On the same day we visited the Ephesus Museum and the Artemisium, we also saw the St John’s basilica. John (the apostle) came to Ephesus twice, apparently sometime around AD 37 to AD 48, and then he returned to the city at the end of his life. It’s also believed that when he first came to Ephesus, he brought the Virgin Mary with him. Near Selcuk somewhere, you can supposedly see the Virgin Mary’s house, although it sounds doubtful that this sight is much more than an excuse for an extra tourist excursion.
One of the fascinating things about the city of Ephesus is that it was moved a number of times during its lifespan. It was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the eastern Mediterranean during the Roman Empire, mainly due to the fact that it was a port city. However, the harbour slowly silted up, the sea receded further and further away, and now, there is an expansive, flat, marshy valley between ancient Ephesus, where it sits nestled between two small mountains, and the modern coast of the Aegean.
So, the basilica is in a different location, where Ephesus was later moved, and from this hilltop you can look down on the Artemisium and you can see the rolling hills that hide the impressive ruins of the city’s older incarnation.
I don’t know what exactly I expected when we started to head for the basilica. I think I pictured something more recent, or a medieval church, possibly something that was even still in use. What we actually saw surpassed all of my expectations. Although most of what you now see at the basilica is reconstructed, it is nevertheless, beautiful and amazing.
There were so many stunning marble columns, the remains of the walls and outlines of various parts of the church, and even two baptismal fonts- one a large stone waist-high basin for infants and another dug into the ground, with steps leading down either side for adult baptisms. The location of the basilica is beautiful, with an expansive view of the flat plain stretching all the way to the sea, with mountains all around, and the Isa Bey mosque below. There were olive trees and strange and wonderful flowers growing in the basilica complex, and many tall, narrow cyprus trees all around. And peace and quiet.
Very inconspicuously laid, among some marble columns, is a white marble plaque stating in Turkish and English: St Jean in mezari/the tomb of St John. There was meant to be a tomb built here for St John in the 4th century, but in the 6th century the Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the magnificent basilica in honour of the saint. While we were here, I was so happy to have earlier seen the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia) in Istanbul. From the quiet ruins it’s hard to get a true sense of the grandeur and style of this ancient church, but having seen the Aya Sofya and its fantastic domes, I could imagine a little better what this place might have been like.
One thing I found so eye-opening about this trip is that, for whatever reason, I never really connected modern Turkey with the place in the world that you read about in the bible and history books about the beginnings of western civilization, Hittites and Trojans and the Roman Empire, etc. The first Christian churches were in Turkey. St John lived and died in Turkey. The Virgin Mary may have lived out her days here, and St Paul wrote many of his letters to the new Christians in different Roman cities in what is now Turkey, but was then called Asia Minor.
Sometimes, living in this country, I get the distinct sense that I’m living in the centre of the world. It’s a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.