In the footsteps of St. Paul

by Recep Güvelioglu

In the footsteps of St. PaulWhen the sun set over the Kuyucuk Mountains no trace remained of the blazing heat of the day. In an attempt to keep warm we wrapped ourselves in the felt rugs we had brought with us. Although it was late May the weather was now freezing. Water for tea was boiling on the small fire we had lit. When our jeep had refused to climb any higher, we had stopped on a hilltop next to Yazili Canyon through which the Aksu (the ancient Kestros) flows.

Three of us were retracing the route taken by the gospel writer St Paul, who played a major role in the spread of Christianity and was its first theologian. St Paul had made his first missionary journey in the year 46 AD when he was around 40 years of age. Nearly two thousand years later we did not run the risk of being robbed, murdered or attacked by wild animals as he might have done, but were in peril only from the traffic on the coast road between Alanya and Antalya and from catching pneumonia.

We huddled deeper into our felt rugs. Probably Paul and Barnabas had warmed themselves somewhere near this same spot. As a skilled tent-maker, no doubt Paul had taken a felt blanket along with him. Wrapped in capes and blankets, they had camped out in the mountains, and in all probability made a supper of roots, berries and dried bread, or perhaps even roasted meat if they had managed to hunt anything. We had canned food, for which we were duely grateful. And we had boots on our feet, whereas St Paul wore Roman sandals with thongs wound up to the knee, somewhat similar to today’s Bodrum sandals. According to one story a pair of sandals worn by St Paul was discovered in Tarsus together with his stone inscription about the Day of Judgment.

But let us go back and tell the story from the beginning. St Paul was born in the first decade of our era in Tarsus in Asia Minor. He was a Roman citizen of Jewish parentage whose original name was Saul, but later adopted the Latinised form Paul. He received formal training in the Jewish Law, as well as the family trade of tent-making. Tradition has it that he was born on the spot where the Well of St Paul stands in Tarsus, and since the water of this well is regarded as having healing properties Muslim and Christian alike flock to drink it. Who knows how many times he walked the Roman road of which some large basalt stones were discovered in the main square of the town two years ago.

Roman road

In those days St Paul was fiercely opposed to the newly emerging Christian faith. However, he later espoused Christianity after experiencing a vision of Christ while journeying to Damascus in the year 35 AD. He then travelled to Jerusalem and tried to join the band of apostles, but was received with suspicion and returned to Tarsus. A few years later Barnabas arrived in the town and the two travelled together to Antakya, the ancient Antioch on the Orontes, where in a cave church St Peter, Barnabas and others had begun to spread Christian teachings.

It was in this church (now dedicated to St Peter) that St Peter was elected the first patriarch, and that the word ‘Christian’ was first coined, so Antakya could be regarded as the forerunner of the Vatican.

In his gospel St Luke gave an account of the four missionary journeys of St Paul, which mainly took place through Asia Minor. We will concentrate here on the first of these four journeys. Paul, Barnabas and his nephew John Mark set out from Antakya, travelling down the Orontes to Çevlik (Seleucia Peria), whose magnificent sand beach and rock tombs are among Turkey’s least known marvels. From Seleucia they took ship for Cyprus, the birthplace of Barnabas, where they converted the governor Sergius Paullus. It was at this point that Paul, now an estimated 46 years of age, abandoned the name Saul, and took over the leadership of the missionary group. The governor hailed from Yalvaç (Antioch in Pisidia), and it was probably on his recommendation that they sailed from Baf back to Asia Minor, landing on the coast just west of Antalya.

When we decided to retrace Paul’s journey, two questions arose. What season of the year did this journey take place? We decided that May would have been the most appropriate choice for travelling both by sea and land, and in that month we arrived in Antalya. The second question was the claim by some that Paul landed at the city of Side further east, but we decided to follow the biblical account and begin our journey at Perge close to Antalya. This ancient city, whose ruins attract large numbers of visitors today, was where John Mark had a difference of theological opinion with Paul and returned to Antakya. But Paul and Barnabas carried on northwards to Yalvaç, a journey of about 200 kilometres which took them a week. As we sat beneath an ancient plane tree in Yalvaç sipping tea, we discussed the ancient Antioch in Pisidia, whose huge spreading ruins were visible about a kilometre away. In the first century AD this great metropolis had had a population of over seventy thousand. Probably Paul sought out relatives of the governor of Cyprus here. On the Sabbath, he and Barnabas went to the sinagogue and introduced themselves to the Jewish congregation. In accordance with the custom of the time Paul delivered a short address to the congregation, but refrained from making any mention of Jesus Christ. On the following day, however, he caused an outcry by not only mentioning Christ, but inviting ‘all nations’ to follow the new faith. Despite opposition, Paul and Barnabas held gatherings in local homes at which they preached the new faith over meals. In this way communities of early Christians began to meet in houses, a practice which continued until the building of churches.

Pisidian Antioch

Pisidian Antioch was the place where Christianity first invited converts from people of all faiths. Even worshippers of the moon goddess Men, whose temple was 10 kilometres away from the city, began to accept the new religion. The huge church of St Paul, of which only ruins remain today, was later founded on the site of the sinagogue where he gave his first famous sermon.

The name Yalvaç derives from the Turkish yalavaç, meaning prophet or apostle, and dates from Seljuk times. Some say that the broadminded Seljuks gave the name in recognition of St Paul’s association with the city. Be that as it may, the two apostles were thrown out of Yalvaç, and carried on to Konya (Iconium), a journey which took them four days. In Konya, now associated with the 13th century Islamic mystic Mevlana, they did not get a friendly reception, and they again moved on, this time southwards to Hatunsaray (Lystra). In this city, renowned for its rock tombs, they met with hostile opposition, and moved on to Derbe, a place famed today for the Manazan Caves, where the neglected ancient city with its churches lies at the foot of Karadag. Once again they were thrown out of the city, and returned via the same route they had come to Antalya, where they sailed to Çevlik and back to Antakya. Behind them they left new Christian communities, a faith open to all, and theological squabbles which divided the apostles. St Paul made three more journeys and visited many places in Asia Minor. However, we were now exhausted, and left these journeys for another time.


Recep Güvelioglu is a journalist.

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