This morning, we drove first to the agora or marketplace of the ancient city of Smyrna. Although I’ve been here several times before, I had never previously visited the agora. Instead, I had been up on the acropolis. But the agora is much more interesting, particularly in its marvelous use of arches and keystones.
Smyrna, today’s Izmir, is one of the seven churches of the Revelation of John, and one of Christendom’s earliest martyrs, St. Polycarp (AD 69-155), was a bishop here. He is said to have been a follower of John the Beloved, who lived in Ephesus, about forty-five miles to the south, and Irenaeus claims to have heard him recount what John had told him about his (John’s) experiences with Jesus and what he had heard from others who had known the Savior while he lived. As a very old man, Bishop Polycarp was threatened with death unless he denied Christ. “Eighty-six years have I served him,” he reportedly replied. “How can I now blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what you will.” So he was burned to death.
Then we drove to ancient Sardis, another of “the seven churches of Asia.” (I lectured on the bus on the biographies of Athanasius and Arius, the two principal antagonists at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.) Sardis is very much off the beaten path — cruise ship tours, painfully evident in crowded Ephesus, don’t make it so far inland — but it’s a favorite of mine, and a real gem. First, we went to the site of the ancient temple of Artemis, with its dramatic setting at the foot of a mountain. (See above.) Then, after a good Turkish lunch at a roadside restaurant, we visited the ancient Jewish synagogue and the gymnasium that stood, perhaps rather uncomfortably for the Jews, directly next door.
When King Midas was granted his foolish wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, he soon discovered that his new power could have terrible, even tragic, consequences, and he very quickly decided that he wanted to be rid of it. Finally, he washed himself clean in the river that runs by Sardis, and its banks turned to gold. Which points to the historic fact that gold has long been found in the river by those willing to pan for it.
Later, King Croesus, reputed to be the richest man in the world — “as rich as Croesus,” people who had at least a nodding second-hand acquaintance with the classics used to say — ruled in Sardis. When the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, were passing through the area, Croesus wanted to know whether he should declare war on them. The oracle responded ambiguously: “If you make war against the Persians,” she said, “you will destroy a great empire.” The prediction was correct. Croesus simply didn’t realize that the “great empire” that would be destroyed was his own. After the siege, Cyrus held him captive in his palace. Hearing a great deal of noise, Croesus asked Cyrus what was going on. My men, Cyrus answered, are pillaging your city and taking your possessions. No they’re not, replied Croesus. I no longer have any possessions. It’s your city that they’re pillaging, your property that they’re looting.
Appropriately, perhaps, the very first coins were minted in the kingdom of Lydia, whose capital was Sardis.
After our visit to Sardis, we returned to Izmir where, before dinner, I lectured for an hour on Constantine the Great.
Posted from Izmir, Turkey.