A journey to Smyrna, Turkey- the Second Church of Asia

A journey to Smyrna, Turkey- the Second Church of Asia

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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 Smyrna, in the ancient city with the same name, today’s big city of İzmir, located in Western Turkey. So, let’s visit and explore this city and its secrets!

But before diving into the ruins of Smyrna and its history, let’s first take a look at a very special book- the Book of Revelation! Because Smyrna 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 about 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 Smyrna- the city of the second one from the Seven Churches a special and unique place. So, let’s take a look at the message to the church of Smyrna!

Read the Book of Revelation!

The message to the Church of Smyrna

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8-11)

As you can see, this text raises a lot of questions: who are these false Jews, how come to be poor yet rich, what 10-day persecution is the text talking about, and more. And of course, what does all of this mean? Let’s try to find answers, but to do it, let’s first start with another obvious question: Where is Smyrna?

Remains of ancient Smyrna
Remains of ancient Smyrna

Where is Smyrna

The ancient city of Smyrna that today became the modern İzmir, the third largest city in Turkey is located in the middle of the Turkish Aegean coast, at the end of the Gulf of İzmir. It has a good strategic location, surrounded by hills and mountains, with excellent conditions for trade and economic growth.

Unlike the cities of the other of the Seven Churches, Smyrna remained constantly living until today, and from a small settlement at the foot of one of the hills called Mount Pagos, it grew into a large mega city that today embraces both sides of the Gulf of İzmir. But let’s back to the 1st century AD.

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 Smyrna was established and what was its history before the Book of Revelation.

The ancient history of Smyrna

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

Old Smyrna and before (around the 3rd millennium BC to 4th century BC)

The first traces of human civilization in what is today İzmir date from several thousand years ago. Probably, during the Bronze Age that ended in the 12th century BC, there were only small villages on the Gulf of İzmir coast.

Then, around 925 BC, a city was built on the ruins of the Bronze Age Collapse and the following Dark Ages. It is now known as the “Old Smyrna”, and it was located on a small mound in today’s Tepekule in Bayraklı. It was an independent city built by Aeolian Greeks.

In 688 BC it was conquered by Ionian Greeks, in 610 BC- by the kingdom of Lydia, and in 545 BC- by the Persian Empire. During those conquests, the city was destroyed.

The most significant building in Old Smyrna is the Temple of Athena, whose ruins remain today. Now Old Smyrna is an underrated tourist attraction, surrounded by the modern urban areas of İzmir and you can visit it for a better impression.

Hellenistic-Attalid Kingdom (336-133 BC)

Alexander the Great conquered the area of Smyrna in 336 BC. What he found was just ruins and local villages around them, where the descendants of the Old Smyrna citizens lived. He decided to rebuild it again, but in a new location- on the slopes of Mount Pagos (today known as Kadifekale) and north of it, because this place was much more spacious than the old one.

So, Alexander and his generals Antigonus and Lysimachus built New Smyrna- with wider streets, buildings in Hellenistic style, larger in size. Soon, New Smyrna became a rapidly-growing Aegean port city. Many Greeks and people from other nations, including Jews settled in Smyrna.

The Macedonian Empire of Alexander was divided into several small kingdoms soon after that. One of these kingdoms was the Kingdom of Pergamon, ruled by the Attalid Dynasty. Soon, Smyrna was included in its territory until 133 BC.

Vessels from the 1st millenium BC
Vessels from the 1st millenium BC

Early Roman age (133 BC – 314 AD)

In 133 BC, King Attalus II of Pergamon bequeathed the whole kingdom to Rome. The city of Smyrna proceeded to grow and got the exclusive right to trade with a fragrant spice called myrrh, used for. Myrrh was not only fragrant but was used in burial procedures and as an important ingredient for the embalming process to protect dead bodies and preserve them for the afterlife.

In 30 BC, the Roman Republic became an empire under the first emperor Augustus. During his reign, Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah was born in Israel. Jesus died and was resurrected from the dead around 30 AD, and the first church of Christians was born, first in Jerusalem, then around the whole of Israel, and a little later- beyond Israel.

Smyrna in the 1st century AD and its church

Then, around 52 AD, Paul the Apostle arrived in the nearby city of Ephesus and stayed there for two years. During his stay, many people in Ephesus believed in Jesus, and the church of Ephesus was established. But we also learn that the Gospel of Jesus spread far beyond Ephesus- in the whole area around, in the Roman province of Asia.

We don’t know whether Paul visited Smyrna or not, but this is the time when the people of Smyrna heard the Gospel, and some of them became Christians. Thus, the church of Smyrna was born.

The first Christians in Smyrna

So, the newborn church of Smyrna grew in this rich, pagan, Roman city, with all the troubles and contradictions caused by this. More than 40 years passed, and a whole new generation of Christians grew there. Then, around 95 AD, Jesus gave the prophecy of Revelation to John the Apostle on Patmos Island, containing also the message to the Christians of Smyrna. At the time of Revelation, they had two major troubles.

Poverty of Christians

Many Christians, not only in Smyrna but in the whole of the Roman Empire were poor. It was because most of the trade and business activities in the empire were related to the worship of pagan gods- something that Christians should not do. Thus, they were often excluded from business, and often from the whole social life of the other citizens. However, as we understand, this problem was especially contrasting in Smyrna.

Slandered by the local Jews

In addition to this, the Christians were slandered by the local Jews who rejected the Gospel of Jesus. This made the trouble of the church bigger because they were not only poor in material things but were often in problems consisting of court trials or just social rejections due to the slanders.

And in the message to the church of Smyrna, Jesus warns them about a third trouble- persecution.

In the Basilica of Smyrna
In the Basilica of Smyrna

Persecution

We understand that this persecution really happened, but it was short. However, some Christians became martyrs for Jesus. One of them was Polycarp, the episcope of the church of Smyrna. He was sent to be burnt to death, however, a miracle happened and the flames didn’t touch him. Then a Roman guard stabbed him and he died. It happened in 155 AD, about 60 years after the Revelation.

Death and resurrection

So, what do we understand from the message to the church of Smyrna in the Book of Revelation? Just like in each of the messages to the other six churches, here Jesus also gives specific statements and promises, different in every message. And in this message, it is about death and resurrection.

To understand it deeper, let’s remember again the history of Smyrna- Old Smyrna died and New Smyrna was born- thus the whole city passed through death and resurrection.

Also- the myrrh. It was used for burials and dead body preservation- again a hint of death and future resurrection. Although the ancient pagan people didn’t understand the resurrection as it is described in the Bible, the fact that it deals with death and the afterlife is the reason why Jesus says it.

Another hint is the three tribulations of the Christians in Smyrna- poverty, slanders by Jews, and persecution. Here we see a contrast like the contrast between death and life. Jesus says “you are poor, yet rich”- because they were poor in material things but spiritually rich.

And finally- if they are faithful to death, they will receive life as a crown, and will not be affected by the second death (yes, the Bible says that sinners will die twice).

The whole meaning of the message to the church of Smyrna

Now, when you can understand the message to the church of Smyrna in the Apocalypse, you can also understand what is its place in the whole prophecy. Because it is a message not only to this church but also to all the churches in a similar situation that would exist (and today still exist) in the world during the next centuries- from the 2nd century AD to today and until the Second coming of Jesus.

But let’s see what happened with Smyrna and its church later.

Faustina Gate
Faustina Gate

The later history of Smyrna

The city of Smyrna, its citizens, as well as its Christian fellowship, called “the Church of Smyrna) existed in the same way for more than 120 years- a rich city, trading with myrrh, with prosperous Romans and local Jews, and a church under rejection and persecution. A destruction earthquake hit Smyrna in 178. The city was rebuilt by Emperor Marcus Aurelius and its life proceeded for some time like before, however, the decline of Smyrna, following the decline of the whole Roman Empire was already a fact.

Byzantine Age (314-1084 AD)

During the reign of Emperor Diocletian, the Roman Empire started its division into Western and Eastern parts. Smyrna was a part of the Eastern Roman Empire which separated completely from the Western Empire in 395.

At the same time, in 314, under the reign of Emperor Constantine I the Great, the persecution against the Christians stopped and Christianity became the official religion of the empire. The church of Smyrna gradually turned from a Christian fellowship to a state institution.

The city of Smyrna also changed at the beginning of this period. Its Agora and its Theater were abandoned, and its citizens gradually settled around the city, in what is today the area of Kemeraltı. In general, this long period was peaceful for Smyrna, except during the wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs in the 8th century.

Middle Medieval Age (1084-1425 AD)

The peaceful period of Smyrna ended in 1084. Following the gradual decline of the Byzantine Empire, new invaders came and conquered the city- the Seljuk Turks. Then, it passed from Byzantine to Seljuk hands several times through wars and destruction, until the city was almost totally destroyed.

Smyrna would follow the fate of the other ancient cities like Ephesus and Pergamum, but in 1222, the Nicaean (Nicaea was the eastern part of the then divided Byzantine Empire) Emperor Doukas III Vatatzes rebuilt it again.

At the same time, the Crusaders entered the scene. They also possessed Smyrna from 1204 to 1222. The Turks conquered it again at the beginning of the 14th century under the Beylik of Aydin, and the Crusaders conquered only the lower part of the city from 1344 to 1404.

In 1389, the Ottoman Turks came and conquered the upper part of the city (what today is Kadifekale). The young Ottoman Empire had to face a serious challenge during the invasion of Tamerlane (Timurid Empire) in 1402.

The Timurids conquered the whole city in 1404 and committed a massacre and destruction. The remaining Aydinids conquered it in 1415, and in 1425 Smyrna finally became firmly a part of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, this period of endless wars and destruction ended.

Ottoman Age (1425-1922 AD)

In the beginning, Smyrna, already renamed İzmir by the Turks, was a small village-like city. The remnants of the Church of Smyrna still inhabited the city, but the Christians from that time were already very different than those in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD- they were mainly Orthodox, but there were also some Armenian and Catholic fractions- all of them in low social position under the power of the Islam.

İzmir’s new bloom began in the late 16th century when the city became an international trading port. The city grew and prospered. However, in the second half of the 18th century, after the defeat of the Ottoman fleet by the Russians, unrest happened in the city that lead to a massacre of the Christian population.

The main landmark of modern Smyrna (Izmir)- the Clock Tower
The main landmark of modern Smyrna (Izmir)- the Clock Tower

Anyway, the non-Muslim population recovered. Most of them were Greeks. The city continued to grow until World War I.

Modern Age (1922 until today)

World War I was devastating for this part of the world, but the real problems for the city began between 1919 and 1922. Greece conquered the city for 3 years, but the Greek army was defeated, and in 1922 the Greeks left İzmir. As a result, an agreement for a population exchange between Greece and the newly-established Republic of Turkey was signed, and about 200 000 Greeks had to leave the city, replaced by a Muslim population. Thus, the wars ended.

From that time until today, İzmir grew into a large mega city, embracing most of the Gulf of İzmir. Most of its citizens are Muslims, but there are some Jews and descendants from Genoese, Armenians, and Greeks, however, all of them are a minority.

There are two small church buildings- the Church of St. Polycarp and the Church of St. John, as well as local Christian protestant (evangelist) communities that also include some Turks- that’s all that was left from the Church of Smyrna. And the Church (Cathedral) of St. John was especially built to remind that İzmir, once called Smyrna, has the honor of being presented in the Apocalypse- the Book of Revelation.

Our trip to Smyrna

We included İzmir in our journey around Western Turkey- we couldn’t skip it, as it is a so important destination on our route. And due to all of the information about Smyrna, the Book of Revelation, and the history of this place, we visited probably the most important spot in modern İzmir- the Agora of Smyrna. This spot is where we could back to 2000 years ago, and along with the other interesting places to visit in the big city, the Agora was planned as number one.

Where is the ancient Smyrna

Ancient Smyrna is not like most of the other ancient cities in Turkey. Since it has been a constantly living city until today, most of the ancient buildings were long ago destroyed or buried under newer buildings. Even some constructions like the ancient theater, located on Mount Pagos were turned into almost unrecognizable ruins.

The Corinthian Collonade in the Agora of Smyrna
The Corinthian Collonade in the Agora of Smyrna

But the Agora was preserved. It is not so large, but it is only the Agora, not the whole of ancient Smyrna. And today it is turned into a well-maintained tourist attraction.

The Agora of Smyrna

The Agora of Smyrna is located southeast of Kemeraltı, at the foot of Mount Pagos. It is just about 200 x 200 meters large place, surrounded by the busy-traffic Eşrefpaşa Caddesi, the colorful street of Kemeraltı, and the neighborhoods with narrow streets on the south and east. The entrance is at its northern side, and there is a large several-floor parking building near the entrance.

And this is the important data for the entrance:

Entrance fee: 50 TL (as of August 2022).
Working hours:
April-October: 8:30-18:30.
November-March: 8:30-16:30.

What to see inside

The Agora of Smyrna was built in the 4th century BC and has once been the center of social life during the Roman times, with a marketplace, government and religious buildings, and more. However, when you enter inside, you can’t walk freely everywhere, but only on certain arranged routes. The rest of the area is closed to visitors but open for scientists who still discover some new artifacts.

The Basilica

In general, there are two sections of your route inside. The first one is the Basilica of Smyrna- a large building (about 160 m long and 29 m wide), today looked more like an underground construction. Although the term “basilica” is more popular as a church building, the ancient Roman basilicas were just government buildings, and this one, in Smyrna, was one of the largest in the Roman Empire.

So, when you enter inside, you can see how it looks like a labyrinth of tunnels. Its tunnels are partially opened above like lines of arcs. There are museum workers who can explain more details about life here in ancient times. A special attractive spot inside is the source of water that flows on the floor.

The upper part of the Agora

From the Basilica, you can ascend to the upper part by a stair. Here you can see three important elements- an ancient street, the Corinthian Colonnade, and the Faustina Gate (built after the earthquake in 178 AD). There are also the Western Stoa (currently inaccessible for tourists), and newer constructions like a Muslim cemetery and the House of Sabbatai Zevi (today located out of the Agora).

The upper part of the Agora with Mount Pagos in the background
The upper part of the Agora with Mount Pagos in the background

You can explore the whole site of the Agora for about 30-40 min, but if you are not in a hurry, we recommend at least 1 hour.

More interesting places in İzmir

The large city of İzmir is still Smyrna- the same Smyrna mentioned in the Book of Revelation. So, of course, when you come to İzmir, don’t just focus on the Agora of Smyrna, but explore the city in full. Here are the main places of interest in İzmir:

  • The Kordon. This is the seaside park alley with great views of the Gulf of İzmir and the city.
  • Konak Square. This is the most emblematic place in İzmir with the İzmir Clock Tower and Konak Mosque.
  • Kemeraltı. This is the liveliest part of the city, full of old-style narrow streets, with shops, restaurants, markets, and religious sites.
  • Mount Pagos- Kadifekale. This is the hill rising over the Agora, with a medieval fortress and great panoramic views of the city.
  • The Historical Elevator. This is a real elevator, built at the beginning of the 20th century to make movement between the streets on the nearby hill slope easier.
  • Alsancak. This is a neighborhood in the northern part of Konak, where you can find the best of İzmir and Turkish cuisine.
  • The Archaeological Museum. This museum is not too big, but it contains important historical information about Smyrna.
  • Cultural Park. This is the best place to relax in İzmir. And it is not just an ordinary park, it contains a lot of facilities, activities, and other spots for entertainment.
  • Old Smyrna. This is the ruins of Smyrna before the Hellenistic Age, located about 8,5 km north of the Agora. The Temple of Athena is the most significant artifact there.
  • Gulf of İzmir. Try crossing it by ferry from south to north and enjoy stunning views of İzmir, the sea, and the surrounding mountains.
Modern Smyrna- Izmir
Modern Smyrna- Izmir

For more information, visit our Guide to İzmir!

How to reach the Agora of Smyrna

Of course, first, you have to reach İzmir. Again, read our Guide to İzmir for more information on how to do that, how to arrange your accommodation, and how to explore the city once you arrive there.

Check for transport options to Izmir on 12Go!

Check for transport options to Izmir on Bookaway!

Find the best rental cars in Turkey!

Then, the Agora of Smyrna is easily reachable. You can include it in a longer walk, along with the Kordon, Konak Square, the streets of Kemeraltı, and the Cultural Park. And if you want to shorten the walk, there are taxis everywhere, or you can use public transport (buses No. 18, 19, 20, and 811 stop nearby).

Or, if you arrive by car, you can park it in the several-floors Çankaya Katlı Otoparkı. However, since most of the narrow streets are only one-way, you can find it a bit difficult to reach the parking lot. But there are many other smaller parking lots nearby, usually for 30-40 TL.

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Check for Izmir accommodation on Airbnb!

Smyrna tour

The best way to visit Smyrna 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 Smyrna is the second one, you still can do it, just in a different order, especially if you come from Istanbul, Ankara, or Çanakkale.

But if your first stop is Kuşadası, then the best you would do is to follow the right order, starting from Ephesus and ending with Laodicea. And of course, you can always combine this with a longer itinerary, including other destinations.

And of course, when you visit Smyrna, better explore the whole city of İzmir, following our guide for the best places to visit and things to do in the city.

Finally, you can join a tour. Today, there are a lot of tours to the Seven Churches of Asia, including Smyrna (and the whole of İzmir). Although their tour guides would not certainly explain to you all of the details in the Book of Revelation, it is still useful and very convenient, and you can learn a lot of things.

In the Basilica of Smyrna
In the Basilica of Smyrna

Take a look at some tours around İzmir:

 

We didn’t follow the right order in the Book of Revelation, because we came from Çanakkale. We came from Pergamum and when we arrived in İzmir, we just included the Agora of Smyrna among the other interesting places to visit in the city. After that, we went on our way to the colorful and tranquil town of Alaçatı, before proceeding further to Ephesus and the next destinations on the way. And İzmir was one of the most important points of our Western Turkey journey, along with the best of the history and nature of this amazing region of the Earth.

Check some travel books about Turkey and Smyrna (İzmir):

    

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This is a guide to Smyrna- the city of the second church from the Seven Churches of Asia in Turkey, today's Izmir, with facts and travel tips. This is a guide to Smyrna- the city of the second church from the Seven Churches of Asia in Turkey, today's Izmir, with facts and travel tips.

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