Skip to comments.Where the Beloved Disciple Finally Rested
Posted on 12/26/2006 3:38:47 PM PST by NYer
Having prayed at the House of Mary Shrine in Ephesus, Turkey at which Pope Benedict would make a historic stop a year and a half later I decided to set my sights on the nearby ruins of St. Johns tomb.
After all, the evangelist who lived with Mary in her later years was also the only Apostle to have stood with her at the foot of the cross years earlier. The Church celebrates his feast Dec. 27.
Düzgün, my ever-faithful (and faith-filled) Turkish pilgrimage companion, agreed to accompany me. Hes not Catholic, but, at Marys House, his eyes seem to have been opened to the sanctifying power of places associated with the Churchs history.
The remains of the basilica that once stood at the tomb are located on Ayasoluk Hill near Selçuk, approximately two miles from Ephesus. The city is named after the Selçuk Turks who invaded the region in the 12th century. St. Johns grave was originally marked by a modest fourth-century church. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian built a more impressive structure to honor the apostle.
The tomb was an important Christian pilgrimage site for many centuries before its desecration and destruction.
During the Roman republics glory days, Ephesus was a major trading city and the capital of proconsular Asia (western Asia Minor). With a population of half a million, it was the largest city in Roman Asia circa 100 A.D. Ephesus boasted the Temple of Artemis, the ancient worlds largest building and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
It was to this city that St. John brought Mary in response to Christs plea from the cross that the two should care for each other.
Mindful of the apostles crucial role in Scripture and in salvation history, Düzgün and I walked up to the gate to buy tickets. As my friend and the ticket salesman blathered away in Turkish, I noticed that the kiosk was comprised of stone fragments from the basilica.
A single stone caught my eye amid the pieces of marble that once enjoyed a far nobler purpose than serving as a ticket counter. Inscribed on that otherwise plain and very worn white stone was a single word written in Greek: Παντοκράτωρ (Pantokrator). This word, one of Christs titles, means Almighty, Sustainer of the World or Ruler of All.
I pointed out the word to Düzgün and explained its meaning. He was as surprised as I was to find this stone being used for such an impious purpose. As it was a slow day at the outdoor museum, the ticket salesman took notice of our conversation. Düzgün interpreted my observations.
Mashallah! the man responded as he came out to see the inscription. The Arab word is used throughout the Muslim world to express surprise and shock. He knelt by the stone that was his countertop and ran his fingers through the carved letters.
Are you sure? he asked through my friend and translator.
Very sure, I told him.
Ive been at this job for five years and, though Ive seen the carvings, I never gave it much thought, he explained, his fingers still feeling the grooves.
He stood and resumed his place in the ticket booth, crying out once more: Mashallah!
Base of a Basilica
A model of St Johns Basilica was on display near the entrance to the ruins. The church was cruciform and was covered by six enormous hemispherical domes. Were the basilica fully restored, it would be the seventh largest in the world.
I had hoped to find some sort of Christian presence at the site. Alas, I was to be disappointed.
I learned that, as Ephesus slipped into obscurity, it could no longer maintain a suitable defense against waves of Muslim raiders. The Turkish Seljuk Aydinoglu clan converted what remained into a mosque in 1330; this was destroyed by Tamerlanes Mongol army in 1402. Over the intervening years, a great deal of the churchs marble and brickwork was pillaged.
The brick foundations and marble walls have been partially reconstructed and the skeleton of the basilica has been somewhat restored, giving visitors a sense of the great edifices dimensions.
Düzgün and I walked through the silent stones, imagining what the basilica was like. It was hard to reconcile the long-faded magnificence of this structure as portrayed by the model we examined and the pitiful state into which it has fallen.
Columns stacked as neatly as cordwood stood on both sides of what must have been the churchs nave. There were also modern bricks holding up pieces of original stonework. Mentally, we reconstructed and reassembled the shattered pieces before us this base with that column with that capital, and so on. On several of the capitals, one can clearly make out the monograms of Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora. My guidebook assured me that these columns originally stood along the basilicas nave.
The remains of a baptistery, central pool and a chapel can be found at the churchs apse.
St. Johns tomb is at the far end of the ruins, immediately below where the altar once stood. Four thin columns held a cupola aloft over the grotto in which St. John was interred. This was once accessible. Now, two grated holes near the sanctuary allow visitors to view the spot where the underground tomb used to lie.
I had mixed feelings about the site. It was exciting to be in the spot where one of Christs apostles was honored, but the sight of a ruined church filled me with sadness.
I kept wondering as to the final disposition of St Johns relics. Clearly they were no longer here.
I was struck to think of the horror and suffering experienced by the Christians who lived in the area. Their choice: Convert to Islam or die.
Had the relics been destroyed or secreted away someplace? The world may never know. But, no matter their fate, we still have our faith in Christ and, with it, our hope in eternal life thanks in no small part to the powerful witness of the great St. John, apostle and evangelist.
I went there in 1998. I don't remember having to buy a ticket, but I was with a tour group and it might have been included in the cost of the tour. There was a mosque right beside the ruins of the church. The tour guide told us it was one of the most sacred sites in islam.
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