Mingling Homer and the New Testament

Mingling Homer and the New Testament October 16, 2023

 

Near Kuşadası, in Aydın Province, Türkiye, in a 2016 Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph by Tevfik Teker

 

We were up very early this morning to fly from Kayseri to Izmir.  Izmir is the ancient Smyrna, the traditional birthplace of the enormously important Greek poet Homer.  Kayseri is only one of several towns named Caesarea in the ancient world – think, for example, of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast of Israel and of Caesarea Philippi in the northern Galilee; everybody in antiquity wanted to flatter the emperor – and, in the Middle Ages, was once the capital of the early Turkish Seljuq Sultanate of Rum.

At one point during our travels today, I spoke to the group about the curious fact that much of Greek civilization actually had its origin outside of Greece proper, in what is today Türkiye.  Besides Homer, who was famously “the teacher of Greece” and whose Iliad and Odyssey served, in a sense, as the classical Greek “Bible,” there is the other great early Greek poet, Hesiod.  And several of the pre-Socratic philosophers (e.g., Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, and Melissus) were from “Ionia” (that is, western Anatolia), as well.  Anaxagoras was born near Smyrna.  Sappho, the famous poetess, lived just off the coast of Anatolia on the island of Lesbos. The great Heraclitus came from Ephesus, which seems apt given the eight-kilometer distance that now separates its onetime harbor from the sea, the changing course of its river, and its transformation from a populous and wealthy city to a famous set of ruins.  Panta rhei (πάντα ῥεῖ), “everything flows” or “everything is in flux” or “everything changes,” is probably the most familiar of Heraclitus’ sayings, although he may not actually have said those particular words.  (The exact phrase wasn’t ascribed to Heraclitus until the sixth century, by Simplicius, although a similar saying that expresses the same idea — panta chorei (πάντα χωρεῖ), or “everything moves” – is definitely Heraclitean.)

First, we visited the ruins of the Church of St. John, a traditional burial place of the apostle John—a tradition that Latter-day Saints tend to doubt—who is said to have lived for a time in Ephesus (and perhaps to have written his gospel there) and, having been commissioned by Jesus from the cross to care for Mary, to have brought her here, as well.

We next dropped by the ruins of the Artemisium, the great temple of Artemis or Diana that was completed around 550 BC.  It’s a powerful commentary on the transience of human greatness to see one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World reduced to one standing column—standing only because restorers put it back upright—with a stork’s nest on its top.  (For the first time that I’ve been here, the ruins were dry, rather than immersed in a swamp, and the storks had abandoned their nest for their annual migration.)

Then we went for a really fine outdoor lunch and some carpet shopping.  (I’ll have to get the name of the place; I highly recommend it for both the food and the carpets.)

On the whole, I am not an acquisitive person.  But oriental carpets and kilims are very definitely one of my weaknesses.  I can’t go into a carpet store or a carpet factory without falling in love with at least one carpet.  We’ve bought carpets during previous visits here in the Ephesus area and in Egypt.  And one of my favorites is a Tabrizi that I bought in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The trouble is that we don’t have room for any more of them. They’re on our floor, and other weavings (one even made by a relative in Norway) hang on our walls.  In fact, we have more than we can display at any one time.  So many carpets, so little space.  And so little money.  So we bought another.

Next, we went to Ephesus itself.  Some have called it the second most important city of the Roman Empire.  I personally might argue that, say, Alexandria held second rank, but Ephesus was certainly an important city.  For one thing, it was the capital of the Roman province of Asia Minor and, because of the confluence of a navigable river connecting to the sea and a trade route all the way to Mesopotamia, it was a major trading center and port. Paul lived in Ephesus for well over two years and, as I mentioned above, many believe that the Gospel of John was written in the city. It had a population of roughly a quarter of a million people, which was a very large number for the ancient world.

But its meandering river, the Küçükmenderes or “Little Meander,” let it down.  It silted up the city’s harbor.  Incidentally, the term to meander derives from the name of that winding river, the Menderes, which was sometimes known to the ancient Greeks as Μαίανδρος (Maiandros, or Latin Maeander), which was characterised by a very convoluted path along its lower reach. As a result, even in classical Greece the name of the river seems to have become a common noun denoting anything that was convoluted and winding, including speeches.  Strabo said of the river that “its course is so exceedingly winding that everything winding is called meandering.”

The ruins of Ephesus are extensive and relatively well preserved.  It’s possible, walking down the main street, to get a real sense of an ancient Greco-Roman city.  Notable along the way are Hadrian’s temple, the luxurious terrace houses of the economic elite, the magnificent Library of Celsus, and the impressive Roman theater, which could accommodate more than 25,000 spectators.  Along with the temple of Diana or Artemis, the theater figures prominently in the interesting account given at Acts 19 (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/nt/acts/19?lang=eng).  I read that account to our group and commented on it as we sat on benches in the theater, perhaps in the very places where some of those sat who cried out, for two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!  Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”

We’re spending the night in the Charisma Hotel, overlooking the Aegean Sea,  in the beautiful resort town of Kuşadası.  It is a popular stopping point for cruise ships — which are currently making their way to Türkiye in somewhat heightened numbers because they cannot dock in Israel.

 

Posted from Kuşadası, Aydın Province, Türkiye

 

 


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