Living and Working in the Shadow of the Seven Churches

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May Ancient Near East Today

By: Mark Wilson

I first came to Turkey in 1992 during my doctoral research on the Book of Revelations. My visit to the Seven Churches – the seven early churches or congregations mentioned in the Book of Revelations – was life-changing. The experience birthed in me a desire to introduce others to this amazing land that, after Israel, has more biblical sites than any other country.

I soon led my first tour to Turkey, which at the time hosted few biblical and cultural tours. Today Istanbul has become one of the world’s leading travel destinations, and visits to Cappadocia and Pamukkale are “must sees” for every tourist. In the 1990s I also realized that Turkey, unlike Israel, Greece, and Italy, had virtually no scholars of early Judaism and Christianity either living there or focusing their research on Anatolia. So after an extended visit in 2001, my wife and I decided to move to Turkey so I could develop an expertise on Asia Minor. Realizing the need to develop a library focused on ancient Judaism and Christianity here, I founded the Asia Minor Research Center to support such research.

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Ballooning over Cappadocia. All images courtesy of Mark Wilson except where noted.

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Biblical Turkey, by Mark Wilson.

As I led biblical tours in Turkey, participants were always asking for reference materials on the sites. However, there were few resources in print that were historically sound; those available were either dated or incomplete. My pedagogical approach was to combine the historical, archaeological, and biblical material in a readable form that would highlight the “big picture” of each site—a feature particularly appealing to the American mindset. This body of material grew until in 2010 I approached Turkey’s leading publisher of historical and archaeological literature, Ege Yayınları, about publishing Biblical Turkey.

I wanted the book published in Turkey for several reasons. For one thing, printing the book’s numerous color pictures is much cheaper here. Also, I wanted the book widely available in Turkey at a good price, and shipping from the U.S. would have made the cost prohibitive. An added benefit to producing the book locally has been the possibility to revise and update the book easily with each new edition. Turkish tour guides in particular have been a big market for the book. Turkey’s educational system largely ignores the country’s Jewish and Christian background so most Turks know little about this part of their history. Guides want to be knowledgeable about the sites, hence they not only read my book to prepare themselves but have also requested that I conduct training seminars for them.

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Training Turkish Guides, Ephesus.

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Guide Seminar, Izmir.

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Teaching in Theater, Ephesus.

What is it like to live in Turkey today? This is a question I am frequently asked during our annual visits to the United States for reasons of family, teaching, and conferences. My wife Dindy and I have lived in Turkey since 2004, first in Izmir (ancient Smyrna) for six years, then in Istanbul for almost a year, and now in Antalya (ancient Attalia) for four years. On the surface, Turkey looks very western and modern with shopping centers, bustling airports, and fancy high-rise apartments. But soon one realizes that this land is a curious cultural mix of East and West as it continues its role as a geographic land bridge. Additionally, Turkey is 99.9% Muslim with only around 100,000 Jews and Christians remaining in the country today.

Archaeology in Turkey now is a very dynamic enterprise. A decade ago the important Christian site of Laodicea in southwestern Turkey was untouched; now it is the scene of year-round excavation and restoration. Excavations at other Seven Churches sites such as Thyatira and Derbe have also recently begun. The only two biblical sites that remain unexcavated are Colossae and Lystra. With the opening of new universities across Turkey, the plan is to have an academic archaeology department in most of the country’s 81 provinces. Archaeological publishing is also exploding. In addition to a number of refereed academic journals, there is a popular magazine called Aktüel ArkeolojiActual Archaeology released in both Turkish and English versions.

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Excavation and Restoration, Laodicea.

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Unexcavated site, Colossae.

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Unexcavated site, Lystra.

Antalya where I live is the home of the one of the finest archaeology museums in the world; it also is the location for the Mediterranean Civilizations Research Center. AKMED hosts regular archaeological seminars to a packed audience as well as international symposia such as the recent one on ancient numismatics. Its publishing arm distributes not only monographs but also a refereed journal called Adalya and Anmed, a Turkish-English digest of archaeological reports from sites in the Mediterranean region. I have the privilege to serve as the English editor for AKMED’s publications. Right now we are preparing the 2015 editions for release in May. This is the time when the Turkish Ministry of Culture holds its annual archaeology symposium. Rotating among various cities around the country, the symposium is a showcase of current archaeology in Turkey. Here the director of each site reports on its status and discoveries. I try to attend these symposia as often as possible to stay current with archaeological work, especially at biblical sites.

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AKMED Numismatics symposium.

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Archaeology Symposium, Mugla.

Turkey’s recent economic growth is reflected in the investment in archaeological museums as well. The Ephesus Museum was just remodeled, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum is in the process of remodeling, and a new museum in Antakya (Antioch on the Orontes) was just opened. With the Zeugma Museum in Gaziantep, the two largest mosaic museums in the world are now just hours apart. I haven’t seen either new museum in Gaziantep or Antakya so I plan to visit them this spring as I work on updating the book. Additionally, there are numerous smaller, regional archaeology museums in cities like Aydın that are outstanding but seldom visited by foreigners. Time is the problem. With only 10-14 days for touring, groups tend to visit the same main sites visited by other groups. It is no wonder that Ephesus has over 2 million visitors annually and that on some days it is barely possible to walk through its streets.

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Ephesus, 2005.

Of course, this increased tourist activity has been good for sales of Biblical Turkey, now in its third printing with a fourth revised edition in the works. It has been translated into German, and a Japanese edition will soon be available. This year I am writing a second volume focused only on the Seven Churches, which will provide the history, archaeology, and religious background of these well-known cities. There will a fuller description of their archaeological history and new pictures of the various monuments as well as updated site plans and illustrative maps such as the silting of the harbor in Ephesus and the water system at Laodicea. Turkey’s history and archaeology remain my calling, so I am continually inspired toward further writing and research. We have no plans to go home; Turkey is the place where we’ve chosen to live.

Mark Wilson is Director of the Asia Minor Research Center

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