Walking in Pergamum
Posted on 22 April 2013, 2:29
Seven churches: Intro Pergamum Thyatira Smyrna Laodicea Philadelphia Sardis Ephesus Patmos
My set of pics for this post: Pergamum
We were on the road out of Izmir by 9 o’clock, and Pala, the driver of our white people carrier who looks a lot like MP George Galloway and drives with the same sort of take-no-hostages philosophy, soon had us speeding away from the city. Our guide Seher started briefing us about the day ahead and showed us an excellent book we should have read before coming here, Mark Wilson’s Biblical Turkey.
Izmir is ancient Smyrna, the first of Revelation’s seven churches, but it’s now a city of 3 million people with houses densely carpeting the little hills, and precious little is left of the old Roman town. We stayed here last night, lulled to sleep by the neighbourhood mosque’s call to prayer and then rudely woken by it before breakfast.
Just over an hour later we stepped out in a wash of spring sunshine at the Pergamum cable car. Pergamum is perched on a rocky hill 300m above the valley floor and was once the ruling city of the region. It’s now a toppled ruin, with the modern city of Bergama sprawled across the valley below.
Exiting the cable car at the top, we were greeted by a small bazaar of colourful shops selling fruit, hats, postcards, t-shirts and little statues of the goddess Diana of the Ephesians. Handy if you want to take one home to worship.
Ignoring all that, we were soon on the ancient city’s acropolis, poking around the beautiful and melancholy fallen masonry of the Greek world. In the 1970s, some of the marble columns and lintels of the Temple of Trajan were raised from the grass where they had fallen centuries earlier, and they now crown the hill. There’s something timeless and dreamlike, seeing these gleaming white pillars against the deep blue sky.
The letter to the church in Pergamum in John’s Apocalypse says, ‘I know where you live – where Satan has his throne.’ John is highly hostile and exclusive in his faith claims, and all the temples, altars and shrines we saw today here – to Athena, Zeus, Demeter, Dionysus and the Emperor Trajan – must have riled John to bits and help explain his ‘Satan’ remark.
My imagination was snagged, though, by the Library of Pergamum, or what is left of it. The library was second only to the Library of Alexandria in the Greek world, and held 200,000 works in scroll and book form. In fact, Alexandria was so infuriated by its rival that it banned the export of papyrus in the hope that Pergamum’s supply of books would dry up. Pergamum responded by inventing parchment (the word derives from ‘Pergamum’) made of calfskin.
None of the works held by this amazing library remain here, though. All I could see was an avenue of broken columns where scholars once walked, and a wide pavement where the reading room once stood, with the wrecked base of a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Athena is now in Berlin – she was carried off there by zealous German archaeologists in the 19th century – while the 200,000 books were all handed over to Alexandria in the end, when Mark Anthony gave them to Cleopatra as a wedding present. The librarians of Pergamum must have died of grief as their books were carted off for ever.
We walked down to the dramatic hillside theatre, the steepest of the ancient theatres, where 10,000 spectators once watched Greek dramas; down to the vast gyms, which were on three levels, for boys, young men and adults; and on through acres of ordinary housing which now lie under mounds of grass.
We found a decent-sized tortoise stuck in the upended stones of one house and rescued it. In a hall next to the temple of Demeter we saw fine floor mosaics with theatres masks – grinning and grotesque – depicted in medallions.
The vastness of the site gave me an appreciation of the splendour and power of Pergamum, and what the young church here was up against. To be a Christian in the early years of the faith, dissenting in such a potent cultural context, would require a lot of courage. Reading John’s letter again with the temples, roads, altars, gymnasia and theatre in mind, I can see him giving his readers some help by putting fire into their faith.