A Journey to Sardis, Turkey- the Fifth of the Seven Churches

A Journey to Sardis, Turkey- the Fifth of the Seven Churches

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Let’s back to ancient times, about 1900 years ago. This is the time of the Book of Revelation- one of the most famous and mysterious books in human history. A part of its prophecy consists of seven messages to the Seven Churches of Asia. One of them is the church of Sardis, in an ancient city with the same name, located in Western Turkey. So, let’s visit and explore this city and its secrets!

But before diving into the ruins of Sardis and its history, let’s first take a look at a very special book- the Book of Revelation! Because Sardis is not just one of the many other ancient cities, but there is something unique, and the answer is in this book.

The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible, known as “Apocalypse”. While the word “apocalypse” today is considered “the end of the world” (by horrible disasters), its original meaning is just “revelation”- a prophecy for the future. And yes, it speaks about the end of this world, but also the beginning of a new, perfect world.

The Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation

This book is structured as a complex prophecy in several parts, given to John the Apostle around 95 AD, while he was exiled to Patmos Island in Greece. This prophecy reveals secrets for the future (from John’s point of view)- from the 1st century AD to eternity. It starts with an introduction where Jesus Christ reveals to John. What follows next is the first main part of the Book of Revelation- the messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.

These churches were Christian fellowships established consequently in seven cities in the Roman province of Asia (not the whole continent of Asia!), in today’s Western Turkey. They were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

And while the messages to them consist of certain instructions, promises from God, sin exposures, and encouragements, they are at the same time prophecies for Christianity in the following centuries, as a part of the whole Apocalypse.

This makes Sardis– the city of the fifth one of the Seven Churches a special and unique place. So, let’s take a look at the message to the church of Sardis!

Read the Book of Revelation!

The message to the Church of Sardis

To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of Him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the Book of Life but will acknowledge that name before my Father and His angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

As you can see, this text raises a lot of questions: how come they look alive but are dead, about a thief coming while they sleep, and about who are these few worthy people who will walk with Jesus? Let’s try to find answers, but to do it, let’s first start with another obvious question: Where is Sardis?

The Lower City of Sardis from above
The Lower City of Sardis from above

Where is Sardis

Several important rivers flow from the interior of Minor Asia to the west, reaching the Aegean Sea. Fertile valleys and mountain gorges are formed around them. One of them is the Gediz River, and here you can find not one, but two of the Seven Churches- Philadelphia and Sardis.

Today, the ruins of Sardis are scattered at the foot of Mount Bozdağ (2154 m), in a very interesting geological area. Here, the northernmost ridges of the mountain present amazing sandstone formations. They look like pinnacles, surrounded by lush subtropical forests. This area is Kula-Salihli UNESCO Global Park.

There is a village near the ruins of Sardis. It is called Sart- a distant inheritor of the ancient city, today gradually turning into a tourist area. Again, the main reason for the existence of Sart is the ancient city of Sardis. And there is something that makes Sardis different than the other ancient cities in Western Turkey.

There was a Christian society living in this city that was chosen by God to be a part of the Apocalypse. Why and how? Let’s dive further into the past, to discover how the city of Sardis was established and what is its history before the Book of Revelation.

The ancient history of Sardis

To make it simpler, let’s generalize the ancient history of Sardis.

Early Anatolian period (until the 7th century BC)

Very little is known about the origin of Sardis. No buildings or other constructions were found from the times before the 7th century BC, only some scattered pieces of pottery and other artifacts, as well as some writings from the Hittite Empire.

So, we can only guess that there was a minor settlement (or settlements) in the area with mostly Anatolian culture, and only later, with some Greek influence.

Ruins of ancient houses in Sardis
Ruins of ancient houses in Sardis

Lydian period (Capital of Lydia) (7th century BC to 547 BC)

In the 7th century, a new kingdom arose in this area- the Kingdom of Lydia. It ruled over most of western Minor Asia, and the Lydian kings chose Sardis as their capital.

This was the first golden era of Sardis. Little is known about what the city looked like at that time, but according to the discoveries, mudbricks were mostly used for the buildings. Concerning the culture, it was a unique mix between Anatolian and Greek.

Persian period (547 BC to 334 BC)

In 547 BC, Cyrus II the Great, the king of Achaemenid Persia conquered huge territories and reached the lands of Lydia. Croesus, the last king of Lydia, tried to fight the Persian army but was defeated, and while he was withdrawing to Sardis, looking for allies’ help, Cyrus was faster than him and besieged the capital.

Like a thief

During the first days of the siege, the Persian army unsuccessfully tried to penetrate inside. At that time, Sardis was considered impossible to conquer, and the Lydians laid on this belief. But they were wrong.

There was a point in the city wall with less protection. A Lydian soldier unintentionally dropped his helmet outside and went out of the wall to get it back. But he didn’t know that a Persian soldier (called Hyroeades) was watching him and followed him secretly.

Then, Hyroeades told the secret entry to his fellows and soon the Persians were inside the city, “like a thief in the night”. It was the end of the Lydian Kingdom.

From this time, Sardis was part of Persia. The city was rebuilt and in general, its life proceeded as usual like during the Lydian times. It was located on an important road in Persia and was later visited by the kings Darius II and Xerxes.

The Temple of Artemis
The Temple of Artemis

Hellenistic-Pergamene period (334 BC to 129 BC)

In 334 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Sardis without resistance. From that time, the city entered its Hellenistic era, where the whole culture was changed. Sardis was a part of the Macedonian Empire, and then of the kingdoms of the Antigonids, Seleucids, and Attalids (Pergamene Kingdom). This was the time when major buildings were constructed, including the large Temple of Artemis (one of the main points of interest in Sardis today).

A large Jewish community was established in the 2nd century BC and the Jews built the Synagogue of Sardis, today well-restored.

Early (Classical) Roman period (129 BC to 314 AD)

In 133 BC, the last Attalid king died and its kingdom was transferred to the Roman Republic- this process was accomplished in 129 BC. The Romans proceeded with the development of Sardis. They built the Gymnasium (the Roman Baths). Today, it is one of the best-restored Roman buildings in the world, and the main landmark of Sardis.

Sardis in the middle of the 1st century AD and the creation of its church

In the middle of the century, Paul the Apostle arrived in the big city of Ephesus and established a big Christian fellowship there. Paul remained in Ephesus for 3 years and during that time, the Gospel of Jesus spread from Ephesus to the whole province around it, including the city of Sardis. As a result, a Christian fellowship was born in Sardis too- it was the Church of Sardis.

The Roman Gymnasium
The Roman Gymnasium

Sardis, about 40 years later

The Church of Sardis gradually grew during the reign of the Roman emperors Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Like all of the other churches across the empire, they had to pass through heavy persecution during the time of Domitian (81-95 AD).

And at the end of Domitian’s reign, Jesus gave the messages of the Apocalypse through John the Apostle. But the message to the Church of Sardis didn’t sound so good…”You think you are alive, but you are dead!What does that mean?

Obviously, something serious happened to the Christians in Sardis, and it affected the majority of them. And today we can reveal what was that.

Cult of the Emperor

Like all the Christians in the ancient world, they lived in a polytheistic and multi-religious society. All of these religions were allowed in the Roman Empire but with one condition: the highest “god” for everyone must be the Roman Emperor. So, “as long as you worship the Emperor as your highest god, you can worship everything else freely, whatever you want.” The only people who were exempted from this order were the Jews.

Initially, this cult to the Emperor wasn’t well determined. But Emperor Domitian brought it to a new level, and it was the reason for the severe persecution of the Christians.

Christian crosses among other religion's symbols
Christian crosses among other religion’s symbols

“You think you are alive, but you are dead!”

Most of the Christians in Sardis tried to find a way to avoid the persecution. What was their way? From the archaeological discoveries and ancient writings, now we know what did they do: they “killed” the original message of Jesus and its meaning- “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, nobody comes to Father but by Me!”

In other words, they made Christianity just as “one of the many religions”, on the same level as them. “Jews have their truth, Greeks have their truth, Egyptians have their truth, Romans, Thracians, Phoenicians, Parthians, etc.- they all have their truth, and Christians have their truth.” They tried just to get along with other religions, trying to live in peace with them.

That sounds good, and actually- very modern, as it is today very modern in Western societies. In this way, they really avoided the persecution. But there was a problem: Jesus has nothing to do with the other religions…and they rejected the core of Christianity itself (it sounds very familiar today, actually!).

Coming like a thief

This was the answer of Jesus to the behavior of the Christians in Sardis. And they knew very well what did He mean. They knew their history and how Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Sardis in 547 BC. At that time, the Lydian king Croesus thought he was safe behind the walls of Sardis, but he was not.

In the same way, the Christians thought they were alive, but they were not. And like the Persians in the night, Jesus would come to them like a thief, and obviously, something that they didn’t like would happen.

But He still gave them a chance and time to repent and bring what was left to life. What they should do was bring Jesus again to the right place where He really is, above all the religions, without a compromise.

The interior of the Synagogue- Roman pagan symbols inside
The interior of the Synagogue- Roman pagan symbols inside

The few faithful Christians in Sardis

From the message of Jesus, we know that there was a faithful minority of Christians in Sardis. We can see that their life was much more difficult due to their faithfulness. They had to fight and win enduring all the consequences of their behavior.

And Jesus says that their names were written in the Book of Life, in other words, they were alive and will be alive forever. He also speaks about the white clothes that will be given to them- they represent their pure deeds.

And this message was addressed not only to the Christians in Sardis at the end of the 1st century AD, but also to all Christians and churches who would be in the same situation during the next centuries- a situation where Christianity is turned as “just one of the many religions” as a way to avoid issues.

The later history of Sardis

So, what happened after the time of John and the Revelation? What happened with the city and the church of Sardis? Did they back to life?

The city of Sardis remained a part of the Roman Empire, and its Christian fellowship remained too, passing through periods of persecution and peace. It is still unclear what the Christians did during that time, but since their church remained, they probably repented and Jesus didn’t come over them “like a thief”.

Byzantine period (314-1071 AD)

The persecutions against Christians proceeded until 314 when Emperor Constantine I The Great stopped them, and Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Many things changed at that time.

First, the empire was gradually divided into Western and Eastern, and this division was completed in 395. Concerning the church of Sardis, it changed too- from a living congregation of believers, it gradually turned into a state religious institution.

At the same time, new trade roads were built and Sardis gradually lost its significance. But the deeper decline started in the 7th century, after the war between the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire, when a part of the city was destroyed and never fully repaired.

Ruins of a medieval church behind the Temple of Artemis
Ruins of a medieval church behind the Temple of Artemis

Medieval period (1071-1420)

This was a turbulent period. It started with the conquest of Sardis by the Seljuks, then consequently, the city was ruled by various kingdoms and empires- Seljuks (Ghazm emirs), Byzantines, and Crusaders. Due to multiple wars, Sardis lost most of its population, and most of its buildings turned into ruins and were abandoned.

In 1402, the city was sacked and destroyed again by the armies of Timur. Eventually, the Timurids were chased away, and the Ottoman Empire took control over Sardis and the whole area.

Ottoman and Modern Period (1390 until today)

During the Ottoman times, all that was left of Sardis was just two hamlets. Everything else was scattered ruins here and there, subtropical forests, and bush. The Church of Sardis was gone long before that.

It wasn’t before the beginning of the 20th century that a new life started to back again.
A new village gradually appeared in this place. It was called Sart, named after the ancient Sardis. And at the end of the 20th century, the tourism industry noticed the place.

Archaeologists restored the Jewish Synagogue and the Roman Gymnasium, and the ruins around them, as well as the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, were turned into tourist sites. But even today, Sart and the ancient Sardis are still far from the popularity of Ephesus, Pergamum, and Laodicea.

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Our trip to Sardis

So, all of this was the reason why we included Sardis in our Western Turkey itinerary. We traveled by car on a route from Bulgaria, along the whole Aegean and Mediterranean coast to Kas, then turn northward to Lake Salda, Laodicea, and Pamukkale.

From there, we followed the route to the northwest through Philadelphia, Sardis, and Thyatira, three of the Seven Churches of Asia. And the second one was Sardis, about 45 min drive from Philadelphia (Alaşehir), and 1 hour 45 min from Laodicea and Pamukkale.

Roman mosaic in the Synagogue
Roman mosaic in the Synagogue

The ruins of Sardis

Today, there are three points with ruins of ancient Sardis. The first one is the Lower City, with the Jewish Synagogue, the Roman Gymnasium, and the surrounding remains. The second one is the Temple of Artemis, about 2 km south of the Lower City. And the rest are some ancient wall remains scattered about 600-800 m from the Lower city, on the other side of the main road.

Lower City

This is the main part of Sardis- an archaeological site, located at the southeastern entrance of Sart, on the right side of the main road.

When you enter inside, you can follow the signs and a short trail that first leads you beside the ruins of ancient houses, shops, craft workshops, and even ancient restaurants. Here is the place where you can see some symbols of various religions (including Christian crosses) together.

Jewish Synagogue

At the end of the trail, you can enter the Jewish Synagogue. It is known as the largest ancient Jewish Synagogue in the world outside of the Land of Israel. It has been well-restored in the 20th century, and you can see various ornaments there.

Again, you can easily see the religious openness of the ancient Jews. First, it was built exactly beside the Roman Gymnasium (the Roman Baths) where nudity was something normal. And second, you can see various Roman pagan symbols inside- the Roman eagle and other statues- something that would be normally unthinkable for devoted Jewish believers.

Roman Gymnasium

Then- the Roman Gymnasium. As mentioned above, this is one of the best-restored Roman buildings in the world, in its full original height, with all the ornaments, statues, and Roman writings on its walls. Behind the massive façade, you can see the pools where nude Romans spent their bathing time.

From there, you can back to the entrance, and on your left, you can notice a typical Roman lavatory.

Entrance fee: 25 TL.

Working hours: 9:00 – 17:00

The Roman Gymnasium from another angle
The Roman Gymnasium from another angle

Temple of Artemis

This is one of the largest temples of Artemis the goddess of fertility in the ancient Roman empire. It is located about 2 km south of Sardis (Sart)- you can follow the signs.
The ruins consist of a large rectangle-shaped site with large pillars and remnants of walls.

Behind it, you can also see ruins of a church building built several centuries later, obviously opposing the ancient pagan environment. And the whole landscape around the site is spectacular, with several sandstone pinnacle peaks on the surrounding mountains.

Entrance fee: 25 TL. However, if you have already visited the Lower City and keep your ticket, you can enter the Temple of Artemis for free.

Working hours: 9:00 – 17:00

The Temple of Artemis
The Temple of Artemis

The remnants of ancient walls and the theater

You can see these ruins on your left if you come from the east. They are abandoned, erected on the slopes, among olive orchards, and other farmland. It is difficult to find the ancient theater- you can only notice the semicircle shape in the place of the former theater, and almost nothing more.

But the remnants of the walls are obvious. However, they are not developed as a tourist site- you can reach them just by a short walk in the wild.

Besides these walls, there are some ancient tumuli (tombs), scattered mostly west of the Temple of Artemis. But again, they are abandoned and difficult to recognize.

Remnants of the ancient wall
Remnants of the ancient wall

How to reach Sardis

The best way to reach Sardis is by car. You would have the freedom to arrive there whenever you want, and you can easily explore all the points of interest. Sardis is located 49 km from Philadelphia (Alaşehir), 135 km from Pamukkale, 62 km from Thyatira (Akhisar), and 89 km from Izmir.

Find the best rental cars in Turkey!

But if you don’t travel by car, there are three options:

  • By bus. There are regular buses from Izmir to Manisa and Uşak. They travel every day, running every two hours. They can stop in Sart, you can explore Sardis, and proceed with another bus to your next destination. Or, you can stop in Salihli and visit Sart and Sardis by local transport (dolmuş).

Check for buses from Izmir to Salihli!

  • By train. There are two trains daily from Izmir to Uşak, and one train from Izmir to Konya. One of them stops in Sart. Sart Railway station is located in the north part of the village, about 1 km north of the Lower City.
  • By organized tour. There are a lot of organized tours that visit Sardis. All of them are “Seven Churches of Asia” tours, focused on all of the Seven Churches. See more about them below.
Sandstone formations behind the Temple of Artemis
Sandstone formations behind the Temple of Artemis


Currently, there are no places to stay in Sart. The nearest accommodation properties are located in the town of Salihli, about 10 km east of Sardis, and there are only four (you can find them on Booking or Agoda). They are relatively expensive. The best and most luxurious one is Lidya Sardes Hotel Thermal & SPA.

Check for accommodation in Salihli on Booking!

Check for accommodations in Salihli on Agoda!

Airbnb? There are only a few Airbnb properties, but again, they are far from Sardis- in Salihli and Cokelek.

Camping? There are no campsites around Sardis either. Yes, you can go wild camping, but be careful to do it far from the ruins (otherwise, you risk troubles with the local police!).

However, despite the poor accommodation options, most travelers actually don’t spend the night around Sardis. They usually visit the ancient city on the way to Denizli (with Pamukkale and Laodicea) or from Alaşehir (Philadelphia), Thyatira, Pergamum, and Izmir. In fact, you can explore the whole of Sardis for just 2-3 hours (including the Temple of Artemis), and then you can proceed to Philadelphia (Alaşehir) or Thyatira (Akhisar).

Sardis on the route

As mentioned above, the best way to visit Sardis is to include it in a longer trip to all of the Seven Churches of Asia. Although it might be difficult to visit the churches following the order in the Book of Revelation, where Sardis is the fifth one, you still can do it, just in a different order, especially if you come from Istanbul, İzmir, or Çanakkale.

Because Sardis is located on a route between Thyatira (the fourth church) and Philadelphia (the sixth church), normally, you would go Thyatira – Sardis – Philadelphia, or vice versa.

Sardis tours

The tours to Sardis are usually multiday long, and lead you to all of the Seven Churches of Asia. Here are some of the best:

  • From Izmir: Seven Churches of Revelation Multi-Day Tour. This is a 4-day tour. It will lead you to the Seven Churches of Revelation but not following the exact order of the messages in the Apocalypse. On the first day you will visit Pergamum, Thyatira, and Smyrna, on the second day- Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea with Pamukkale, and on the third day- Ephesus and Kusadasi.
  • 5 Days Seven Churches Tour Turkey. This tour follows the same route, but just you meet your guide one day in advance, that’s why it is 5 days long. Again, you will stay 2 nights in Izmir, 1 night in Pamukkale, and 1 night in Kusadasi.
  • From Izmir: 7 Churches of Asia Minor 5-Day Tour with Lodging. Again, this tour starts from Izmir and follows the same classical tourist route. Only the price can vary, so you can check in advance.
  • Seven Churches of Revelation Tour. This is a 3-day tour. It follows the same route but ends on the evening of the 3rd day. Since it skips one night in Ephesus, it is a bit cheaper and more proper for those who are limited in time.


Beyond Sardis

We didn’t follow the right order in the Book of Revelation, because we came from the Mediterranean Coast and Denizli. So, before Sardis, we visited Philadelphia, the sixth of the Seven Churches. And our next destination was the fourth church- Thyatira. But we still included all of the Seven in our big Western Turkey journey, along with the best of the history and nature of this amazing region of the Earth.

Take a look at this video for more impressions from Sardis:

Check some travel books about Turkey and Sardis:

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This is a guide about the ancient city of Sardis and its church in Turkey- one of the Seven Churches of Asia- with history and useful tips.

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