In the Bible and History
Turkey holds a place in Christian history right along side of Israel/Palestine. Not only did events in the Bible take place here, but it is the site of the early church centered on the Byzantine Empire. Anatolia is mentioned in the Bible through the Hittites, a formidable militant culture. The area was part of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born.
Many cities in this area were represented at Pentecost (Acts 2), which means the Hebrew religion had spread at least this far and Paul’s journeys took him through what is now Turkey several times. The seven churches of Revelation are located in this area. When Constantine split the Eastern and Western parts of his Empire, the Eastern capitol was placed in Byzantium and called Constantinople (It is known today as Istanbul).
Look at a map and note the familiar Biblical names of Harran where Abraham lived; Mt. Ararat where Noah’s boat landed; Antioch where the believers were first called Christians; Ephesus where a significant church was founded and where Paul’s presence caused a riot; Tarsus where Paul was born; Cappadocia where early Christian fled when persecuted; and Myra where St. Nicholas was born.
The early Ecumenical Councils took place in this area and are known by the cities in which they were convened. We hear of the Council of Ephesus, Council of Nicaea (Iznik) the Council of Constantinople and the 451 Council of Chalcedon that caused the great scism in the church. Even after Islam came to the area, Christians remained in large numbers for centuries and it was from Turkey that the Russians were converted to Orthodox Christianity.
Today’s Turkey is a secular state with clear limitations on religion and religious institutions. Churches are allowed to sponsor lower schools but not college or graduate education. Members of all religious groups are prohibited from wearing religious garb in public but Bibles are published and sold without restriction.
Istanbul is still the home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and an Armenian Patriarch. The Christian community is less than 1% of the total population and includes Armenian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox, as well as the predominant Greek Orthodox, all greatly reduced in number from the 19th century. There are also a few Catholic and Protestant parishes.
In the southeastern parts of Turkey the remains of very old Syriac churches are still present along with Syriac villages but it is considered too dangerous to go there because of Kurdish resistence groups. Mardin’s Mar Gabriel Monastery is the most famous and is still active today
Special Sites to Visit
This is an unusually well preserved Roman city that was the site of an early Christian church. It was here that Paul challenged the craftsmen who produced images of the goddess Artemis, by preaching Christianity. The amphitheater where this happened is still in good condition along with the library and temples.
Cappadocia is a region where early Christians took refuge from Roman persecution. It is dotted with natural volcanic rock formations that were carved into homes, chapels and huts for hermits. Religious cave paintings are still visible inside some of the cones known as fairy chimneys.
Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium)
This city is simply full of religious monuments and history and ought to be explored primarily on foot.
Hagia Sophia Museum was built by Constantine the Great as a church, and reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century. For 1000 years it was the largest church in the Christian world and is still is overwhelming today. In 1453 when the Turks conquered Istanbul the basilica was turned into a mosque, minarets were built and the mosaics were covered over. In the 1930s Ataturk converted it to a museum as a part of his secularization of the country.
Fascinating cities full of ruins are found all over the country but even those with familiar names from the Bible have only a few notable sites within them.
For More Information
Embassy to USA
1714 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-659-8200; fax: 202-659-0744
Embassy to UK
43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Tel: 020-659-8200; fax: 7393 0066
Two notable books on religious sites are: Biblical Sites in Turkey by Everett C. Blake and Anna G. Edmonds and Turkey’s Religious Sites by Anna G. Edmonds
Notes from Personal Visits
Istanbul has another good souk to visit even if you are not a shopper. Leather goods and carpets and kilims are among the good buys.
Ride the ferry out of Istanbul even if just for the trip and the view
There are small ancient mosques as well as old churches in Istanbul but it helps if you can find someone to take you around to find them.