisee named Saul, who later converted to Christianity and became known as the Apostle Paul. Paul was born in Tarsus, “no mean city” in what is now Turkey. Timothy was from Lystra, not far from Tarsus. The disobedient prophet, Jonah, also set out for Tarsus instead of Nineveh (in modern Iraq).

The Apostle Peter wrote his first epistle to Christians scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bythinia. All these places are found in Turkey.

The region of Cappadocia is particularly interesting. Thousands of Christians fled bitter persecutions in Jerusalem and Rome under Nero, reaching a climax under Marcus Aurelius, and finally ending when Constantine decreed the Peace of Milan in 313. Many of them found refuge in Cappadocia, where they carved homes out of the unusually shaped lava-stone mountains. Or they built and occupied underground cities, 100 of which still exist.

Paul was not only born and raised in Turkey, but most of his ministry took place in Turkey! With the exception of Salamis and Pathos (in Cyprus), all the places Paul visited on his first missionary journey were in Turkey (Perge, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Attalia). Most of his second and third missionary journeys were also in Turkey.

Paul wrote epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians, churches in Turkey. Philemon, I & II Timothy were written to recipients in Turkey. Colossae is now buried beneath a large mound of dirt on which sheep graze. It has not yet been excavated and only a bullet riddled sign marks the site.

After Paul visited Paphos on Cyprus (where a sorcerer named Elymas was blinded), he sailed to Perge in Pamphylia, which was an important port city. Today, Perge lies several miles from deep water, but you can still visit a large amphitheatre, a stadium used for chariot races, and the well-preserved agora (market place). Tourists may also inspect the spring of water and watering system which flowed through the main thoroughfare, providing drinking water, cool baths on hot days, and water for cleaning the streets. In addition to the ruins of an Artemis Temple, there are ruins of two Christian churches dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries in Perge.

When Paul preached all night in Troas, a young man fell asleep and plunged from an open window to the ground below. He was taken up dead, but Paul revived him and continued his sermon until daybreak. After all this stress, Paul insisted on walking 25 miles to Assos on the following day while his companions took a ship. Talk about physical fitness!

Paul changed ships in the port of Patara on his voyage from Miletus to Tyre. Patara has magnificent city gates and a large theatre. Paul encouraged the elders of Ephesus in Miletus before sailing off to Jerusalem. Miletus boasts a theatre seating 25,000.

Near Miletus, one can view the ruins of Xhanthos. Here, stands a mysterious stone monument covered with hieroglyphics, which have never been deciphered. There is also a large theatre where they had bull fights and other events.

On the voyage to Rome, with Paul as prisoner, the Roman Centurion found a ship from Alexandria sailing to Italy in the port city of Myra. This city boasts a gigantic theatre and extensive cliff graves. Aspendosis, which means “Horse Place,” is not far from Myra. It has a well-preserved theatre seating 20,000, which is still used for cultural events. Another nearby city is Didyma, where there is a very large Apollo Temple. We were amazed at the immensity of the marble pillars and stones. One marble block was about 5 feet square and 30 feet long!

Attalia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Cnidos and Cos (Islands), Derbe, Galatia (Galatians), Hierapolis, Iconium, Pamphylia, Lysia, Lycania, Phrygia, Pontus, Lydia, Mysia, Perga are just a few places in Turkey mentioned in the New Testament. Iconium (Acts 13-16 and II Tim. 3:11) is now called Konya. A large Muslim monastery is located here, where the famous Whirling Derwishes learn their dances. At least 16 places in ancient times were called Antioch, including Antioch of Pisidia (in Turkey) and Antioch in Syria near Damascus, which are mentioned in the Bible.

According to reliable traditions, the Apostle John left Jerusalem to become the Bishop of Ephesus. In obedience to Christ’s command, he took Mary, the mother of Jesus with him and cared for her until her death.

John was later banned to exile on the Turkish Island of Patmos. It was here that he had a vision and wrote the book of Revelation. We can thus conclude that a major portion of the New Testament was either written to Christians in Turkey or written on Turkish soil.

LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES (Revelation 2-3)

  1. One of the most extensive and well-preserved archeological sites is the ancient city of Ephesus, where Paul spent more than two years (Acts 19:1-10). The Apostle John was bishop of the Ephesian church before he was exiled to Patmos. The traditionally accepted tombs of John and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are located in Ephesus. The oldest church dedicated to Mary is located here, dating to around 350! There is a large 8-sided baptismal pool clearly intended for adult baptisms in this church! Once an important seaport with 250,000 citizens and 50,000 slaves, the ruins of the city now lie 5 miles from water. It was in the theatre of Ephesus that Paul was accused by members of the silversmith gild of ruining their trade by his preaching. More than 24,000 people could be seated in this theatre, but the public toilet in Ephesus only seated 20 persons judging by the number of keyhole-shaped openings in the stone benches! Men of the city would sit here and talk politics or close business deals. The latrine even had running water and was pure luxury compared to a typical Turkish toilets today (holes in the floor that you squat over). Tourists can recognize the prevailing wickedness of ancient Ephesus in the ruins of a large brothel located across the street from the ornate and well preserved library. (now read Revelation 2:1-7)

  2. Smyrna, is now the thriving seaport city Izmir. It is located on the Aegean Sea and only a few marble columns, the remains of a heathen temple, are left from Bible times. (read Revelation 2:8-11)

  3. According to Revelation 2:13, “Satan’s throne” was located in Pergamum. Today, one can view a large theatre and several heathen temples in the extensive ruins of this city (read Revelation 2:12-17).

  4. Thyratira (now Akhisr) was the home of Lydia, the purple seller who helped the Apostle Paul. A small enclosed area in the center of the modern city contains what is left of the ancient city (read Revelation 2:18-29).

  5. Sardis had a reputation that it lived, but was dead. Today, one can view the well-preserved and partly restored ruins of this once magnificent city. It contains a large Apollo Temple, perhaps the largest synagogue in Asia Minor, a fantastic gymnasium, sports arena, bath house and theatre (read Revelation 3:1-6).

  6. Philadelphia, now called Alasehir, received the highest praise and no negative comment from the Lord. All that is left of the “City of Brotherly Love” today, however, is the ruins of an early Christian church dedicated to St. John (c. 600 AD - read Revelation 3:7-13)

  7. The acres of ruins in what was once Laodicea give an idea of the former size and importance of this city. Water was piped from the hot springs of Hierapolis to this city, but it was lukewarm and contaminated by the time it reached Laodicea. The poor water quality of the city was renowned and we can begin to realize why Christ said that Laodicea would be "spewed out" because it was neither cold nor hot (read Revelation 3:14-22).

TURKEY IN CHURCH HISTORY

Except for the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, the fist eight important church councils were all held in Turkey. Emperor Constantine made Byzantium capital of the Roman Empire in 330. It was then renamed Constantinople. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Constantine, but his successor to the throne, Emperor Theodosius, who made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Turkey became a bastion of Christianity and Constantinople the religious heart of the Holy Roman Empire until 1453. During this period, a great part of Eastern Europe was evangelized by missionaries from Turkey.

The famous Christian basilica Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. When the Muslims took control, it was converted into a mosque, but it has since been declared a museum in order to show it off to millions of Christian tourists. The nearby “Blue Mosque” (the name foreigners use, but it is actually called the Sultan-Ahmet Mosque) was built 500 years later, but both are marvels of architecture.

The famous limestone terraces of Pamukkale and thermal baths of Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13) have been popular tourist attractions and goals of pilgrimages for centuries. The cemetery of Hierapolis (called “city of the dead”) was larger than the “city of the living!”

Although not mentioned in the Bible, Demra was the birthplace of St. Nicholas, patron saint of fishermen. He is better known in America as Santa Claus. A Basilica named after him and built in the first half of the 4th century is located here, but his casket is empty. Italians stole his body and reburied it near the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.

Alexander the Great conquered Turkey in 334 BC and controlled this land until his death in Babylon in 323 BC. Greek culture has had a great influence on Turkey, especially in its architecture. In 284, the Roman Emperor Diocletion, set up his throne in Nicomedia near Istanbul and the territory remained under Roman rule until Justinian. Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 and made Byzantium capitol of the Roman Empire in 330. By the middle of the fifth century, Mohammed’s followers had conquered much of Turkey including the present day capital, Ankara. They also laid a four year siege on Constantinople 654-658, but were unable to take the city until 1453. The city’s name was then changed to Istanbul.

MODERN TURKEY

Istanbul, with its 7 million inhabitants, is the major city of modern Turkey. A small part of Istanbul is located on the European continent, but the bulk of the country is in Asia (called Asia Minor in New Testament). Still, Turkey would like to join the European Union. With 67 million inhabitants and an area twice the size of unified Germany, it would become the EU’s most populated member nation if admitted.

The initial request for acceptance was turned down by the openly godless EU in 2002, which argued that Turkey was intolerant of other faiths and therefore did not fit. The present government is under tremendous pressure to change this situation without causing an uproar among influential Muslim clerics. These are opposed to membership, for the Islamic religion recognizes only one form of government and that is an absolute Islamic dictatorship.

When one considers the fact that Turkey is 99% Islamic, one can not help but wonder why Turkey should want to belong to the EU. One answer of course is the desire for economical advantages, but that cannot completely explain this phenomenon. Most Turks, especially young people, want to be recognized as Europeans, and the main reason is a man called Atatürk.

Atatürk’s real name was Mustafa Kemal Pascha. Although he died in his thirties, Atatürk (a title which means “Father of Turkey”) is the beloved founder of the modern Turkish Republic. He came to power in 1922 after the country had been reduced to great poverty under the rule of the last Sultans. He was convinced that there was no viable future for Turkey unless the nation could wrench itself from the death-grip of Muslim fanaticism and tradition.

Soon after coming to power, Atatürk formed a Republic (1923) and although he ruled only 15 years (his early death in 1938 was at least partly due to heavy drinking), he succeeded in turning Turkey toward Europe. He did away with the Arabic alphabet and introduced Latin letters. For this reason, Turks now have computer skills that are unmatched in the rest of the Arab Muslim world. Wearing of the traditional Muslim “fes” headpiece was forbidden. He adopted the Gregorian calendar, forbade polygamy, closed Muslim religious training centers and ordered the people to take last names. Women were allowed to unveil their faces, to vote and even hold office. These changes paved the way for a woman (Mrs. Ciller) to become President of Turkey in 1993, something that would be impossible in most Muslim nations today. Ciller’s greed and alleged corruption, however, didn’t make her very popular with the people.

“Religion: Muslim“ is still printed in every Turkish passport, but this will have to change when Turkey joins the EU. It is estimated that there are perhaps 3,000 true born-again Christians in Turkey. There are only 51 protestant “churches” and many of their members are foreigners. Turkish Christians are allowed to assemble and have meetings, but they may not be called “churches”. The legal name of the Christian church in Antalia, for example, is “Cultural Club of St Paul.” Although Turkey claims to grant religious freedom and earns much money from Christian tourists who follow the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, missions is virtually impossible today. Three years ago, the “Cultural Club of St. Paul” received permission to purchase and restore the ruins of an ancient Orthodox church, but they were forbidden to use it for worship!

Officially, there are no Christian missionaries in Turkey, but around 1000 foreign Christians work as “tent-makers” in hopes of leading Turks to Christ. Christians are no longer being persecuted openly, however, and the government is gradually giving more freedoms in order to improve their standing with the European Union.

Other Interesting Facts About Turkey

The ruins of Troy (actually several cities built on the same site) date back at least 5,000 years and according to Homer, Troy was taken by the Greeks through trickery - sneaking the proverbial Trojan Horse through the gates of the city.

Most of us have heard about King Midas and the “Midas touch”, of flying carpets, Ala Baba and the thirty thieves and other tales.

The “Whirling Dervishes” are male dancers that still perform their rituals today. They can spin for hours without getting dizzy. The learn how to do this in the large monastery of Konya (Iconium).

Emperor Marc Anthony and Cleopatra were married in Turkey.

Turkey’s most famous industry is making Oriental carpets. They even raise silk worms, capture the silk thread and made it into carpets. Most carpets, however, are of wool and cotton. Angora wool is named after Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. One of the finest museums in the world is located here.

The “Topkapi,”or Sultan’s Palace of Istanbul, has many elaborate rooms, a harem, several museums and a park overlooking the Golden Horn and Bosphorus Strait. The museums contain among other things, a large collection of rare ceramics, the Kasikey Diamond and a hair from Mohammed’s beard.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Turkey is proud to be a nation of stark contrasts which manage to co-exist and sometimes thrive side by side. In the cities, one can find old architecture and modern skyscrapers, women with head scarves and young girls in jeans and sweaters, ornate Mosques and modern businesses, all existing side by side in seeming tranquility.

But there is still an underlying fear of the Muslim clerics. Islam came to power through violent means and the threat of violence is still its most effective weapon. There have been violent attacks against Kurds and Armenians in the past, which brought much bloodshed and suffering. The tension between the government and Kurds in the East remains to some extent, but many Kurds have been assimilated into the Turkish culture and all aspects of life. Some of the highest ranking government officials are Kurdish. The government has recognized the error of neglecting to invest in the eastern part of the nation where many Kurds live. Large irrigation projects and hydroelectric plants are being built to encourage industrialization and agriculture.

For photos of Turkey, click here: PHOTOS