Laodicea is the archaeological site of another Roman city in Anatolia in the province of Denzli. We flew from Istanbul to the modern city of Denzli to see three places in particular …Hierapolis/Pamukkale, Laodicea and Aphrodisias. After our morning at Hierapolis, it wasn’t very far to Laodicea. Whilst Pamukkale is much more famous in the 21st century and receives many more tourists than Laodicea, in some circles, Laodicea is far more famous and significant than Pamukkale. For example, this ancient city has generated its own adjective in modern English and was once used as the winning word in an American spelling bee. Check the dictionary and you will find that ‘laodicean’ can be used as an adjective meaning “half-hearted or indifferent, especially with respect to religion or politics” or as a noun, somebody who has these supposed, less than attractive qualities.
As to how this beautiful city achieved this reputation, the usual suspects of geography and history hold the answers. Checking out the map above, you can see that Laodicea is very close to a place made famous by the new testament book, ‘St Paul’s letter to the Colossians’. There was a community of Christians in Colossae that were disciples of St Paul who received words of wisdom and admonishment from this inveterate first century letter writer. St Paul in this letter refers to one of his friends, Epaphras, in Colossae … “I testify about him, that he has great zeal for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis.” Unlike Hierapolis and Laodicea, Colossae is just a covered field of dreams today, still waiting for archaeologists to lift its blanket of grass and earth.
The other great travelling Christian apostle who would have passed through this area a little later than Paul was John of Patmos, perhaps a refugee from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In Chapter 3 of his ‘Book of Revelations’, John speaks about 7 churches in 7 cities in Asia minor who have Christian communities and, according to John, need some severe advice about their life-styles. Laodicea cops it severely…
“And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth…” (Revelations 3:14-18).
As a result of these references in ‘Revelations’, the word ‘Laodicean’ has taken on its modern meaning amongst evangelical Christian groups in America. The references in ‘Revelations’ has also given rise to a modern tourist circuit in Turkey that takes travelers around the seven cities of Revelation. I am not sure if religious fundamentalism is a great driver of tourism but I noticed a blog recently where two travellers completed the 7 city trip in 3 days; the blog ended with the religious lessons of the trip. Not wishing to appear hypocritical, I was vaguely pleased to visit three of these cities on this trip (Laodicea, Ephesus and Pergamon) as well driving through the outskirts of a fiurth, the ancient city of Smyrna (modern Izmir).
Like the whole region of Anatolia, the site of Laodicea has been subject to major earthquakes, particularly over the last two millennia as the list to the right makes clear. This Roman city was abandoned in the early years of the 7th century and citizens of Laodicea moved to more stable ground around Denzli. Excavations of the city began in a limited fashion in the 1830s, started again in bursts in the early 1960s and continued in a limited fashion until the first comprehensive excavations began in 2003. Continuous excavations have been carried out since then so contemporary visitors can get a good sense of the layout of Laodicea as well as a strong sense of the damage that was done by earthquakes over its functioning lifetime. This can be particularly seen in the stadium at this site that looks like it has been lifted into the air and then the stone seats dropped back approximately near their original position
The site of Laodicea is around five square kilometres and so to see it all is quite a demanding walk. As the map below shows, there is a short tour and the long tour which involves quite the trek down to the huge stadium. We actually completed this walk and I have to say it was worth it, despite the shaken and stirred appearance of the stadium seating. However the main sites of interest can be inspected reasonably easily as per the Red line on the map below.
The ticket office is inside the Syrian Gate and the view down the main street, Syria Street, is a beauty…it looks through the remains of the buildings on either side of the street and on to the mountains in the background, including a distant Pamukkale.
The most impressive and most photographed building on site is usually referred to as temple A. It was originally thought to be a Temple of Zeus but later excavations gathered more information and it was determined to be a Temple to Apollo. It was built during the second century and being damaged by earthquake in the third century, was rebuilt during Diocletian’s reign. It collapsed again in the late fifth century. 1500 years later, 19 of the original 54 columns have been rebuilt.
Almost next door to the Temple of Apollo is the building that housed the Christian Church of Laodicea that earned the ire of John of Patmos. It was only discovered in 2010 and so on our visit three years after this, the building was only just starting to take shape again. Significant restoration and roofing has occurred over the last 8 years and it is now the main attraction of Laodicea. Apart from being the church building that housed the less than enthusiastic Laodiceans, as it was built in the first half of the fourth century CE, it can stake a claim to being one of the oldest Christian Churches. It was only in 313 that Constantine the Great proclaimed by the Edict of Milan announcing tolerance for Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. With this new climate, the city locals must have decided to celebrate by building a new church. Alas it was severely damaged by earthquake in the late fifth century and finished off completely early in the 6th. One of the attractions of visiting this church today is the quality of the mosaics on the floors
The tour of the site set out on the above map shows that the North Theatre is the next stopping point. It is a little unclear from sources its construction date but it would have been built around the first century BCE. It speaks volumes about the wealth of this Roman city that it had two theatres at this time, this one being the second one built to hold a much larger audience than the Western Theatre. It seated about 20000 spectators. The curious feature of these Roman theatres is that unlike the Greek theatres common around this part of the empire, this one was built not only to present plays but also to stage aquatic shows that enabled the Roman authorities to hold spectacular ship fights to promote the power of the empire
Three hundred metres away from the Northern Theatre is the older, smaller Western Theatre that was built to house around 800 spectators. One of the curious details of its construction was that it was built from travertine stone, not marble. This difference in construction material meant that it has survived in better shape than its younger neighbour because marble was more attractive to those plunderers looking for building material to reuse on sites elsewhere. Thus the Northern Theatre lost a lot of its marble for construction, no doubt to the neighbouring city of Denzli.
Significant work has been done on the Western Theatre since our visit in 2013 and so by 2020, this theatre’s renovations will be showcased by the municipality with a series of “arts and cultural events. The local mayor announced that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be attending one of the concerts planned.
After our long stroll down to the huge stadium, it was a slow return to our car after our enjoyable tour of Laodicea. It was back to our hotel in the town of Pamukkale to rest up ready for our long drive from Denzli to Ephesus.