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Photo of the ruins of St John's Church in Alaşehir
Wreck of faith in Philadelphia

Posted on 25 April 2013, 0:28

Seven churches: Intro Pergamum Thyatira Smyrna Laodicea Philadelphia Sardis Ephesus Patmos

My set of pics for this post: Philadelphia

There’s not much left of Philadelphia, despite it having the most modern-sounding name of all the seven churches of the Apocalypse. All that remains is a piece of ground the size of a postage stamp, and on it the noble wreck of a gigantic church in a garden neatly tended with rose bushes and palm trees.

The church is dedicated to St John, in keeping with its spiritual link to the visionary exile of Patmos. Churches with the St John name keep cropping up on this tour, with branches of the franchise in Ephesus and Pergamum as well as here. The names of ancient churches say a lot, and these ones tell us that the St John connection was deeply felt and treasured.

We drove to Alaşehir (Philly’s modern name) this afternoon after lunch outside Laodicea in a roadside restaurant the size of a palace, with its own luxury swimming pool. We luckily arrived just before a couple of coachloads of Japanese tourists debouched into the restaurant and began raiding the vast buffet of delicious Turkish food. These restaurants are definitely the way to go if you’re ever travelling in Turkey.

Ninety minutes of driving later and we pulled up at the St John’s postage stamp. It’s set in a sleepy neighbourhood of houses, trees, birdsong, men sitting out on the pavement talking and one or two shops. The little blue mosque opposite the church gate has a minaret that looks like Thunderbird One.

Beyond the gate, three massive piers which once marked the great church’s crossing erupt from the ground and tower over the garden, while only the footprint of the fourth pier remains in a great hole five or six metres deep. The piers were originally lined with slim slabs of fine marble, but now their naked Byzantine brickwork provides a nesting place for birds.

In a little office at the back of the site, Umit, a tall, handsome gentleman, the guardian of the monument, sits at his desk enjoying a quiet smoke and a cup of mud-like Turkish coffee. He tells Seher, our guide, that before the separation of the Greek and Turkish populations in 1923, the Muslim and Christian families here lived happily together, and remarkably, that some Turkish people became Christians.

He directs us to gravestones in the gardens which witness to this. They were brought here from the local churches when the Greek families left and the churches were turned into mosques. One of them from 1890 has the surname Lokman in Greek lettering. ‘It’s a very Turkish name,’ Seher tells me.

The sad exodus of the Greek population from their ancestral homes in Turkey to modern-day Greece marked the final full stop of the Christian mission to Asia Minor led by St Paul and St John in the 1st century.

‘These are the words of the one who opens and nobody shuts, who shuts and nobody opens,’ says Jesus in the letter to the Philadelphian church.

What does it mean when the most dynamic region of growth in the early church – this region of the seven churches – is shut with no possibility of opening 20 centuries later? What does it mean when the living faith of the Philadelphians ends up as a giant brick wreck in a garden?

I suddenly realise something obvious: every one of John’s seven churches is now dead. But it feels most obvious here in Philadelphia. Thankfully, we leave before the call to prayer can bang in the final nail.

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