The Biblical Book of Revelation is one of the most famous and mysterious books in human history. It is a complex prophecy about the time from the 2nd century AD to eternity. And it begins with seven messages. They are addressed to seven churches- the so-called “Seven Churches of Asia”, located in seven ancient cities. Let’s go on a journey to these ancient cities and try to discover there the secrets of Revelation. So, read further in this guide- where are these cities, what they look like today, and how to explore them!
But before planning and going on a trip to the Seven Churches, it is necessary first to be prepared with some basic knowledge. Otherwise, you would not have a clear idea of what exactly you are exploring. So, let’s start with the Book of Revelation…
The Book of Revelation
This is the last book in the Bible. Its name “Revelation” in old Greek is pronounced “apokalypsis”, and as you notice, from this word is derived the modern word “apocalypse”. However, in Greek, this word means simply “Revelation”, while in modern times it presents “the end of the world”.
Some basic facts
The Book of Revelation was written about 95 AD by John the Apostle, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ. At that time, the emperor of the Roman Empire was Domitian, and John was exiled to Patmos Island.
The book is structured into several basic sections and subsections, later divided into chapters and verses (as any other book in the Bible) as follows:
- Introduction: Jesus reveals Himself to John- Chapter 1
- Seven messages to the Seven Churches- Chapters 2-3
- Introduction of the Throne Hall and the Seven Seals- Chapters 4-8
- The Seven Trumpets- Chapters 8-11
- The Woman, the Dragon, the Beast, and the Redeemed- Chapters 12-14
- The Seven Plagues- Chapters 15-16
- The end of Babylon- Chapters 17-18
- The Millennium, the New Heaven and New Earth- Chapters 19-22
This is one of the most mysterious books in the history of mankind. It is full of symbols, unknown creatures, and codes (like the infamous 666 and more). Nobody knows what they are and what they mean, despite the claims of some people. Yes, these secrets will not remain hidden forever, but for now, the best we can do is to research at least the basic principles of the text, and its Biblical and historical context. And a real trip to the Seven Churches of Asia would be an important part of this research.
So, let’s focus on the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation and the Seven Churches. Who are they?
The Seven Churches of Asia
The Seven Churches of Asia are named in Chapter 1. They are the churches of seven cities that existed at that time: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon (Pergamum), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. You have to understand that in the Bible, all the Christians in one city were “the church of the city”. There is no such thing as “how many churches are there in your city?”, because, according to Biblical standards, the answer can be only “one”.
Why Asia? First, when you read about “Asia” in the Bible, have in mind that it is not the whole continent of Asia (including India, China, Thailand, Siberia, etc.), but only the Roman province called “Asia”- a specific area in the western part of today’s Turkey, from which the modern name of “Minor Asia” was derived.
Around 95 AD, there were more than a hundred early Christian churches across the Roman Empire, including the province of Asia. Then, why only seven? And why these seven and not another seven? We don’t have a final answer to these questions, but we can only guess.
In the Book of Revelation, the churches are presented as lampstands and their angels (or messengers in Greek)- as stars. We can imagine Jesus walking in something like a “sea of lampstands and stars” (because there were many other churches at that time), but He specially chose (or “extracted”) exactly these seven, obviously for a reason that is most probably related to the whole topic and context of the Apocalypse.
The cities of the Seven Churches today
So, let’s see shortly where are the cities of the Seven Churches today:
- Ephesus. This is a famous tourist attraction of an ancient ruined city near Kuşadası.
- Smyrna. This is the modern Izmir.
- Pergamon (Pergamum). This is another famous tourist attraction near the modern town of Bergama.
- Thyatira. Today, this is a small tourist attraction in the center of the modern town of Akhisar.
- Sardis. This is a small tourist attraction near the modern village of Sart.
- Philadelphia. Only occasional ruins have remained of it in the modern town of Alaşehir.
- Laodicea. This is another famous tourist attraction near the modern city of Denizli.
As you can see on the map, these seven cities are geographically arranged like a constellation of stars in a certain area. But let’s take a look at the early history of this area and the origin of these cities.
The ancient history of Asia and the seven cities
The messages to the Seven Churches of Asia were written at the end of the 1st century- more than 1900 years ago. But there are more than 2000-3000 years of history before that- that’s more than the time from 95AD until today, and that’s a lot of history! So, let’s generalize the “pre-Revelation” history of this area.
Prehistory (until around 1600 BC)
The area of Roman Asia was inhabited for thousands of years. A lot of artifacts from these distant times were discovered. And the first local kingdoms were formed, as well as the first cities. The seven cities haven’t existed yet, but traces of human activities are found where they are located.
Middle and Late Bronze Age (1600-1150 BC)
This age is marked mainly by the rise of the Hittite Empire which possessed most of Minor Asia (but not the whole territory). At the same time, other smaller kingdoms were established on the Aegean coast of today’s Turkey, and occasionally conquered or gained independence from the Hittites. This era ended with devastating wars and destruction, known as the “Bronze Age Collapse”.
Dark Age (1150-800 BC)
These were times of chaos, but at the same time, Aeolian and Ionian Greeks started migrating to the Aegean coast. They founded many new cities, and some of them were the cities of the future Seven Churches of Asia. Ephesus was one of them and it became the capital of the local kingdom Arzawa.
Phrygian-Lydian ages (800-512 BC)
This era is also known as the Archaic Era. Most of the seven cities were already established (except for Philadelphia and probably Thyatira). And most of this land became a part of the kingdom of Phrygia. Later, the kingdom of Lydia completely included this area into its territory, and Sardis became its capital.
Persian-Ionian Age (512-336 BC)
The Persians conquered this area, but most of the time later, many of these cities gained full or partial independence from the Persian Empire. During the times of independence, cities like Ephesus and Smyrna were in leagues with the other Greek states.
Hellenistic-Attalid Age (336-133 BC)
The whole area was conquered by Alexander the Great. After the division of his empire, the western part of modern Turkey was claimed by the Seleucids and other local kingdoms. Around 250 BC, the Hellenistic kingdom of Pergamon, ruled by the Attalids conquered the whole area. At that time all seven cities were already established.
Roman Age (133 BC-313 AD)
The last king of Pergamon offered his lands to the Romans and this area became a part of the Roman Republic, from 27 BC- the Roman Empire. All of the seven cities flourished, and some of them (like Ephesus and Smyrna) gained the highest reputation in the empire, becoming some of the largest cities there. And the whole area became the Province of Asia.
In such an environment, the Gospel of Jesus arrived in Roman Asia, brought by Paul the Apostle and his fellows, around 52 AD.
Saint Paul and the first Christians in Asia
Paul arrived in Ephesus on his route from continental Greece for the first time and met the local Jews. Then he left for Jerusalem, but later, on another route, he arrived in Ephesus again, this time for two years. And as the Acts of the Apostles (19:10 and 19:26) tells us, the Gospel was spread not only in Ephesus but in the whole Province of Asia.
In other words, the church of Ephesus was the first one of the Seven Churches. Ephesus was the “base camp” of Saint Paul and within the next two years (probably 52 to 54 AD), all of the other six churches in Asia were established too. We don’t know whether Paul has personally visited the rest of the seven cities, but the fact is that the Seven Churches of Asia were born at that time.
The Seven Churches during the time of Saint John
As mentioned above, the messages to the Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation were given about 95 AD. That’s more than 40 years after the arrival of Paul the Apostle in Ephesus, a whole new generation. All of the Seven Churches have passed through different circumstances and have reached certain situations with certain problems for those 40 years.
These problems were related to the cities where they were located, and to the internal issues among the Christians. At the same time, all of them are located in the same area. Probably, that’s why Jesus chose exactly those seven churches and their problems, to be somehow representatives for all the Christian churches on Earth, with all their problems that would exist from the 1st century AD until now, and in the future!
If this is the case, we can understand why the messages for the Seven Churches are an inseparable part of the Book of Revelation- this part is a “sub-prophecy” concerning Christianity in the future, from the 1st century’s view.
What happened to the seven cities and their churches later?
So, let’s proceed with the history further. The seven cities and their churches were prosperous until the end of the early Roman era. Then, in 313 AD, with the Edict of Milan, the Roman Empire officially stopped persecution against Christianity, and soon it became the official religion.
Early Byzantine Age (313-717)
During this age, the whole of Minor Asia became a part of the Eastern Roman Empire, called also Byzantine Empire. The seven cities still remained, although already in partial decline. The pagan temples were abandoned and remained in ruins until today. And the Seven Churches turned into seven official religious institutions. This was “under a test” during the Arab Muslim invasions from 717.
Middle Byzantine Age (717-1071)
The Byzantine Empire gradually recovered from the Arab invasions and reached bloom at the end of the 10th century. And the Seven Churches remained in the same status, with some new Orthodox Christian buildings established. But in the 11th century, two new powers emerged from the East and the West. From the East- it was the Seljuk Turks, and from the West- the Crusaders.
Late Byzantine Age (1071-1453)
This is the era of decline. It is marked by frequent wars between the Crusaders, the Byzantines, the Seljuks, and later between the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. Due to these wars, as well as some natural events, most of the seven cities were destroyed and abandoned. One by one, the Seven Churches seized to exist as institutions. The Christians migrated, were killed, or just settled nearby. Finally, the whole area fell completely under Ottoman control.
Ottoman Age (1453-1924)
The Ottoman Turks brought Islam and their culture to the region. Still, a Greek population existed in the former Province of Asia, but the seven cities were mostly ruined. Only Smyrna became what today is Izmir, but it was a completely new city, different than the ancient Smyrna. New, Turkish towns emerged around and near the ancient Pergamon (Bergama), Thyatira (Akhisar), and Philadelphia (Alaşehir).
Modern Age (1924 until today)
This age began with population exchange between the Republic of Turkey and Greece, due to the war between these two countries. Thus, the Greek population from this area was expelled from Turkey, and the culture of the whole area became entirely Turkish. Anyway, we heard that there are some Turks living in Izmir, Bergama, Akhisar, and the other settlements near the seven cities who recently believed in Jesus. So, probably they can somehow revive the Seven Churches of Asia?
Meanwhile, the Turkish government revived most of the seven cities, turning them into famous tourist attractions. Ephesus, Pergamon (Pergamum), and Laodicea are well-restored complexes of ruins. From Smyrna and Thyatira only the ancient agoras are restored. From Sardis- only the Synagogue and the Roman Baths are restored, and they are restored really well. Only Philadelphia is neglected because too few ruins have remained from it.
How to explore the Seven Churches of Asia
First, I would highly recommend reading the Book of Revelation, or at least Chapters 1 to 3 of it. Then, read historical books and articles. Armed with the necessary knowledge, you would know exactly what you are visiting, not just “piles of ancient stones”.
So, when you are ready with the knowledge, you have to arrange your trip. The best route is to follow the order from the Book of Revelation, starting from Ephesus and finishing with Laodicea.
But it is convenient only if you come by ferry from Greece to Kuşadası, or if your starting point is Antalya, then heading northwest to Ephesus. It is inconvenient if you come from Istanbul, from Izmir, or on land from Bulgaria or Northern Greece through Çanakkale. If you come from the north, you have to start from Pergamon, or if you come from the airport of Izmir, you have to start from Smyrna. And if you come on land from Ankara, you most likely have to start from Laodicea.
Visiting the sites
Anyway, even if you can’t start from Ephesus, you still can get a unique experience, by diving into the prophecies of the Book of Revelation. Once you arrive at the major sites- Ephesus, Pergamon (Pergamum), or Laodicea, you can follow a local guide.
There are thousands of ancient stones, arcs, pillars, stone walls, and other constructions that may tell you nothing. But if you know the text from the Bible, and the historical facts, you can first observe the whole landscape around, the natural environment, and the geographical location.
Then, you can notice some important details (the guides and the maps of the sites can guide you), like the ancient theater of Ephesus, the temples in Pergamon, the underground constructions of Smyrna, the remnants of the water pipes in Laodicea… these details bring some messages that can lead you to reveal some hidden secrets!
What transportation would be the best to explore the Seven Churches of Asia? Undoubtedly, by car! If you are not local, you can travel by your own car from Europe- from Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, or Armenia. Or, you can rent a local car.
With a car, you have the freedom to choose your route, to include the Seven Churches in a larger route with more destinations, and to adjust the time and the speed.
Another option is to join a tour. Today, there are 4, 5, or 8-day tours that visit the Seven Churches in the right order. Not only that, but many of these tours start from Patmos Island in Greece- the place where Jesus revealed the Revelation to John the Apostle.
Finally, you can travel by bus. There are regular buses between the cities around the Seven Churches. However, this option is not so convenient, because the buses are intended to travel to modern cities, towns, and villages. Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, and Philadelphia are ok because they are inside or beside cities. But Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea are out of the cities- you have to travel to the nearest towns or villages by bus, then to reach the sites by taxi, by hitchhiking (btw, very popular in Turkey), or on foot.
The accommodation is not developed equally everywhere. You can find good hotels, Airbnbs, and guesthouses in Kuşadası, Izmir, and Denizli because they are resort cities, and Izmir basically is the third largest city in Turkey.
But the other sites are relatively poor in accommodation options. There are almost no Airbnbs in Bergama, Akhisar, and Alaşehir. You can find a few hotels, and in general, that’s all.
In this situation, how could you organize your Seven Churches tour?
Organizing the Seven Churches tour
Ephesus is large and deserves at least 3-4 hours for exploring. Smyrna is smaller- only its Agora is preserved. But of course, if you visit the Agora of Smyrna, you would like to explore the best of Izmir City, and you would need at least one day for that.
Pergamon is also large and you would need at least 3 hours for the main site, and another 1-2 hours for several more sites located in the town of Bergama, out of the main site.
Thyatira is small. 30 min is perfectly enough to explore it, and basically, there is nothing much to see in Akhisar, only the small museum beside the main site- in total- 1 hour.
Sardis is interesting because the whole area around the main site is included in the Kula-Salihli Geopark which presents not only the ancient city and the Temple of Artemis beside it but the unique volcanic rock formations in the area, as well as some pre-historic sites. For Sardis itself, you would need about 2-3 hours, but for more- better plan one whole day.
Philadelphia is the smallest of the sites. There is only a small garden with remains from the 5th century, and a few neglected remains from Roman times on the nearby hill. You can explore everything for about 1 hour.
Laodicea is large. The site of Laodicea needs at least 3-4 hours to explore, but if you go there, you should also visit the nearby world-famous Pamukkale and the ancient city of Hierapolis. For that, you would need at least one full day.
So, if you don’t explore Kula-Salihli Geopark but only Sardis, you could visit Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia within one day, because they are not far from each other, and they are small. Thus, although there are not too many options for accommodation, you can just jump from the seaside near Pergamon to Denizli.
This is the phenomenon of the Seven Churches of Asia. Unique places that look just like ordinary ruins. But things look different when you know that these ruins are a part of the most amazing prophetic book in the world- the Book of Revelation. Thus, this is one of the must-visit gems in Western Turkey that can bring you to a life-changing experience.
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.