Antakya is a large but average-looking city in southeast Turkey, just 12 miles from the Syrian border. A modern visitor to Antakya would not likely think the city has any great significance, but beneath his feet lie the silent remains of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, the city once called "the fair crown of the Orient."
Antioch was a city of great religious importance. It was the home of several Roman temples and its suburb, Daphne, was held to be the very place where Daphne was turned into a laurel tree to escape the affections of Apollo. Antioch had also been the home of a large Jewish community since the city's founding in 300 BC. Antioch played an especially important role in Christian history: it was the base for Paul's missionary journeys, where Jesus’ followers were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26) and where the Gospel of Matthew was probably written. Antioch hosted a number of church councils, developed its own characteristic school of biblical interpretation, and produced such influential Christian figures as the martyr-bishop Ignatius of Antioch, the pillar-saint Simeon and the "golden-mouthed" preacher John Chrysostom. [More Info]
Aphrodisias is one of the oldest sacred sites in Turkey. Dedicated to the ancient Mother Goddess and then the Greek goddess Aphrodite, it was the site of a magnificent Temple of Aphrodite and the home of a renowned school of marble sculpture.
The Temple of Aphrodite later became a Christian basilica through an impressive swapping of columns.
Today, the Temple of Aphrodite is well-preserved and partially restored; it is not hard to imagine its ancient splendor. Aphrodisias also offers ruins of a large theater, a stadium and other structures, as well as an on-site museum displaying artifacts.
What to See
The extensive ruins of Aphrodisias are picturesquely situated among fertile fields and cypress groves. The site is less crowded than Ephesus, but most guided tours stop at Aphrodisias en route to Hierapolis/Pamukkale. You can also take a day tour to Aphrodisias using Kusadasi as a base.
The first structure you see upon entry to the site is the Tetrapylon, a lovely 2nd-century gateway with four groups of four Corinthian columns (from which it gets its name). It was extensively repaired and re-erected in 1990. The front row of Corinthian columns, with spiral fluting, face the north-south street. The second and third columns are topped by a semicircular lintel with relief figures of Nike and Erotes amid acanthus leaves.
Fourteen columns of the Ionic Temple of Aphrodite have been re-erected. It was an "octastyle" temple, with 13 columns on each side and eight columns at the front and back. On some of the columns are inscribed the names of the donors who presented them to the temple.
In the 5th century the temple was turned into a Christian basilica. The new basilica was 60 x 28 m in size, much larger than the pagan temple it replaced. The church had an apse and a synthronon (a stepped bank of clergy benches) at the east end, and a pair of nartheces at the west fronted by a colonnaded courtyard or atrium. From a Middle Byzantine renovation are parts of a marble floor and wall paintings running under the synthronon that depict Christ and various saints.
The theater of Aphrodisias was completed in 27 BC and later modified by the Romans for gladiatorial combat.
The stadium is one of the best preserved from the classical era and has a unique elliptical shape. It was specially designed for athletic contests, and Aphrodisias was granted the honor of hosting games in Roman times, modeled on the Pythian games held in Greece. After the theater was damaged in the 7th century earthquake, the eastern end of the stadium began to be used for games, circuses and wild beast shows.
The north agora is a large public square (202 X 72 m), originally enclosed by stoas (porches) on all sides. Parts of the south and east stoas have remained standing since antiquity, and the north stoa was partially uncovered in excavations in the 1960s. Archaeologists believe this was the original center of Hellenistic Aphrodisias.
The Sebastion, discovered in 1979, was a Temple of Augustus used for performing the cult of the Roman emperor (Sebastos is the Greek form of Augustus). The temple consisted of two porticoes (80 m long) made of half-columns and a ceremonial way (14 m wide). At the western end was a gate or propylon opening on to the street.
All that remains of the temple are the foundations, a few column bases, Corinthian style capitals and architrave blocks. However, around the porticoes a great quantity of reliefs and decorative panels have been discovered .
The large Baths of Hadrian, built across the west end of the South Agora, were massively constructed from large tufa-like blocks faced with marble veneer, and are composed of five great barrel-vaulted chambers, with an imposing colonnaded court in front. The baths, the forecourt, and the west stoa of the South Agora (which led into the complex) were richly decorated with sculpture of important persons. These are now in the Aphrodisias Museum and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
The well-preserved bouleuterion or odeon (city council chambers), looks like a small theater. Indeed, it was used for musical performances as well as council meetings. Excavations uncovered eight larger-than-life marble statues, which decorated the stage front. The statues included a personification of the citizenry of Aphrodisias and Apollo holding a lyre (which reflect the two uses of the building); the rest were portraits of important citizens.
West of the bouleuterion is a sizeable building complex constructed in the Late Roman period. Part of the building is may have been used in the Byzantine period as the Bishop's palace.
The Sculptor's Workshop that produced the world-renowned marble sculptures occupied two rooms of a small stoa north of the Bouleuterion, together with the open area immediately south of these rooms. Excavations here in the 1960s uncovered stone-carving tools, 25 half-finished statues, and practice pieces carved by apprentices.
The Aphrodisias Museum (on site) displays some of the city's famous marble sculptures. It also includes the cult statue of Aphrodite that stood in the temple, which is unique and interesting. Excavators of Aphrodisias describe the statue as follows:
Like them [other Anatolian deities], the Aphrodisian goddess stands in a stiff frontal pose, with her upper arms pressed close to her body and her hands extended forward. Her most distinctive attribute is her heavy overgarment (known as an ependytes) that conceals most of her body.
The front of this garment is divided into horizontal zones, each of which is filled with complex figural reliefs.... It is this series of reliefs that distinguishes the Aphrodisian goddess and shows her individual significance. Each motif symbolizes part of the goddess's divine identity and mythological sphere of power; they include the three Graces, Selene, Helios, erotes, and Aphrodite herself, here shown not in her distinctive local guise but in a more traditional Hellenistic mode of presentation: half-nude and seated on a seagoat, accompanied by a dolphin and a triton.
Furthermore, the particular division of Aphrodite's ependytes communicates the fundamental conception of Aphrodite as a goddess of earth, heaven, and sea. [More Info]
Didyma, on the west coast of Turkey, was an important sacred site in the ancient Greek world. Its famous oracle and Temple of Apollo attracted crowds of pilgrims and was second in importance only to Delphi.
Today, the temple's magnificent ruins still attract thousands of visitors — Didyma is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Turkey. The village's modern name is Yenihisar.
What to See
The design of the Temple of Apollo was influenced by the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Temple of Hera at Samos, as it was designed by the renowned architects who worked on all of these temples, Paionius of Ephesus and Daphnis of Miletus.
Originally, 122 enormous Ionic columns surrounded the temple; today only three remain intact. Dating from the 2nd century BC, the columns are 60 feet tall (the height of a six-story building) and have a diameter of 6 feet at the base. Even the stumps of columns that fell are impressive in size and display beautiful carvings at their base.
The temple as a whole was 90 feet high and approached by 14 steps. The cella (roofed chamber) has two Ionic columns supporting the roof and opens on the north and south sides to small chambers containing staircases, which may have led to a terrace on the cella roof.
In the western end of the cella are three doors that lead to a great staircase to the adyton, to which only the priests and oracles had access. This sacred precinct was never roofed. Within the adyton is a small naiskos (chapel) that held the cult statue and the sacred spring. This is where the priestess of Apollo uttered her oracles (see above for procedure). [More Info]
The ancient city of Ephesus (Turkish: Efes), located near the Aegean Sea in modern day Turkey, was one of the great cities of the Greeks in Asia Minor.
In ancient times Ephesus was the home of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today, the ruins of Ephesus are a major tourist attraction, especially for travelers on Mediterranean cruises. Ephesus remains a sacred site for Christians due to its association with several biblical figures, including St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary.
The religious history of ancient Ephesus was the subject of the webmaster's MPhil thesis at Oxford (completed in June 2007), so this section is becoming more comprehensive than most - including the most detailed map of Ephesus on the Web! You can read an excerpt of my thesis here. [More Info]
Göreme Open Air Museum, Cappadocia
Cappadocia's most famous attraction, for good reason, is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a complex of several painted cave-churches carved out by Orthodox monks between 900 and 1200 AD.
The Open Air Museum is located in Turkey's Göreme Valley, a 15-minute walk (1.5 km/1 mile) from Göreme and a short ride (6.5 km, 4 miles) from Ürgüp.
What to See
There are at least 10 churches and chapels in the museum area, each one named for a prominent attribute by the local villagers who were exploring these caves long before there was an entrance fee. The best way to approach the site is to begin in a counterclockwise direction towards a clearly marked path.
The paintings and decoration represent a flowering of a uniquely Cappadocian artistic style. During the Iconoclastic period, many of the frescoes and paintings were damaged, while the eyes of the images were scratched out by the local Turkish population superstitious of the "evil eye."
The Byzantine architectural features of the churches, such as arches, columns, and capitals, are interesting in that none of them is structurally necessary.
Past a small rock tower or Monks' Convent is the Church of St. Basil, whose entrance is hollowed out with niches for small graves. This is a common feature of Cappadocian churches and it's still not uncommon to reach down and come up with a knuckle bone every now and again in the more remote valleys. Another recurring theme in Cappadocian churches is the image of St. George slaying the dragon. St. George was considered a local hero, as local lore equated the dragon with a monster on the summit of Mount Erciyes. The church is decorated with scenes of Christ, with St. Basil and St. Theodore depicted on the north wall.
The Apple Church (Elmali Kilise) is one of the smaller churches in the area, carved in the sign of a Greek cross with four irregular pillars supporting a central dome. The church was restored in 1991, but the frescoes continue to chip off, revealing a layer of earlier paintings underneath. Paintings depict scenes of the saints, bishops, and martyrs, and to the right of the altar, a Last Supper with the symbolic fish (the letters of the word fish in Greek stand for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Savior"). The name of the church is believed to refer to a reddish orb in the left hand of the Archangel Michael in the dome of the main apse, although there's also speculation that there used to be an apple tree at the entrance to the church.
Santa Barbara was an Egyptian saint imprisoned by her father to protect her from the influences of Christianity. When she nevertheless found a way to practice her faith, her father tortured and killed her. The Church of Santa Barbara, probably built as a tribute, is a cross-domed church with three apses, with mostly crudely painted geometrical patterns in red ochre believed to be symbolic in nature. The wall with the large locust probably represents evil, warded off by the protection of two adjacent crosses. The repetitive line of bricks above the rooster in the upper right-hand corner, symbolically warding off the evil influences of the devil, represents the Church.
The Snake Church is a simple barrel-vaulted church with a low ceiling and long nave. One fresco represents Saints Theodore and George slaying the dragon (looking suspiciously like a snake), with Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena depicted holding the "True Cross." Legend has it that she discovered the cross upon which Jesus was crucified after seeing it in a dream, and that a piece of the cross is still buried in the foundations of the Ayasofya in Istanbul. Other sections of the cross are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and in St. Peter's in Rome. Another interesting portrait is the one of St. Onuphrius on the upper wall to the right of the entrance. The saint, a popular subject in medieval art, lived the life of a hermit in the Egyptian desert near Thebes and is usually depicted with a long gray beard and a fig leaf over his privates. [More Info]
Hierapolis, whose name means "sacred city," was believed by the ancients to have been founded by the god Apollo. It was famed for its sacred hot springs, whose vapors were associated with Pluto, god of the underworld. The city also had a significant Jewish community and was mentioned by Paul in his Letter to Colossians.
Today, Hierapolis is a World Heritage Site and popular tourist destination. In addition to interesting Roman ruins, the site offers a thermal Sacred Pool in which you can swim with ancient artifacts, a view of the spectacular white terraces of Pamukkale, and a good museum.
In the Bible
Hierapolis is mentioned only once in the Bible, when St. Paul praises Epaphras, a Christian from Colossae, in his letter to the Colossians. Paul writes that Epaphras "has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis" (Colossians 4:12-13). Epaphras was probably the founder of the Christian community at Hierapolis.
Ancient tradition also associates Hierapolis with a biblical figure, reporting that Philip died in Hierapolis around 80 AD. However, it is not clear which Philip is menat. It could be Philip the Apostle, one of the original 12 disciples, who is said to have been martyred by upside-down crucifixion (Acts of Philip) or by being hung upside down by his ankles from a tree.
Or Philip could be Philip the Evangelist, a later disciple who helped with administrative matters and had four virgin-prophetess daughters (Acts 6:1-7; 21:8-9). Early traditions say this Philip was buried in Hierapolis along with his virgin daughters, but confusingly call him "Philip the Apostle"! In any case, it seems a prominent person mentioned in Acts did die in Hierapolis.
What to See
Long before you arrive in Hierapolis, you can see the gleaming white travertine terraces of Pamukkale, located next to the ruins of Hierapolis. The extraordinary effect is created when water from the hot springs loses carbon dioxide as it flows down the slopes, leaving deposits of limestone. The layers of white calcium carbonate, built up in steps on the plateau, gave the site the name Pamukkale ("cotton castle"). Unfortunately, but understandably, visitors are no longer allowed to walk on the terraces in order to protect them from damage.
A good place to start your tour is the small but excellent Pamukkale Museum, located near the parking area and housed in part of the south Roman baths (early 2nd century BC). The displays are presented attractively and include signs in Turkish and English. The collections include coins, jewelry, sarcophagi and architectural fragments among other items; the highlights are the statues and reliefs.
After the museum, there is a lot to see among the ruins of Hierapolis. Most of what you see today is from the Roman period, as the original Hellenistic city was destroyed by successive earthquakes in 17 AD and 60 AD. The site is surrounded by Byzantine walls, outside of which is an extensive necropolis.
Nearest the museum is a complex that includes the Sacred Pool, a colonnaded street, and a basilica church. The Sacred Pool is warmed by hot springs and littered with underwater fragments of ancient marble columns. Possibly associated with the Temple of Apollo, the pool provides today's visitors a rare opportunity to swim with antiquities! During the Roman period, columned porticoes surrounded the pool; earthquakes toppled them into the water where they lie today.
Behind the Sacred Pool is the nymphaeum, a monumental fountain that distributed water to the city. Dating from the 4th century AD, it has been partially restored. Three walls surround a basin of water, which was approached by steps on the open side. Statues filled the niches in the walls. [More Info]