The Roots of Christianity in Turkiye, by Ayhan Ozer

Aya Irini, Istanbul
Aya Irini, Istanbul

In antiquity, today’s Turkish land was the scene for many momentous events in the history of Christianity. The social, cultural and religious impacts of those incidents have shaped our world and left indelible marks that enriched the land itself as well.

Christianity was made a state religion the first time ever in today’s Istanbul, Turkey.

The Emperor “Constantine the Great” founded the eastern Roman Empire, and on 330 A.D. he accepted Christianity and accorded a status to it by declaring Christianity the official religion of the realm. He made the city ofGreek Byzantium(today’sIstanbul) its capital and renamed it Constantinople.

In Jerusalem, a sect out of nowhere, peaceful and humble posed a quiet challenge to the all-powerful Roman emperors. The spiritual leader of this mission was Jesus Christ. During the early stage of this movement, his followers were persecuted. Following his death, during the period between 29AD and 40AD, the Roman persecutions of his disciples increased; therefore, they convened secretly in places chosen by the Apostles. Between 37 A.D. and 42 A.D., the Roman persecutions intensified, and the Apostles were forced to leave Jerusalem for more secure places. The Apostles Peter and his followers chose Antioch, today’s Antakya, a Turkish town on the Eastern Mediterranean which was once one of the great emporiums of the Hellenistic and Roman world. Those faithful Christians convened in a makeshift locale, and feeling secure, they called themselves first time ever “Christians”, meaning those who adopted the faith of Christ. Their meeting place in Antiochus accepted as the first Christian church of the world. There were earlier congregation places in Jerusalem, but the congregants had not identified themselves as “Christians.” Therefore; the Antioch church holds the title of the “First Christian Church”. Later, Antioch gained prominence in Christianity and was the third important Christian city after Jerusalem and Rome.

The Roman persecutions of the early Christians lasted for about three centuries, during which time the beleaguered Christians found a safe haven in today’s Turkish heartland, which is called with its antique name of “Cappadocia”. Today, in that region there are two Turkish towns called “Urgup” and “Goreme”. A New York Times article describes those cities as “lunar landscapes”, and further it says, “a more extraterrestrial spectre than Cappadocia’s landscape can hardly be imagined – endless fields of bizarre castles, cones, spires and towers, crags dotted with mysterious apertures and phalanxes of gigantic mushrooms wearing caps that mock gravity.” Tens of thousands of years of volcanic eruptions created a tufa, a soft and malleable stone, consisting of lava, ash and mud. Beneath this fantastic landscape, the early Christians dug far-flung subterranean cities 10 stories (300 feet) deep that include churches, storage areas, and ingenious airshafts and wells that made possible long subterranean stays. Above ground, they carved churches, monasteries and hermits’ hideaways into the rock and painted on their walls icons and geometric designs. Today, a total of six ancient churches exist in that area.

Virgin Mary is revered in Islam too as the mother of Jesus Christ. (Meryem Ana in Turkish, meaning Mother Mary) She spent her last years in Ephesus, a town in western Turkey. The successive Roman emperors saw the Christians as a curse and a growing threat to their authorities. Shortly after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, Jerusalem became even more dangerous a place. Saint Peter and Saint John were imprisoned, and in 37 A.D. Saint Stephen was stoned to death. In 42 A.D. Saint James the Elder, Saint John’s brother, was beheaded. Under such circumstances, it was unthinkable that Saint John, who had been entrusted with the care of Mary by Christ himself, would have exposed her to such a peril. According to Tradition Mary and Saint John left Jerusalem for Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in the year 37 A.D., or the latest, in 42 A.D. Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339A.D.) the renowned theologian, church historian and the biographer of Emperor Constantine wrote that the Asia Minor at that time was turned to a field of apostolic activities by the Jesus’ disciples escaping from Jerusalem. Mary lived for nine years at the western Anatolian town of Ephesus in a stone house originally built by Saint John on the top of a hill at an elevation of 1,500 ft. Today, a path shaded by olive trees leads to a statue of her located next to her house that welcomes the visitors gracefully. She may have died there at about the age of 64. Her grave is a mile away from her house.

In Ephesus, as early as the 3rd century a large Christian church (Marian Basilica) existed. It was dedicated to Saint Mary, where the Ecumenical Council of 431 A.D. was convened. The church law, then prevalent, did not allow building churches to venerate saints, except in places where they had lived or died. This is a confirmation that Mary had lived there. Also, the tomb of Saint John is there too; it lies under the marble sanctuary within the Basilica of Saint John. Ever since the 8th century, the Syrian Jacobite Church upheld the Ephesian Tradition with regard to Mary’s last years. Later, they reaffirmed this belief in the 12th and 13th centuries, and again in 17th and the 18th centuries. The Pope “learned” Benedict XIV (1740-1758) also confirmed the Ephesian Tradition.

In the same area, about 7 miles East of Ephesus there is a town called “Kirkince”. An Orthodox colony of 4000 Greeks have lived in that area. They are the last remaining ascendants of the Ephesian Christians. Their forefathers took refuge in Kirkince in the 11th century because of the invasion of the Seljuk Turks. Every year, on August 15th they convene in a small chapel on Bulbul Dag (Mount of Nightingale) to celebrate the Assumption Day. Some historians tie those maverick Christians to the habitation of the Virgin Mary in that area. They claim those diehard Christians were the loyal followers of the Virgin Mary.

Today, the Virgin Mary’s house is a pilgrimage site. It started in 1896. In 1982, there were about 500,000 visitors from all over the world. Pope Leo XIII, Pope Saint Pious X, John XXIII, Paul IV (July 26, 1967), and John Paul II (November 30, 1979) made a pilgrimage to the site and proclaimed it as a pilgrimage ground. On the way to Mary’s house is the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers. Here, carved out of the mountainside, are the remains of three churches, the tombs of the seven early Christian martyrs, and the tomb of Mary Magdalena. 

Apostle Saint Paul was born in Tarsus, a town in Southern Turkey which is notable for another earlier occasion; it was the meeting place of Anthony and Cleopatra in 37 B.C. Saint Paul was a Jew and named Saul after the first king of Israel. Saint Paul made three missionary voyages. All these trips originated from today Turkey.  His first voyage started in A.D. 47 from Antioch and ended a year later again in Antioch. His second voyage started in 49 AD also from Antioch, he moved to the North and crossed to Europe from the Dardanelle (Turkish Straits). He and his party went to Macedonia, there Luke, the author of the fourth Gospel, joinedSaint Paul’s party. Then, they came to Athens, and to Corinth. They crossed the Aegean Sea back to Asia Minor and arrived to Ephesus. Later, Saint John left for the Holy Land, and then returned to Antioch.

WhenSaint Paul started his third missionary voyage from Antioch he had planned to go to the city of Ephesus, which he did, and stayed there about two-and-half years. He and his companions then travelled to Northern Greece and Macedonia. Then they traveled to the Aegean islands, and finally toHoly Land. In Jerusalem, he was arrested with trumped-up charges. He wanted to appeal to the Emperor and was taken to Rome. He was freed. He returned to Ephesus. In AD 67, during the reign of Emperor Nero, he was arrested the second time, this time he was found guilty, and beheaded. Saint Paul was a tireless preacher, a true believer and a spirited evangelist. He became a martyr.

Another famous person of Christianity with roots in Turkey is Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus; who was born and lived in the 4th century in a town called “Patara” (today, Gelemis) in Southern Turkey. Patara was an important port city in ancient times. His tomb and his church still stand intact in a neighbouring small town called Myra (Demre, in Turkish) also located inSouthern Turkey. Previously, Myra was a pagan city, but in the Saint Nicholas’s time, it became the seat of his Bishopric. Saint Paul visited Myra during his journey to Rome.

Nicholas was the son of wealthy parents who died young. With the money, he inherited he made a practice of giving secretly to the poor. Nicholas became Christian and travelled to Jerusalem for pilgrimage. On his return he went to Myra; the Christian had built a church on the site of an ancient pagan temple. He became the Bishop of Myra and modestly filled the Episcopal See of Myra. His generosity and the tales of his benevolence spread beyond the range of his small village and even drew the wrath of the Byzantine Emperor Diocletian who put him in jail and had him tortured.

To many, Saint Nicholas is more than a saint; he is the spirit of Christmas.

Christianity is a dynamic religion, open to new ideas, and is progressive. In 395 A.D. the Roman Empire was divided into two for political reasons. The Western Roman Empire centred in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire centred in Byzantine (today’sIstanbul, Turkey). Being geographically far from each other the theology, interpretation, and even the liturgy in these two Christian centres gradually grew apart. Despite some rivalry between Rome and the-Constantinople, they worked in relative harmony until the 11th century. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul felt that the Pope of the Western Church in Rome constantly introduced innovations into the liturgy which he believed as a direct violation of the ecclesiastical laws laid down by the Apostles and the successive synods. He found those accretions schismatic. Historically, the Eastern Orthodox Church has assumed seniority over the Latin Church; it acted as if it was the custodian, if not the direct heir to Christianity. Its posture was that the Christianity was home-grown in the Orthodox soil; whereas it was “transplanted” in the Latin soil; and the “bonding” in that climate may not have been right as 500 years later the Protestantism divided the Western Christianity into warring camps. Thus, the Orthodox Church carved itself an image of being “original” while it regarded the Latin Church in Romeas a “latecomer” without any “organic” ties to the root of the Christianity. In that environment, the question of Trinity turned from a mild disagreement to a thorny issue that occupied the agenda of both Churches. Each interpreted the Trinity from its own rigid perspective. Inevitably, it escalated to a burning issue which caused the relations between these two main branches of Christianity broke off in a schism. The contention had a political dimension, but it had also theological and doctrinaire layers. The final showdown came about on July 16, 1054, at the Church of Saint Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Istanbul. Cardinal Humbert, an envoy of the Pope, was visiting Constantinople, following some provocative discussions he placed on the communion table an aphorism excommunicating the Eastern Patriarch and the bishops of the Eastern Church collectively, and he did this in their home turf! It was an audacity unpardonable. Ever since this incident, these two main branches of Christianity do not talk to each other. The late Pope John Paul II made an attempt to re-establish the “union” between the Latin and the orthodox churches, but the relations have not warmed up yet.

Other early Christianity relics that exist in today’s Turkey are the “Seven Churches of Revelation”. The Book of Revelation was written about 95 A.D. by Apostle John. It is the only prophetic-based book in the New Testament. The seven churches of Revelation existed in the first century A.D. They are located at Ephesus, Smyrna (today’s Izmir), Pergamum (today’s Bergama), Thyatira (today’s Akhisar), Sardis, Philadelphia (today’s Alasehir), and Laodicea – all in today’s Turkey.

All the above Christian relics located in today’s Turkey have generated a lively “Faith Tourism”, and each year thousands of pilgrims flock to Turkey to visit those sites, and to feel the holy presence of their faith. 

Ayhan Ozer
15 May 2012