The Thrill of Discovery— a Lost Synagogue

(Mark Fairchild and I have had many adventures exploring Turkey together. Mark is a real explorer and risk taker. I am more of a dabbler when it comes to exploration. I remember a recent trip to a site near Ararat which found me clinging to a cliff which Mark climbed through in a driving wind and rain. As for me…. I hung out in a niche on the other side while he snapped pictures of ancient worthies carved in the cliff. Here is his account of how he discovered lost synagogues in Cilicia. Avid readers will also want to see the edited form of his account in the most recent issue of BAR.—- BW3)

I first discovered the synagogues during my sabbatical in Turkey in the Spring of 2007. By that time, I had made several journeys in Turkey and realized that there were many known and unknown ancient cities dating back to the Greek, Hellenistic and Roman periods. I made it my goal to visit and document as many of these cities as I could find. Some of these ancient cities are not on any of the maps and are known only by the local people. So, I’ve gotten into the habit of approaching the village watering holes where a number of elderly gentlemen generally congregate and I strike up conversations with whoever’s there. This is no easy task, since I speak very little Turkish. However, I have picked up enough Turkish to offer common greetings and polite responses to simple questions. It is not long before they ask where I come from. They are usually surprised to find that I’m an American. American tourists commonly visit the Biblical sites in western Turkey, but not these out of the way places in the interior and in the east. It is not uncommon to field a few political questions, since these people want to know what a real American thinks about these issues. Eventually, I am able to communicate the purpose of my visit and explain that I am interested in seeing ancient cities and ruins in the area. Sometimes I strike out. At other times, however, I really connect.

In 2007 I was exploring the ancient Roman province of Cilicia, St. Paul’s home district. Southwest of Tarsus (Paul’s home town), the topography becomes brutal. The Romans subdivided this southwestern territory into “Kilikya Trachea” (Rough Cilicia) for good reason. The huge Taurus Mountains abruptly climb from the Mediterranean coast to over a mile in height inland. These mountains have been carved into numerous breath-taking canyons, gorges and cliffs by the Calycadnos, Lamos, Liparis and Cydnus Rivers and their many tributaries which flow from the mountains to the sea. Inland from the coast, the area has few paved roads and even the dirt roads are terribly eroded, rutted and at times, impassible.

By the middle of May, I had made my way to the coastal town of Korykos, an early Roman city, known today as Kizkalesi. There on the shore, there is an Armenian castle rebuilt over what used to be an earlier fortress and a Roman forum. The site is surrounded by a fence to protect people from the crumbling ruins. But, on the side facing the sea, the fence terminates against the castle wall at the sea. As I examined the wall, I thought that I could grip the outside of the wall and find footholds that would take me to an opening in the wall facing the sea. Why not give it a shot? I made it into the castle without a problem. Once inside, I found the lintel of the first synagogue with a menorah buried in the debris from the Roman period. Assuming that the lintel was six and a half feet above the floor of the structure, the building is currently buried to a depth of about five and a half feet. The Armenian castle was built right over the top of the synagogue and whatever else was there earlier.

In later trips to Korykos, I found six sarcophagi (tombs) with menorahs on them in a sprawling necropolis on the hills inland from the castle. There are almost certainly more of them, since I did not cover the entire necropolis and I was chased out by bees on my last visit. Ancient literary sources indicate that many Jews settled in Cilicia during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The presence of these tombs corroborates this testimony.

The day after I visited Korykos in 2007, I met Davut at the village of Ayaş. This was a great connection and Davut has become a good friend. Davut knows the ruins in the area very well and in 2007, he took me to several of these places in the mountains and upland. I remember being amazed that people could live in such remote and dangerous surroundings. Since then, Davut introduced me to his friend Mustafa, who knows of even more of these ancient cities. Even on this last trip Davut and Mustafa showed me several unknown ancient cities along the Lamas River gorge that blew me away. There is so much to see and discover in this area, yet hardly anyone goes there.

I’m drifting from the topic, so let me get back on target. In 2007 one of the places that Davut showed me was a place known locally as Çatiören. Nobody knows the ancient city name. Çatiören is located about 4-5 miles inland from Korykos in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. Davut dropped me off on the side of the dirt road and pointed out the site. He didn’t go with me at this place. Çatiören is difficult to navigate. There are three steep ridges separated by ravines and small streams. The central ridge contains the bulk of the ruins and is topped by an Hellenistic fortress, a watchtower and a nicely preserved temple to Hermes.

I could see from the distance that almost all of the ruins on the central ridge were constructed of polygonal masonry, typical of the Hellenistic period (2nd or 1st century B.C.). However, getting there was not easy. Not only were the sides of the ravines steep, requiring one to descend and ascend where possible, but also the entire site was covered with heavy brush which smothered the place. It is easy to determine why few people go there and why Davut stayed behind. I pushed ahead and after crossing the steam, I began my ascent of the central ridge. Due to the brush and the incline I approached the ridge from the south. While ascending I passed the debris of a large number of building stones. I could not see far ahead (or even the top of the ridge), so I had to guess at the route I was taking. Nearing the middle of the ridge after a break in the brush, I spotted the building with the menorah. I did not quickly notice the menorah, but after examining and photographing the building (as I do every building), I saw the faint carving of the menorah. The building was in the shadows and the building was constructed of basalt (a black, volcanic rock), so it was not easy to see initially. However, I moved in more closely and was shocked to see the menorah. I knew immediately what it was, but I was incredulous to think that a menorah (and by implication, a synagogue) would be located here. However, I had seen the menorah on the lintel at Korykos the day before, so I began to think that there must have been a sizeable Jewish population in this area. I didn’t have a lot of time to mull this over at the time, since I still had the bulk of the site left to see. I returned to Davut four hours later and he seemed surprised that I spent so much time at the site. Well, whaddaya expect, it’s not easy getting around the place.

After I returned to campus after the sabbatical, I began to investigate Çatiören. Nobody mentions Çatiören and no scholarly literature was available. The place has never been excavated by archaeologists and I found nothing that even referred to the site. Finally, I found a journal published in 1890 entitled “Explorations in Cilicia Tracheia” by J. Theodore Bent. In the article Bent described a place (for which he gives no name) which fit what I saw at Çatiören. Bent described the Hermes temple exactly as it stands today and even transcribed a Greek inscription on the side of the temple. I take pictures of every inscription I see and use them to stump my Greek students. Comparing Bent’s description of the site with what I had seen, it was clear that we were at the same place. Not surprisingly, Bent never saw the synagogue or menorah. However, Bent discovered several inscriptions, which he transcribed, but did not translate. I translated one of the inscriptions, which made frequent mention of “Sabbath Keepers”, “the Sabbath God”, “those in the synagogue” and a “synagogue official”. The translation of this inscription appears in the BAR article.

I returned to the site a few years later to see if anything further could be found at the site and to see if I could find the Sabbath Keeper inscription, which I had not seen on my first visit. I entered the synagogue by crawling on my stomach. The buildings higher on the ridge had collapsed into the synagogue, filling it to a large degree. Once inside, I observed a small square building with the western side built into the bedrock of the ridge. On the southern wall (facing Jerusalem), there was a small niche about one foot square, where it is possible that the Torah scrolls could have been kept. Such niches (or Arks) were common in later synagogues – always facing Jerusalem.

I climbed down the side of the building and discovered two interesting items. First there was a winding rock cut staircase on the eastern side of the building which entered an upper story of the synagogue from the south. Later synagogues separated the women from the men and the Gentile God-fearers (mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles) from the Jews. This upper story could have been used for women or God-fearers who wished to participate in the synagogue activities. The second interesting item was a water basin cut into the rock on the eastern side of the structure. Water purification was an important rite for Jews who wished to enter the temple or synagogue and large emersion basins of this sort (called mikvehs) were common at Jewish sites.

Unfortunately, I have never found the inscription that Bent copied. It could be that exposure to the wind, rain, heat and frost over the past 120 years has destroyed the inscription, or that the inscription is hidden under the heavy brush at the site.

In May 2012 Davut, Mustafa and I returned to Çatiören. We examined the necropolis with rock-cut tombs further south on the near ridge. However, when I descended into the ravine to visit the synagogue again, Davut and Mustafa stayed behind. I guess you have to live half way around the world to truly appreciate good ruins.

Why are these synagogues so important? There are several answers to that question. First, in spite of the testimony of ancient authors regarding a large Jewish population in Cilicia, no ancient synagogue has ever been found in the province. These are the first synagogues ever found in Cilicia. Second, if the synagogue at Çatiören indeed dates to the Hellistic period (2nd – 1st century B.C.) as the evidence strongly suggests, this would be the earliest synagogue ever discovered anywhere in the world (including Palestine). Third, from a Christian point of view, Cilicia is where the apostle Paul lived. After Paul’s famous conversion while on the Damascus road, his life was threatened. The Christians in Jerusalem sent Paul home to Cilicia to let things cool down and to take him out of the danger zone. Paul spent more than ten years in Cilicia after his conversion. What did he do there? Knowing Paul’s zeal to share the Gospel message, Paul almost certainly traveled around Cilicia sharing his new faith in the cities and towns of Cilicia. In fact, this is suggested in Acts 15:40-41 where it is stated that Paul and Silas traveled through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches. The word “strengthening” means that churches already existed in these areas when Paul and Silas came through. According to the narrative in Acts, nobody had been doing evangelistic work in Cilicia except Paul. Moreover, we know that Paul’s missionary strategy was to first visit synagogues and to share the gospel message with fellow Jews. I think there is a good chance that Paul visited this synagogue in Çatiören during those ten years after his conversion.

  • Patrick

    Interesting stuff indeed.

    I’d guess that some of the 3000 Jewish converts on Pentecost were from Cilicia, so when they returned home, it may be they evangelized before Paul got there.

  • David Swartz

    Have you read Linford Stutzman’s Sailing Acts?

  • Ben Witherington

    Read it? I wrote the blurb for it. BW3