20 August 2010

A pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint John the Evangelist and a Byzantine basilica

The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Aysoluk to the hill above the town of Selçuk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Selçuk is a charming town 20 km (12 miles) north-east of Kuşadasi, and 5 km from Ephesus. It was originally called Aghios Theologos (Άγιος Θεολόγος), after Saint John the Divine or Saint John the Theologian, and from this it derived its Ottoman Turkish name, Ayasluğ. Statistically, this is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Turkey. However, moist of those tourists are only passing through and few of them stop here on their way to the city of Ephesus, the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or the reputed House of Mary at nearby Meryemana, or as they catch a dolmuş to the pretty mountainside village of Şirince, with its bitter tale of the forced eviction of its Greek-speaking people in 1923.

But Selçuk has its own charms. After a morning spent by the pool at Palmin Sunset Plaza Hotel, it took only two dolmuş trips, costing 6YTL (€4) in all and less than an hour in travel time, to get to Selçuk on Wednesday afternoon.

There may have been a settlement here from as early as 2000 BC, and this may have been the original location of Ephesus before a new town was built closer to the Temple of Artemis. The present town of Selçuk first grew up around the slopes beneath the church where Saint John was said to have lived after his exile on Patmos ended and where he was buried at the turn of the first and second centuries.

Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s.

The evangelist was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.” One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

By the fifth century, the harbour of Ephesus was silting up. As Ephesus was abandoned in stages, the village on the slopes of the hill developed into a large town. The Goths had sacked the Temple of Artemis in 263 AD and the Byzantines later carted off most of the remaining masonry to supplement building materials for the burgeoning town around the basilica on the hill.

The remains of the Basilica of Saint John the Divine and the later Byzantine fortress share the peak and still dominate both the town and the surrounding countryside. This was one of the largest and most ornate basilicas in the Byzantine world until it was razed by Tamerlane’s Mongols over 600 years ago in 1402. Modern restoration works, mainly in redbrick, has been carried out by the University of Pamukkale and some US foundations, and give some idea of the extent and the majesty of this holy site.

The Gate of Persecution was once decorated with a carved relief of Achilles in combat (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The site is approached through the through the three-arched “Gate of Persecution,” with square towers on either side – one of the original gates of the city walls surrounding the basilica. It was named the “Gate of Persecution” in the Byzantine era not because of the earlier persecutions of Christians but because it was once adorned by a carved relief of Achilles in combat – which was mistaken for a depiction of the martyrdom of Christians in the amphitheatre in Ephesus.

The “Gate of Persecution” opens into a courtyard with some monumental inscriptions that were removed where from neighbouring Ephesus. But beyond the courtyard, the buildings are from a later date.

Initially, a simple church structure may have been built over the Apostle’s grave. But by the fifth century there was a long-standing basilica with a wooden roof on the site. Following its destruction by an earthquake in the early fifth century, a new basilica was built the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who also built Aghia Sophia in Byzantium and the fortified Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai.

The site of Saint John’s tomb is marked by a marble plaque and four Byzantine pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Inside, the ruined basilica, the site of the original tomb, where the bema or altar once stood, is marked out by four marble columns from the Middle Byzantine period (10th to 12th centuries). Originally, the remains of three tombs were found when the crypt below was excavated, and the tomb at the centre was believed to be Saint John’s. But his relics were brought to Byzantium in the 13th century and the tomb has remained empty ever since.

The Baptistery has a cross-shaped baptismal pool which was entered and left by three steep steps at each end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

On the northern side of the church, the Baptistery dates from the pre-Justinian church. It has a round baptismal pool at the centre of a cross-shaped plan. The candidates for baptism descended, and subsequently ascended from the pool by three steep steps of stairs on each side, forming the head and the base of the cross. Two square pools for fresh water complete the arms on each side of the cross. Halls at each end of the Baptistery were used for rituals before and after baptism, and the channels for bringing in fresh water can still be seen in the floor of the basilica.

An elaborate marble fountain was supplied with fresh waters from the channels that once brought water to the pool in the Baptistery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Baptistery ceased to be used and was closed off after the Emperor Justinian built his six-domed basilica. The flowing waters from the channels were diverted to an elaborate, ornamented marble fountain built at the door.

The basilica also has a unique Treasury (Skeuophylakion) in the north transept. This circular treasury has corner rooms, and a two-storey structure, with niches opening out into the centre to hold the sacred vessels and treasures of the church. The only other circular-plan treasury in a Byzantine church is at Aghia Sophia.

Scattered around the basilica and in the courtyard are stones with inscriptions in Greek that are still legible (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010).

Beside the western atrium of the basilica lay the ruins of a second church and a monastery still awaiting excavation. Above the basilica, the Byzantine castle appears like a crown decorating the top of the hill, with its 15 towers, but it has been closed for excavation and restoration work for some years following the partial collapse of one of its walls.

The grand entrance of the Isa Bey Camii, beneath the Basilica of Saint John, but does it stand on the site of an earlier church? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The site looks down on the ruins of the Temple of Artemis. But immediately below the basilica on the slope of the hill is the Isa Bey Camii, a grand mosque, built by the Seljuk Turks in 1375 and representing the transition between the Seljuk and Ottoman styles of architecture.

The mosque probably stands on the site of an earlier church – Isa Bey was the name of a Turkish warrior, but the name in Turkish also translates as “Lord Jesus.” Did the mosque replace a church named after Christ, perhaps the Church of the Pantocrator, for inside the mosque there are signs of earlier work, including Roman columns that support the high, gabled roof?

A unique pair of domes in the main prayer hall was once matched outside by two minarets at each side of the courtyard. One fell, the other was badly damaged in earthquakes, and the tall stump of the remaining minaret is home to nesting storks.

The courtyard is breath-taking in its beauty, and its trees offered welcome shade on an afternoon when temperatures had risen to 38 or 39. Over against one high wall, beneath the atrium of the basilica, old headstones stand side-by-side in a line, inscribed in old Ottoman script that is as illegible to most Turks today as the Greek inscriptions found in the basilica above.

A stall outside the Isa Bey Camii sells souvenir statues of both Artemis and of the Virgin Mary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Outside the mosque, a souvenir stall sells statues of both Artemis and of the Virgin Mary, incongruously side-by-side, the stallholder perhaps unaware of either Saint Paul’s sermon in Ephesus that angered the manufacturers of statues of Artemis (Acts 19: 23 – 20: 1) or of the decrees of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, declaring the Virgin Mary to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

The lone remaining column of the Temple of Artemis, seen from the streets below the hill of Aysoluk in Selçuk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A few steps away, goats graze in a field between the fenced-off remains of a 14th century bath-house and the lone remaining column of the Temple of Artemis.

Around the Isa Bey mosque and beneath the basilica, the old quarter of Selçuk remains generally undisturbed and undeveloped. A decade before Ataturk rose to power, the town was renamed Selçuk in 1914, after the Seljuk Turks who settled in the region in the 12th century. It could be easy to get lost here in the back streets that look like a Cretan village from decades ago.

The back streets of Selçuk look like a Cretan village from decades ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The streets are lined with pomegranate trees, olive trees covered at the base in Greek-style white protective line, and almond trees now blossoming with white flowers. The balconies of houses are dripping with vines full of maturing bunches of grapes, or with the riotous colours of hibiscus and bougainvillea in full bloom.

As I sipped Turkish coffee in the shade in the delightful and slightly eccentric Karameşe Restaurant, across the street from the “Rebetika Boutique Hotel,” I wondered whether this area was once home to Muslims from Crete after the “population exchanges” of the 1920s.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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