The Message to Smyrna
To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: "This is the message from the One Who is the First and the Last, Who died and lives again:
I know your troubles; I know that you are poor but really you are rich! I know the evil things said against you by those who claim to be Jews, but are not; they are a group that belongs to Satan!
Do not be afraid of anything you are about to suffer. Listen! The Devil will put you to the test by having some of you thrown into prison; your troubles will last ten days. Be faithful unto me, even if it means death and I will give you the crown of life.
If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches!: Those who win the victory will not be hurt by the second death!".
Smyrna was magnificently situated on the Aegean Sea. It is the second in rank in the list of the seven churches. Of all the cities of Asia-Minor, Smyrna was one of the loveliest. In poetical language it was described as: "the ornament of Anatolia, the crown and flover of Asia-Minor". Lucian wrote about the city as to be: "the fairest of the cities of Ionia". Aristides, the orator who sang the hymn of praise on Smyrna with splendor spoke about: "The grace which extends over every part of it like a rainbow.The brightness that reaches up toward the skies, like the glitter of the bronze of armour in Homer's epics..". It is known that Smyrna has been the native town of Homerus, and that he has written his poems on the banks of the river Meles.
On the score of loveliness no other city could challenge Symrna. To the charm of the city was contributed by the phenomenon that the West-wind, the gentle Zephyr of the Aegean, ever blew through the streets as it does still today. About this, Aristides adds to his hymn: "the wind blows through every part of the city and makes it as fresh as a grove of trees".
The City of Smyrna was founded on the slopes of Mount Pagos in the time of King Alexander the Great. It was situated at the terminal of the road that crossed Lydia and Phrygia and led to the far East. The city commanded the trade and commerce of the rich Her-mus River Valley (now the Gediz River). For this reason, Smyrna was a great commercial city that commanded the "Golden Way", leading from here towards Hattusas, the ancient capital of the Hittites (now Bogaz-koy), and from there farther to Mesopotamia. The city itself lay on the end of a long sea inlet, that ended in a small land-locked harbour on deep water in the very heart of the city.
The development of the town began at the harbour, for this was the most convenient and the safest of all the harbours in the area. Behind the city rose mount Pagos, littered with temples and beautiful and noble buildings which encircled Smyrna's hill, so that they were called: "The Crown of Smyrna".
A modem traveller describes the city as: "A queen crowned with flowers". Aristides compared it with "A great statue with its feet in the sea, its middle parts in the plain and on the foothills, crowned with magnificent buildings on Mount Pagos behind". With this impression in mind, this author called Smyrna: "A flower of beauty such as earth and sun never had shown to mankind".
Besides its beauty, Smyrna had other claims for its greatness: It was a free city, whose inhabitants knew very well the moral values of loyalty and fidelity. Of all the cities in the East, Smyrna had always been most loyal to Rome. Even Cicero called Smyrna: "One of our most faithful and ancient allies". It was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the deity and spirit of Rome. In all circumstances, the people of Smyrna helped Rome. This fidelity to Rome made the city famous in the ancient world. The reverence of Smyrna to Rome dated back as far as 194 B.C..
John wrote down his letter to Smyrna, dictated to him by the Risen Chirst, Who addressed Himself with the words: "He Who was dead and lives again". This was also applicable to the past of the city. It had lived as a city long ago, but for over four hundred years it had been dead. The early history of Smyrna is obscure.
The earliest settlement was founded in the third millenium B.C., at present Bayrakli, North-East of the present city, near the Oil Terminal and Industrial Zone. A mound concealing the remains of this old city is called "Tepe Kule" "Hill Tower". The first stratus of habitation is contemporary with Troy I and II. As a matter of fact, two important Hittite monuments, namely the reliefs of a Mother-Goddess of Manisa, testify this relationship. As a result of the Bayrakli excavations a temple was found dating from the end of the seventh century B.C.. The earliest and finest building of ancient Asia-Minor.
Of the Archaic period, many relics were found. According to the inscriptions found, the temple was dedicated to the Goddess Athena. In 650-600 B.C., ancient Smyrna was surrounded by a very splendid city-wall; the houses of the town had private baths. The inhabitants adorned their houses with vases and ivory carvings reflecting the versatility of the culture in the Eastern Mediteranean world. Relics of this period are displayed now in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul.
Fair King Alyattes of Lydia captured the city in 600 B.C., and completely destroyed the temple and the houses. The townspeople were forced to live in the surrounding villages. The second city of Smyrna was founded more to the South, on the slopes of Mount Pagos, in the period of Alexander the Great, when he had conquered Anatolia from the Persians, also some 275 years later. This city began to prosper greatly and developed rapidly anew. Strabo and other historians record that Smyrna was the finest Ionian city in the first century B.C.. He also mentions that a stoa called the Homerion (probably in the shape of a peristy. House) existed in Smyrna. Within this house, a statue of the deified Homer, in the form of a heroon stood upright in a shrine, that was dedicated to this worship. During the Roman period a commercial market place, the Agora, was built in the heart of the city. In 178 A.D a terrible earthquake destroyed the city, but is was rebuilt with the help of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his wife Faustina I.
Aristides relates that in about 150 B.C. the Altar dedicated to the supreme god the Olympian Zeus, occupied a central position in the Agora. Further there were two Stoas, one on the West side and another on the East side, surrounded by two rows of columns. On the North side was a similar two-storeyed colonade consisting of a nave and two absides. The main stoa was converted into the Basilica during the Byzantine period.
But Smyrna was not only great in trade, politics and religion. It was also a city where culture flourished and where the knowledge of arts was held in the highest esteem. In ancient Smyrna there was a multitude of temples, dedicated to Kybele, to Zeus, to Apollo, to Nemesis, to Aphrodite and to Asklepios. Because of the numerous Jews whosectled there, the city had also many Synagogues. The presence of these Jews had serious consequences for the young Christian community. The Jews did everything they could to damage and to make things difficult for the church that, in their eyes, was a competetive heresy of Judaism.
Throughout all the centuries until now, Smyrna existed continuously as a thriving port city. The Romans were succeeded by the Byzantines, those turn turn by the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. But always Smyrna remained a flourishing city, due to its commercial activities. Many disasters, such as fires and earthquakes, harrassed the town but always it recovered, and commerce stayed. In the Ottoman Empire Smyrna, or ?zmir was the main port for the trade with the Western Mediterranean countries and later also with Western Europe, since about 1625. Many merchants from Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain and The Netherlands received special permits from the respective Sultans to open business-offices in Smyrna, specially for establishing the trade with these countries in Mediterranean products like figs, currants, dates, lemons, oranges and sultana raisins, and the good industrial products like carpets, woollen goods, copperware and jewellery. Amongst the names of the inhabitants of ?zmir the foreign origins of some of them is still very clear. These foreign merchants, in Western Europe known as the "Levant-traders", have become now loyal inhabitants of ?zmir and appreciated citizens of modern Turkey. And also due to these immigrants, there is still a Christian congregation in ?zmir, though the city is, for the far greatest part, all-Moslem. ?zmir is now the third city of Turkey, and its most important Aegean and Mediterranean port. Twice a year an important international manifestation takes place in the city; in June an art festival and in August-September the International Trade Fair.
In the backwash of the First World War, there was a local war between Greece and Turkey from 1919-1922. First the Greeks occupied Smyrna and a great part of the surrounding Western Anatolia, but due to a revival in Turkey under the first President, Kemal Atatürk, this area was reconquered by the Turkish Army. All the Greek inhabitants of the region were then expelled and forced to leave Turkey; in ?zmir after heavy street fightings that destroyed a great part of the city. Iti 1928 there was a heavy earthquake, that destroyed even more. But the reconstruction of the city was started soon, and now all-Turkish ?zmir is a thriving port city and naval base, with many modern, 20th-century buildings.
For a Christian, life was not easy in ancient Smyrna, because to be a follower this new faith made one an outlaw. A Christian was someone who lived with a menacing sword over his head. John the Apostle sometimes speaks about the Jews as the Synagogue of Satan, but in the letter to the church in Smyrna he is taking a favourite expression about the Jews, which reverses this general meaning. The Christians were sometimes, and already very early here, the victims of vicious prosecutions and martyrdom.
One of the first to die for the cause of Jesus Christ was Polycar-pos, the first bishop of the church. He was a direct disciple of John, trained by the Apostle himself. He was martyred on Saturday, February 23rd, 155 A.D.. The public games were starting, the city was crowded with people who were exited. Suddenly the people burst out: "Off with those cursed atheists, let us search for Polycarpes".
The bishop could have escaped from his fate, but shortly before he had received a vision in a dream in which he had seen that the pillow under his head was set a fire. After his awaking he had explained this dream as a prediction of the death he had to expect: "I must be burnt alive for the cause of Jesus Christ". When the prosecutors came to arrest him, he asked for himself the privilege of one last hour in prayer. The captain of the arresting squad was very sorry to put a man like him to death. When Polycarpos entered the arena he heard a voice that seemed to be coming from heaven saying: "Be strong polycarpos, play the game and receive the wreath of victory".The Roman proconsul threatened the old man with his future death on the stake and asked, if he would forsake Jesus. Polycarpos answered: "For over eighty-six years I served my Lord, shall I forsake Him now?" "And what about the fire, do not you know that the fire that awaits the wicked in the judgement to come and in everlasting punishment, is worse than one moment of suffering in the fire here? What are you waiting for? Go and do what you are intending to do".
To the crowd who were going to tie him to the stake, he spoke: "Leave me go as I am". They left him loosely tied to the stake. When the flames were rising aloft he prayed his final prayer. So far the record of this martyrdom is based on plain facts, but from here the story drifts into legend. According to this, the flames made a roomy space around Polycarpos and left him untouched. In this way Polycarpos, died for his faith the death of a martyr, in Smyrna, faithful until death.
The church in Smyrna was a church that had to overcome all kinds of problems and difficulties and which was threatened with even-worse events to come. But when the word of the Risen Christ: "I am the First and the Last" spread, it was a warning for the pagans of Smyrna. The message of Christ, given to John the Apostle for the Church in Smyrna is interpreted: "Be faithful unto death and show yourselves to be loyal and loving to each other". "Do not be afraid of the torture of Satan for I will give unto you the crown of life, which consists of glory, righteousness, beauty, and life". There are two meanings which are expressed in the word "crown". They are: "Joy" and "Victory". The crown was a wreath of olive-branches granted to the victor in the sporting games, especially on the athletic race-course. So the Christian is able to win the crown of victory in the race of life, with the reward that he is at the end of it the victorious athlete of Christ.
The crown is also a sign for entry into the presence of God. If he has been faithful the Christian will receive the joy of entering into the direct presence of God. With this message the church in Smyrna was a suitable place for Christianity to expand. Thinking about Smyrna, the 17th century poet Thomas Heywood wrote this famous epigram:
Seven cities warr'd for Homer being dead,
The Living had no roof to shroud His head.