Land of hot springs and the illusion of snow

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. He is always wrestling for you in his prayers, so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything God wills. For I testify about him that he works hard for you, for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis.
Colossians 4:12-13

Historical Spotlights

In the second century B.C.E., the Attalid kings of Pergamum founded Hierapolis, a member of the tri-city area in the Lycus Valley that included Colossae and Laodicea. Meaning “sacred city,” the name suits Hierapolis, which was once the site of an ancient cult with hot springs used in ritualistic healing, but became known for its churches and a cathedral. Most of the ruins that remain today have survived from the Roman period and spread across a vast landscape at the top of a hill, emphasizing its historical importance. The hot springs and white travertine formations remain today as a tourist attraction known as Pamukkale (“cotton castle”), known both for its beauty and its hydrotherapy. The white calcium deposits lacing the hillside can be seen from a great distance, giving the illusion of snow, even in the middle of summer.

An inscription from King Eumene II (197-159 B.C.E) testifies to the city’s Pergamene founding. Ceded to Rome in 133-129 B.C.E., Hierapolis flourished, reaching its peak importance in the second and third centuries A.D. It was rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed it in 60 A.D. Evidence suggests that Asklepios, the god of healing and the son of Apollo, also had a prominent place in the city. And the theater is adorned with a frieze depicting a sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of Ephesus.

Apollo received credit as the founding deity of the city, and the ruins of a temple dedicated to him can be seen today. The nearby grotto, named Plutonium after Pluto, the god of the underworld, was considered the “gate of hell.” The historian Strabo wrote, “any animal that passes inside [the grotto] meets instant death. … bulls that are led into it fall and are dragged out dead; and I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.” Scientists recently discovered a fissure in the earth’s surface, deep below the site, that emits carbon dioxide at concentrations high enough to be deadly. Thus, noxious gases, and not the god of the underworld, are responsible for the animals’ demise.

I shall not hesitate also to put into ordered form for you, along with the interpretations, everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down carefully, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I took no pleasure in those who told many different stories, but only in those who taught the Truth. Nor did I take pleasure in those who reported their memory of someone else’s commandments, but only in those who reported their memory of the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the Truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance when the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice.

Eusebius, “Papias and the Gospels”

Hierapolis in Christian History

In Revelation Hierapolis is not directly referenced. But John rebukes Laodicea’s “lukewarm” spiritual state, even as the city stood between hot and cold, geographically, at the center of Hierapolis’ hot springs and the cold, mountain springs behind Colossae. As in Colossae and Laodicea, Epaphras probably planted the church in Hierapolis. 

Before the year A.D. 70 either Philip, the apostle, or Philip, the evangelist, moved to Hierapolis where he was eventually martyred. The church historian Eusebius wrote that Philip, the evangelist, and his four daughters were buried in Hierapolis. A different inscription claims Philip, the apostle, is buried there. While we do not know which Philip is in fact buried there, a Martyrium built in the fifth century stands as a tribute even today. Due to this Martyrium and its proximity to Laodicea and Colossae, Hierapolis became an important city to Christians of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Irenaeus wrote of Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, that he was “a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp, a man of old time.” According to Eusebius, Papias claimed to have received oral tradition from the Apostle John and was one of the first church fathers to credit the Apostle Peter as the apostolic source for the Gospel of Mark, thus giving credence to Mark’s reliability. Apollinaris (also Claudius Apollinaris) was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia sometime around 175 A.D. when he, like Melito of Sardis, wrote a defense of Christianity and sent it to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The massive Christian monuments and structures (including at least four churches) testify that Christianity had a firm grasp in the city by the fifth century A.D.

For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus. And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.

Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book V, Chapter 24

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