Hydraulic cranes of Laodicea
Posted on 24 April 2013, 1:54
Seven churches: Intro Pergamum Thyatira Smyrna Laodicea Philadelphia Sardis Ephesus Patmos
My set of pics for this post: Laodicea
Laodicea is a bad place to build a town. You wouldn’t think so as you drive up the low ridge it sits on, overlooking the flat and fertile valley floor with distant snow-capped mountains floating magically above the nearer hills.
Today, as we pass between the stone towers of the eastern gate, we’re surrounded by dense banks of spring flowers, the poppies the deepest red you could think of, and birdsong sweet and intense.
It must once have seemed a good idea to build here. The town is slap on the major east-west commercial road across Asia Minor and made itself rich in trade and banking just by putting itself in the right place.
The Laodiceans must have loved everything about their beautiful and prosperous setting – except for the earthquakes. Quakes visited the city in the 1st century reigns of the Emperors Augustus, Claudius and Nero, and that final one in the year 60 was a raze. Nothing was left standing. The city was rich enough to rebuild itself without outside aid, but it toppled again around the year 500 and then again around 600, after which they called it a day. There have been no Laodiceans in the 1,400 years since.
But one of the first things we see as we walk here today is a giant yellow hydraulic crane raising and positioning huge blocks of ancient stone. Sending one of those babies back in time would be an untold blessing to the ancient builders, I can’t help thinking. Turkey is putting vast sums of money into excavating and reconstructing the ruins, with hundreds of workers onsite. Laodicea is rising one more time, until the next seismic twitch.
We walk up the main street, the sun beating down, the lizards flicking between stones. Either side of us is an avenue of free-standing columns, and behind them are the broken walls and doorways of the shops which once did a roaring trade here. The arrangement of columns and shops is very contemporary and I feel at home.
For some reason, my eyes are drawn to the marble threshold slabs in the doorways, worn to a polish by the feet of customers whose shopping days are long gone, with the deep ridge cut in the stone where the vanished shop door would have shut tight. In the back rooms grass grows where wine, olives, fabrics, furniture and fruit were once stored.
At the top end of town we turn left and the street ahead is choked with large chunks of marble. Broken columns, snapped lintels carved with flowers, smashed slabs inscribed in Greek and even one or two battered crosses lie where they fell on a day of doom centuries ago.
We’ve seen a lot of ancient rubble the past couple of days, but the sight of this ruined street is oddly moving. All the beauty, ingenuity, aspiration and dignity of the Laodiceans lies wrecked here, down to the last little chip of stone with a bird carved in it, ground to forgotten gravel by the earth-shaking machine of time. Looking at it, you know it is also about you, and how you and your all-important life and culture will look a couple of millennia from now.
Having said that, Laodicea remains impressive and beautiful, from its elegant and spacious forum to the two theatres carved into the hillsides and positioned just right so they get air-conditioning from the afternoon breezes. The town had water piped in from the hot springs of Hierapolis, 8km up the road – although it arrived lukewarm. We see the terracotta pipes running down many of the streets.
That plumbing detail is an abrupt reminder of John’s letter to the Laodicean church, and it’s the most memorable of all the seven letters. ‘I know your works,’ says Jesus in the letter. ‘You aren’t hot and you aren’t cold. I wish you were one or the other, but instead you’re lukewarm. That’s why I’m going to vomit you out of my mouth!’
The ballsy language of that passage has always appealed to me. When you look at the wreck of the human home that was once Laodicea, you know that hard to hear, colourful language is sometimes the only thing that will do.
But actually, standing today in one of the empty streets, facing a doorway that was once someone’s welcoming home, but behind which is now a waist-high bank of earth carpeted in poppies, it’s the last section of John’s letter I hear in my head. The words are also famous.
‘I stand at your door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.’
As long as we have doors to call our own, as long as we have ears to hear a voice, as long as we have love to open our hearts, God can come to us.
But only that long.