Sacred Places for Christianity
Conventionally, Christians have constituted the largest segment of religious tourists in Turkey. Turkey has more biblical sites than any other country in the Middle East. Christian tourism (Biblical tourism) has the greatest potential for Turkey, with the majority of international tourist arrivals coming from Europe and North America. Americans, Europeans, and other nationalities are attracted in great numbers to sites of religious significance, whether associated with the Old or the New Testaments, or the lives of the saints or other holy people (Turker 2013). Because it is the primary religious destination, North American religious visitors traditionally travel to Europe and the Biblical lands of Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece (Wright 2007).
Turkey has been the site of many crucial events in the history of Christianity. The missionary journeys of St Paul; the seven Ecumenical Councils held in Asia Minor, the first followers of Jesus known as “Christians” in Antioch-on-the-Orontes; St Sophia, the most important religious building of all time; and the seven churches of Asia Minor according to the book of Revelation, are all important elements that show the connection of Christianity to the country.
In a qualitative study conducted by Turker (2013), managers of Turkish travel agencies that specialize in religious tourism identified Istanbul, Ephesus, St Paul’s Trial, and the seven churches of Revelation as the most important religious sites for the Christian community. All participants in the study agreed that spiritual tourists (pure pilgrims) visit the seven churches and attend mass services in some of them, such as St Polycarp Church in Izmir and the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. Consistent with the pilgrim-tourist continuum, pious pilgrims visit the seven churches of Revelation, while other religious tourists driven by either spiritual or touristic needs visit the seven churches along with other religious sites, such as the House of the Virgin Mary, St Sophia Museum in Istanbul, the Cave Church of St Peter in Antakya, and St Paul’s Trial. While Protestants visit St Paul and Cappadocia for spiritual purposes, Catholics and Orthodox Christians visit the seven churches and the House of Virgin Mary. The most important religious destinations for the Christian community are presented below.
Seven Churches of Revelation
St John described seven literal churches in Asia Minor in his book of Revelation, Chaps. 1-3. These are St Polycarp Church in Smyrna (Izmir), the churches in Philadelphia (Ala^ehir), Laodicea (Denizli), Thyatira (Akhisar), Pergamum (Bergama), Sardis (Salihli), Virgin Mary, and St John’s Basilica in Ephesus. Although they were literal churches in that time, they have spiritual significance for believers today (Turker 2013).
The Basilica of St John The Basilica, which is dedicated to the young apostle St John, Jesus’s favorite gospel writer, is located in the ancient city of Ephesus. It is assumed that one of the three tombs that were unearthed during excavations in the region belongs to St John (OTPT 2015). The basilica attracts many tourists every year. For example, 325,000 people visited the Basilica in 2014 (Directorate of Culture and Tourism of Izmir 2014).
House of the Virgin Mary This holy site, located in Selpuk, was first identified in 1818 by an Austrian peasant, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who saw it in a dream exactly as it was found. According to tradition, John brought Mary to Ephesus after the death of Jesus, in keeping with Jesus’s admonition to John to care for his mother. It was believed that Mary spent her last days in the vicinity of Ephesus and died there. Both Pope Paul VI in 1967 and Pope John Paul II in 1979 have celebrated mass here. The holy area was declared a Christian pilgrimage center in 1961. Many people congregate at this sanctuary every August 15 to observe the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (Edmonds 1998). Because of its close proximity to the tourist destinations of Ku^adasi, Didim, and Bodrum, a number of tourists visit the area for religious or touristic purposes and participate in the mass that is held every Sunday. According to Vincent N. B. Micaleff, head of The Foundation of The House of Virgin Mary, over one million people visit Mary’s house every year (Turker 2013).
Seven Ecumenical Councils These councils, held in Turkey, played very important roles in the history of Christianity. The Ecumenical Councils were held, in order, in Nicea (Iznik) in AD 325, St Irene Church in Constantinople (Istanbul) in AD 381, Ephesus (Efes) in AD 431, the Church of St Euphemia in Chalcedon (Kadikoy, Istanbul) in AD 451, the Church of St Sophia (Istanbul) in AD 553, the Church of St Sophia (Istanbul) in AD 680-681, and the Church of St Sophia in Nicea (Iznik) in AD 787 (Edmonds 1998).
St Irene Church This church is an important building in Christian history. The Second Ecumenical Council was held here in 381.
St Sophia Museum This museum is a holy building for both Christians and Muslims. Following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Faith Sultan Mehmet converted it into a mosque. Since 1935, it has been in service as a museum. According to Hagia Sophia Museum statistics, in 2014, 3,574,000 people visited St Sophia for either cultural or religious purposes (Hagia Sophia Museum 2015).
St. Paul’s Church and Well St Paul’s Church, one of the major pilgrimage centers of Christianity, is located in Tarsus, Mersin province. St Paul took several missionary journeys in Anatolia and in Greece. Today, thousands of people come to Turkey in order to trace St Paul’s steps and his spiritual journey. St Paul’s Trial is a 500-km-long route from Perge to Yalvap (Pisidia) and partly follows the route walked by St Paul (Turker 2013). The church where the first congregations gathered and where the Christianity spread commemorates these journeys. St Paul’s Well in the garden is considered sacred and is believed to have a healing effect (OTPT 2015).
Cave Church of Saint Peter (Pierre) This church, located in Hatay Province, is one of the most significant centers of Christianity. St Peter gave his first sermon there and Paul and Barnabas were sent on their first missionary journey from the cave. The followers of Jesus were first named Christians at the site, and the church contributed to the spread of Christianity around the world. Pope Paul IV declared the area as a pilgrimage site for Christians in 1963. Every year on June 29, mass is held in the church with the participation of religious people from other cities and the local Christian community.
Pamukkale (Hierapolis) Pamukkale, which was the name of the ancient city of Hierapolis, means “Holy City.” The city gained religious significance and was considered sacred after the death of St Philip, one of the apostles of Jesus (OTPT 2015). Italian archeologists, who have been excavating the area for decades, unearthed his tomb in 2011 (Biblical Archaeology Society 2015).
Mount Ararat and Noah’s Ark The story of Noah is told both in the Bible and in the Koran. It is supposed that Noah’s Ark was grounded at Mount Ararat on the highest mountain of Anatolia after the Great Flood. Mentioned in the holy books of Koran and the Old Testament, it is believed that the Great Flood lasted 150 days as the waters rose after it had rained for 40 days (OTPT 2015).
Sumela Monastery Sumela Monastery, which is full of depictions of biblical scenes, was first established in the fourth century in Mapka, Trabzon. The monastery complex consists of chapels, student rooms, a library, a sacred spring, a kitchen, and a guest house. The monastery was visited by many pilgrims, both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, until it closed in 1923. Currently, it is a museum maintained by the Turkish government (Edmonds 1998). Some 397,500 people visited the Monastery in 2014 (GDCRM 2014).
St Paul’s Basilica (Yalva?) St Paul preached in a synagogue during his missionary journeys to Anatolia. Paul went to the synagogue on a Sabbath day, and it was his first recorded sermon. He was buried underneath the Basilica.
Deyrulzafaran and Mor Gabriel Monasteries (Mardin) These monasteries, belonging to the Syrian Jacobites, are located in Mardin in the east of Turkey. Deyrulzafaran is still used by the Assyrian community living in Mardin province today. Mor Gabriel Monastery is a fourth-century establishment, while Deyrulzafaran dates from the late sixth century (Edmonds 1998).
Sardis (Sart) The ancient city of Sardis, located in Salihli, Manisa Province, is an important religious site, with synagogues and churches. Mentioned in the book of Revelation, Sardis is considered a sacred center as it is the site of one of the seven holy churches that played a major role in spreading Christianity to the West (OTPT 2015).
Little Hagia Sophia Little Hagia Sophia, located in Iznik (Nicaea), was built as a basilica in the Byzantine period. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was held in 789 AD in the basilica.
St Nicolas (Santa Claus) Church The St Nicholas Church is located in Demre, Antalya. The church was constructed during the sixth century as a memorial to St Nicholas after his death. St Nicholas was buried there, but most of his remains were stolen by some Italian sailors and taken to Bari. Those that were not stolen are today preserved at the Antalya Museum. St Nicholas Church which is a religious site for Orthodox Christians visited by 531,000 people in 2014 (Directorate of Culture and Tourism of Antalya 2014).
Cappadocia Settled for the first time during the Paleolithic era, the region became one of the Christianity areas during the Roman period. Churches carved into the rocks served as shrines for Christians who fled the persecution of the Romans. Over 3500 rock churches have been identified in the area. The churches are full of unique frescoes. Kokar Church, Yilanli Church, Kiliplar Church, Tokatli Church, Karanlik Church, Elmali Church, Kubbeli Church, and Soganli Church are usually visited by the Christian community for both religious and cultural purposes. The Derinkuyu and Kaymakli underground cities were used by Christians to escape from Arab invaders. A total of 464,750 people visited Kaymakli, while 420,000 Derinkuyu, in 2014 (GDCRM 2014).
Cave of the Seven Sleepers The Cave of the Seven Sleepers is situated in the district of Tarsus, Mersin province. It is considered sacred by both the Christian and Muslim communities.
Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate (Constantinople Ecumenical Patriarchate) This site was founded by Apostle Andrea in AD 37. It was considered equal to the Roman Patriarchate after the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which was held in Chalcedon (Kadikoy) in 451. Following the division of the Roman Empire, Constantinople Ecumenical Patriarchate, also known as the Eastern Church, refused the Council and separated from the Catholic Church in the fifth century.
Monastery of the Holy Trinity This monastery, founded in 857, is located in Heybeliada, Istanbul. It comprises several buildings of the Greek Orthodox School of theology, which was closed in 1971. The Turkish government reopened the Orthodox seminary in 2014.
Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate (Armenian Apostolik Church) This Patriarchate is located in Kumkapi, Istanbul. The church is known as Surp
Astvadzadin and was built in the fourteenth century. The Armenian Church, one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, rejected Chalcedon, which was the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon (Kadikoy, Istanbul) in AD 451. The church has an independent character and differs from the Greek Church (the Eastern Orthodox Church).
Akdamar Church Akdamar Church was first established by Monk Manuel. It was dedicated to the Holy Cross. The area is very important for the Armenian Orthodox religion. According to Anadolu Agency (2014), 71,000 visitors visited the site in 2013.
Ani Churches Ani, also known as “the city of a thousand and one churches,” was a medieval Armenian city in Kars province near the Armenian border. The area is sacred for the Armenian Orthodox religion. It includes religious buildings such as the Church of St Gregory of Tigranes Honentz, the Cathedral, the Church of St Gregory of Abugamrents, the Church of the Redeemer, and the Church of Holy Apostles (Edmonds 1998).
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (Dicle ve Firat Rivers) The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers are holy for the three monotheistic religions, as it is believed that they were sent by Heaven. In the story of Adam and Eve, the Bible describes the original perfect home of the human race where God planted a garden out of which four streams flowed: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. The Koran has parallel accounts with the Bible in this regard. The Pishon and the Gihon rivers were lost, but the Tigris and Euphrates still flow (Edmonds 1998).
Many other old Byzantine churches in Istanbul have either been converted into mosques (Chora Church, Church of Christ Pantokrator, Church of Christ Pantepoptes, Monastery of Gastria, Church of Saint John the Baptist at Lips, etc.) or function as museums (Hagia Irene). Some have been abandoned and are in ruins (Monastery of Stoudios, Church of the Virgin of the Pharos) and a few are still active (Egresi et al. 2012b).
The MoCT (2015) permits religious ceremonies and symposiums to be held at many church and religious sites, including St Jean’s Basilica in Selfuk, Virgin Mary Church in Izmir, St Pierre Grotto in Antakya, St Nicholas Church in Demre, St Paul Church in Tarsus, St Paul Church in Yalvaf, Sardes in Salihli, Laodicea in Denizli, the churches in Cappadocia (Derinkuyu Orthodoks Church, Kaymakli Church, Goreme Kiliflar Church, El Nazar Church, Urgfip Mustafa Pa§a Konstantin Eleni Church, Avanos Dereyamanli Church), St Sophia Church, and the Council Palace in Iznik, Akdamar Island in Van (once a year), and Sumela Monastery in Trabzon (once a year) by the courtesy of the related Governorship.