Today was our 4th day into the “First Love” tour, and it was extraordinary in so many ways its hard to know where to start, but I will try. The road that we took through Sardis and Philadelphia comes to a grand climax at Laodicea, where the valley broadens, and two main trade roads intersect. In the middle of this valley is a small set of rolling hills, from which you can see fabulous views in all directions. Snowcapped mountains decorate the horizon to the West, the Lycus river valley wanders to the East, merging with the Meander river valley to the North.
On the top of this little mound sits the ruins of ancient Laodicea, like a jewel in a crown. Someone, at some time, came to these hills and said, “What a beautiful place—there ought to be a city here!” Well, we learned that this area has in fact been inhabited from very ancient times, with human settlements going back 8000 years. (at least according to the information sign at the ruins) However old it is, it has ALWAYS been rich also, prospering off of the converging trade routes, that didn’t change because the mountains didn’t move. It is rich today, Denizli being the current “happening” city, for pleasure lovers.
The valley encompasses more than one city, with Colosse (of the Book of Colossians) a few miles to the South, and Hierapolis a few miles East. Hierapolis is where our adventure began today. When I woke up and looked out the window, I thought I was back in Washington, for a cold wind was blowing a hard rain almost sideways! This area rarely has bad weather, but we are here in January, when it can sometimes happen.
Hierapolis is clearly a “resort town,” and has been for centuries. Geothermal activity forces hot water out the top of a mountain, and it cascades down, forming sumptuous pools, perfect for bathing. From hot at the top, to lukewarm in the middle, to cool at the bottom, you can have a bath at any temperature you want. As time passes, the water cools. (Any bells going off yet?) From Laodicea, a rich resident can stand on their porch and gaze at the brilliant white mineral deposits of the thermal cascade on the opposing hillside and say, “I think I’ll go down for a bath today.”
But for us here on the tour, how can we see anything in this weather? Yesterday morning, the fog was extremely thick, and our guide was nervous that we would not see anything in Sardis. But we prayed, and the fog lifted into a beautiful day! We prayed again now, and headed up the hill to Hierapolis. The weather got worse (hard to believe) and when we arrived, a large touring group from China was already there, huddled into a lodge building in raincoats, staring up into the almost impassable storm. There are roads up the mountain, but private cars are not allowed. But our guide has a lot of connections. He arranged for a van with windows on all sides owned by the resort, and we were on our way! We filmed from the windows of the van, stopping in several places to venture out. Wind almost whipped our plastic raincoats off, and we struggled to keep the cameras dry. The irony of it struck me. For thousands of years, people have been coming to this resort with expectations for a luxurious pampering of the flesh. But an act of God strikes it all down in an instant! How like Laodicea!—“we are rich, increased with goods, have need of nothing,” they say, but in the end, God is going to strip it all away!
After an illuminating time, we drove West across the valley to the ancient ruins of Laodicea itself. There are no roads through these ruins, you can only walk. Well, as we approached, the storm lifted and the wind suddenly stopped, as did the rain! Normally this place is loaded with tourists, but not today. Perhaps owing to the season and the weather, we were the only car there. We had the whole ancient city to ourselves, with the exception of a few foot travelers. All our pictures show no people, just the extraordinary ruins!
I doesn’t take much imagination to understand what life was like in Laodicea–from the “strip” where you enter, a decorated stone road lined with marble pillars like an ancient “Madison Avenue,” to the two great theaters within walking distance of the “downtown area” –this place was designed for wealth and pleasure. That and religion; a huge and richly decorated Christian church excavated in 2010 is just down the block from a grand temple dedicated to Greek gods. Religion was cosmopolitan. The church was built with money from the donations of Constantine, and the church later acquired the pagan temple “intact” to use as an additional building for church functions. (The sprawling “mega-church movement” of our time, immediately came to my mind.)
The lifestyle in Laodicea literally drips from these ruins: Enjoy the shows, shop in the malls, go to church, and take hot baths. The city was also a center for banking, and wine was plentiful from the vineyards that grew in the valleys around. Life went on like that for quite a while until a series of increasingly violent earthquakes struck the city. They tried to repair it, but when the last “big one” hit, the damage was too great, and the city was finally abandoned, leaving the ruins we see today. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Well, I was pondering these things deeply as we walked back to the car. We were leaving the ruins just as the Chinese tour bus arrived. Rain began to sprinkle. As we drove the windy road back down the hillside, the wind began to whip up! Those poor folks. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with large windows, and ate staring out at the driving storm. (whoever prayed–thank you 🙂
Mark Aho and Michael Diaz