Knapsacks shouldered and bibles in hand, a group of Christian pilgrims from Indonesia, China and the United States trooped into the remains of a fourth-century church in ancient Philadelphia last month. Gazing up at the columns that tower over what is today the Turkish market town of Alasehir, the pilgrims listened as their Australian guide read from the Apostle John’s letter to the early Christians of this city, one of the biblical Seven Churches of Revelation.
“It makes you see the Bible in 3-D and color,” the guide, Dan Fennell, said of his tour of historical Christian sites around western Turkey.
Mr. Fennell, who is based in Jakarta, has been leading pilgrimages to Anatolia for close to a decade. But these visits have become richer and more rewarding, he said, because Turkey has been cultivating the historical sites of Christianity.
“In Laodicea, for example, where we are headed next, you can now see things you could not see five years ago,” Mr. Fennell said of the ruins of the seventh city addressed by the Apostle John.
A Muslim nation long ill at ease with its pre-Ottoman history, Turkey has discovered Anatolia’s Christian heritage as a way of drawing visitors and of cultivating an image as a meeting-point and arbiter of civilizations.
“We have recognized this as a special field of tourism and as a special cultural wealth,” the Turkish culture minister, Ertugrul Gunay, said in an interview in Ankara. By next year, his ministry aims to increase the number of religious tourists to Turkey to more than three million, from 1.3 million last year.
“Until now, our concept of faith tourism was limited” to Muslim shrines “like the Mevlana tomb in Konya or the Halil-Ur Rahman mosque in Urfa,” Mr. Gunay said, “even though Anatolia is the home of important shrines of Christianity and Judaism as well.”
“Now,” he added, “we are working to care for all of these sites, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, without discrimination, to restore them and maintain them and to open them up to the public to visit.”
A case in point is the ancient metropolis of Laodicea, in southwestern Turkey, where Turkish archaeologists unearthed a spectacular church dating to the early fourth century.
“This is one of the oldest churches in the world to survive in its original state,” said Celal Simsek, the archaeologist who is leading the excavation team that has worked through the winter to reveal the huge church that was first spotted underground last year on a radar scan. “When the 10 most important archaeological discoveries of the 21st century are totted up one day, this church will definitely be on the list.”
Mr. Simsek dates the construction of the church to between 313 and 320 A.D., immediately after the Edict of Milan, by which Emperor Constantine I of Rome legalized Christianity in the year 313.
Scrambling around the church, which has 10 towering pillars on a floor area of 2,000 square meters, or 21,500 square feet, flawlessly preserved mosaic floors and a walk-in baptismal fountain for mass christenings, Mr. Simsek said he was hoping to invite the pope to the official unveiling of the restored church, tentatively planned for next year.
“I expect an onslaught of visitors in the coming years,” Mr. Simsek said.
Pilgrims have already begun pouring in, on the last leg of a tour through the sites of the seven biblical churches, all of which are in western Turkey. Tourism to the site increased tenfold in the first months of this year, to 1,000 visitors a day, Mr. Simsek said, adding that “90 percent of visitors are pilgrims.”
Mindful of the revenue that tourists provide, the nearby town of Denizli, in a first for Turkey, is now supporting the Laodicea digs financially, adding a million dollars year to financing from the local university and the Culture Ministry.
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