Turkey's Surprising Christian Treasures

Turkey can make good claim to be part of the Holy Land: Christianity took root here speedily in the years following the death of Jesus. The Seven Churches of the Revelation were the Christian communities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Thyatira, all of which were in the Roman province of Asia, which is now part of modern-day Turkey.

St. Paul was born in Tarsus in southern Turkey, and traveled extensively throughout the country — going more than 400 miles inland with St. Barnabas to preach in Iconium, the modern-day Konya. In the fourth century Cappadocia was home to Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa. And Demre, in southern Turkey, was home to St. Nicholas of Myra — the man the world now knows as Santa Claus.

There are a number of examples of Christian heritage in Turkey which exist to this day, such as the underground cities in Cappadocia, where hundreds of Christians lived and worshiped below ground to escape persecution by the Romans, and the treasury of the Topaki Palace in Istanbul, which contains relics of several saints, including John the Baptist.

But one shrine precious to both Christians and Muslims, and a place which reflects most profoundly the good relations between Christians and Muslims in Turkey, is the House of the Virgin Mary at Meryemana, near Ephesus. From the Cross, Jesus placed Our Lady in the care of St. John (John 19:25-27), and it is said that, between A.D. 37 and 48, he took her to Ephesus, which was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.

In the 19th century, German nun and stigmatist Anna Catherina Emmerich (1774-1824) had visions of Mary and of her surroundings in Ephesus. In the 19th century, Lazarist clergy based at Izmir followed her detailed descriptions of the site and found the foundations of an old house in the hills above Ephesus.

The Lazarists' belief that they had found the House of the Virgin Mary was supported by the fact that the nearby town, Selçuk, is home to the ruins of St. John's Basilica, which housed the tomb of St. John the Apostle until the fourth century. The claim was also supported by the fact that the ruin and a nearby spring were an annual place of pilgrimage for local Muslims and Orthodox Christians on Aug. 15, the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption.

Archaeological investigation of the T-shaped building have found that the foundations date from the first century. The shrine was officially recognized by the Vatican with visits by Pope Paul VI in 1967 and Pope John Paul II in 1979.

Upon entering the shrine, there is a charge of about $2 placed by the Municipality of Selçuk. The house itself is now a chapel; on Sundays, an English-language Mass is celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Most of those attending these celebrations are Irish tourists staying in the nearby resort of Kushadasi. The shrine is cared for by two Capuchin priests and three Franciscan nuns. One of them, Sister Antonio from San Francisco, said:

“This is the only place where you will find Muslims and Christians praying informally together. Mary is mentioned several times in the Koran, and she is the most honored woman in the Islamic world. She is holier than Mohammed's own mother, because, to Muslims, Jesus, the Messiah, is the only one of the prophets who was born by supernatural means.”

Meryemana is a cool, wooded place and it is joyful to think of Our Lady spending her last days on Earth in such a tranquil place following the turmoil she must have experienced during the execution of her son.

Unfortunately, because it is located so close to Ephesus, home of the most elaborate and best preserved classical ruins on the Mediterranean, many tourists pay only a cursory visit to the shrine. Sister Antonio, who belongs to the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate, said: “One of our problems is explaining to tour guides that some of those accompanying them need more than 10 minutes at Meryemana; for some people it is the highlight of their visit to Turkey, or maybe the only reason that they came.”

“In Turkey,” she added, “the shrine is regarded very highly and is regularly visited by military pilgrimages and by senior members of the government. Other recent pilgrims have included the president of Pakistan and Hillary Clinton.”

A practice among the Muslims is to leave votive offerings in the form of rags at the shrine. This is similar to the practice among Irish Catholics at holy wells. In an effort to stop pilgrims from tying rags to the surrounding trees, the Church has provided boards on which rags can be fixed. Unfortunately, many pilgrims do not have any means to tie the rags to the boards, so they are fixed in place with chewing gum.

Meryemana is a few minutes' distance from Ephesus, which is easily reachable by bus. Bus travel around Turkey is exceptionally cheap — $3 will cover a 200-mile journey. As a foreigner, you will be treated as an “honored guest” and will automatically receive seats on the shady side of the bus. A delightful practice during bus trips is that at regular intervals travelers are provided with a splash of cologne to refresh them. Drinking water is also available free of charge; drink and brush your teeth only with bottled water and eat only fruit that you can peel. Accommodation is also very reasonable; $20 is about the most one will pay for a night's accommodation.

For more information on making a pilgrimage to the House of the Virgin Mary, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or the tourism office of the town of Selçuk, at (011-90) 232-8926911 (fax: 892-6913).

Cian Molloy is based in Ireland.