A Pilgrimage to the Holy Apostle John at Ephesus

Two parishioners of our Sisterhood recently made a pilgrimage to Ephesus in Turkey, and here recount their spiritual experiences, which may interest the readers of this site.

Orthodoxy in Turkey

On the eve of the First World War, the Christian population of the area covered by the modern Turkish Republic amounted to about one third. The great majority of Christians were Orthodox Greeks or Armenians. Presently, Christians amount to 0.13% of the population. How did this catastrophe (as the Greeks so rightly call it) come about? How did Asia Minor, which heard the preaching of the Holy Apostle Paul and which produced a multitude of saints, commencing with the Great Martyr Polycarp of Smyrna, find itself reduced to a land almost without churches?

Of course the invasion and settlement of the land by Turkish peoples in the late Byzantine period radically affected its demography, but the final destruction came much more recently. In 1915, the Armenians (most of them members of their own national Church, close to but not in Communion with, the rest of the Orthodox) suffered the most appalling of the many massacres they had received at the hands of the Ottoman government. They call it with justification an organised genocide. The result was the complete disappearance of Armenians from Turkey, except in Constantinople (Istanbul) itself.

In 1922 this was followed by the so-called exchange of populations, in which the Greek Orthodox, who occupied much of the coastal region, were expelled to Greece in exchange for a much smaller number of Muslims living in Crete and Thessalonica, though again, the Greeks of Constantinople were spared. Even Turkish-speaking Orthodox were not exempt, showing that the real basis for the agreement was religious and not ethnic. Within a few years, these two tragedies had removed several million people from the land of their ancestors and their holy places.

At the present time, the Orthodox Church in Turkey comprises 1) the Greeks in Istanbul and some nearby islands (called interestingly, Romans – Rumi – by both Turks and Arabs) who belong to the once mighty Ecumenical Patriarchate but who are reduced to a few thousand souls; 2) some Arabic speaking Orthodox in the far south-east who still live around what is left of ancient Antioch (modern Antalya); and 3) an increasing number of recently arrived Romanians and Russians. Perhaps this latter group may begin to reverse the otherwise universal decline.

The History of Christian Ephesus

Of all the many holy places which used to fill Asia Minor, none was more venerated than Ephesus. Here the Apostle and Theologian John had written his Gospel and been buried, and here the Third Ecumenical Council had been held and the Blessed Virgin proclaimed to be truly Mother of God ("Theotokos"). Even today, there is much to be seen.

Our Saviour Jesus Christ, whilst hanging upon the Cross, entrusted His Mother to the care of His beloved Disciple John (Jn 19:26-27). The exact year of the Mother of God’s Dormition is not known. The tradition preserved at Jerusalem is that it took place about eleven years after the Resurrection and that during those years she had lived in the house of Saint John on Mount Sion. She was buried at Gethsemane where her Holy Tomb is still venerated. This is the tradition now enshrined in the Orthodox service books. It could only have been after this, therefore, that the Theologian journeyed to Ephesus. Together with his disciple, the Deacon Prochorus, he arrived at the great city and port of Asia and lived the rest of his long life there with the exception of the period of his exile to Patmos during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). All this and more can be read in his Life in our Synaxarion or any Orthodox collection of the lives of the saints.

It is well-known that when the disciples returned to the place of his burial the Apostle’s body was not found (as had previously occurred at the burial of the Mother of God). But the spot where he had been interred, just outside Ephesus, was venerated from that time onward. In the Orthodox calendar there is an additional feast to that on 26th September – on 8th May commemoration is made of the miracle that used to occur every year at Saint John’s burial place. A kind of dust or ash arose from the ground and was collected by the faithful for healing various maladies.

As soon as it became possible a large church was erected over this place and in about AD 550 the Emperor Justinian replaced it with a magnificent structure modelled on the Holy Apostles Church in Constantinople. The interior must therefore have resembled Saint Mark’s in Venice which can still be seen. Ephesus suffered many invasions and attacks over the next centuries but the church and shrine of Saint John survived until 1304 when the city finally came under Turkish rule. Justinian’s great church became a mosque but before the end of the same century was destroyed by an earthquake. This happened to several ancient churches in Asia Minor and was noted by the Christians of the region.

The Holy Sites

However, there are still many things for the modern Orthodox pilgrim to see around Ephesus. The ruins of Saint John’s church are very extensive and have been skilfully restored. The place where the main Altar stood, which was over the burial place is clearly marked and some of the surrounding columns have been re-erected. The feeling of standing on Holy Ground has not disappeared. While we stood there, a party of Orthodox Greeks arrived with their priest and we were able to join their hymns and prayers. There are now frequent pilgrimages from the Greek islands nearby.

Some distance away, in the ruins of classical Ephesus (Saint John’s is actually at a place now called Selcuk) are the remains of the great church of Saint Mary. This is also an impressive ruin and is where the Third Ecumenical Council was held in AD 431. This Council declared that Saint Mary the Virgin could be rightly called Theotokos as she was the Mother of the Incarnate Word of God. Orthodox services are occasionally permitted here also.

In another part of Ephesus can be found the badly damaged remains of the church built over the cave of the Seven Sleepers. There is little now to be seen here but once there was a large church and nearby the tombs of Saint Mary Magdalene and the Apostle Timothy. The relics of both these saints were transferred to Constantinople for safety, as early as the tenth century by the Emperor Leo the Wise.

A few kilometres away, among beautiful hills is the pretty and fertile village of Sirince (formerly Kirkinje). Until 1922 this was a completely Orthodox Greek village and its inhabitants claimed to be descended from the old inhabitants of Ephesus. Two large churches, now museums, can be visited. For the pilgrim it is a place of great sadness but it is essential to visit it.

The largest city of the region is Izmir and this of course is the Turkish name for the great and ancient port of Smyrna. This had a Christian presence not only from the time of Saint John but, as with Ephesus, from Saint Paul’s days. Before the expulsions in 1922 the majority of Smyrna’s population was Orthodox Greek and there were 55 Orthodox churches in or around the town. Not a single one can now be seen and the pilgrim can only read about past glories. Certainly there are still Christians in the city but the only visible sign is one large Roman Catholic church which is usually kept closed.

The modern Turkish attitude to Ephesus and to Christian pilgrims is not hostile. In fact they rather encourage visitors to the so-called House of Mary. This building is near Ephesus and is in Roman Catholic hands. Its supporters claim that here the Mother of God lived with Saint John and that her Dormition also took place here. As we have seen, this is not at all in accordance with Orthodox tradition and in fact has only been promoted since the 1960s. Earlier the commonly held view of Catholics was the same as that of the Orthodox and a huge Latin church of the Dormition exists on Mount Sion in Jerusalem.

We hope and pray that this little account will help Orthodox Christians to understand the importance of Ephesus, the place where the Fourth Gospel was written and its Beloved author was laid to rest, and perhaps to become pilgrims there too.

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