The New Testament Letter of Colossians and the Site of Colossae in Modern Turkey by Michael Trainor

As I travel with colleagues and students through the Lycus Valley in southwest Turkey, I stand gazing upon a large, denuded mound—an archaeological tell (Turkish: hüyük).1 Beneath it lies what was formerly one of the most celebrated cities in southern Anatolia (modern Turkey). Alas, this is no longer the case. Today, this once “great city” with an even greater name lies in ruins.

What happened to Colossae?

In the Roman period, Colossae was in the province of Phrygia in central Asia Minor about 125 miles east of Ephesus. It sits near the Lycus River (Turkish: Çürüksu Çayi) at the foot of Mt. Cadmus (Turkish: Honaz Daği, elevation of 8,294 ft), the highest mountain in Turkey’s western Aegean Region. Colossae is close to two other well-known cities in the ancient world: Laodicea (modern Laodikeia) lies 11 miles to the west,a and Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale) lies 15 miles northwest of Colossae.

Pottery from the site of Colossae reveals settlements from the Late Chalcolithic to the Byzantine and Islamic periods (3500 B.C.E.–1100 C.E.).2 It confirms that Colossae was first geopolitically and economically important during the Persian period (547–330 B.C.E.), and it retained its significance in Greco-Roman times (fourth century B.C.E.–fourth century C.E.) during the growth of the Jesus movement in the region in the first century C.E. Colossae’s reputation and urban importance continued well into the Byzantine and Islamic periods (330–1453 C.E.).

Colossae may have been first mentioned in a 17th-century B.C.E. Hittite inscription referencing a city called Huwalušija, which some archaeologists believe to be early Colossae. The Greek geographer Herodotus (c. 484–425 B.C.E.) was the first to mention Colossae explicitly (Histories 7.30). He recounts the expedition of the Persian king Xerxes (r. 486–465 B.C.E.), who stopped at Colossae before waging war against the Greeks. The fact that Colossae could provide accommodation for Xerxes and his military retinue indicates the city’s vast size and wealth in the fifth century B.C.E. Herodotus also describes the terrain and the unusual configuration of the nearby Lycus River, which disappears underground and reappears 5 stadia (c. 3,000 ft) later as it joins the Meander River. Herodotus calls Colossae “a great city in Phrygia” (Histories 7.30.1).

A little later, the chronicler Xenophon (c. 430–354 B.C.E.) confirms it as a “populous city, both wealthy and large” (Anabasis 1.2.6). Colossae’s size and wealth would have come from its strategic position on the main east-west trade route, between the Euphrates River and Pisidian Antioch to the east, and Loadicea, Ephesus, and Sardis to the west. Colossae was famous for its unique dyed wool, colossinus, which gave the city its name.

The city suffered from a major earthquake in 60 C.E. that devastated the region, but it was soon reconstructed.3 Writing in the mid-first century C.E., Pliny the Elder (c. 23–79) includes Colossae in a list of famous cities (Natural History 5.145).

In this period—and perhaps for its illustrious status—it was the addressee of one of the letters of the New Testament, written in the mid-first century by Paul or one of his disciples to Jesus followers living in Colossae. Some scholars also conjecture that Colossae was the location for the receipt of Paul’s letter to Philemon and was most likely implicated in the Book of Revelation. Its writer, the seer John, addresses seven “churches,” including Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). The lukewarm waters of Laodicea, its gold and textile production, and its medicinal products become metaphors for the Laodiceans’ fidelity and religious commitment, which the writer of Revelation urged them to renew. The Colossians, by association and proximity to Laodicea, would have been similarly encouraged.

Colossae’s celebrated status continued into the Byzantine period. It was mentioned at the Second Council of Nicea in 787 C.E. and a century later in 858 was distinguished as a Metropolitan See. The Byzantines built one of the largest church structures in the Middle East in the immediate vicinity of Colossae, dedicating it to St. Michael—a building we shall discuss shortly.

Byzantine sources suggest that the town may have diminished in size or was completely abandoned because of the Arab invasions in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. Its people subsequently relocated to today’s Honaz (ancient Chonai). Finally, a 19th-century report associates an ancient Greek monastery with this area.

Thus, Colossae was renowned from ancient times to the Byzantine period. But when 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century visitors traveled to the Lycus Valley, the magnificence of ancient Colossae was not apparent. An early 20th-century guidebook of Asia Minor dismissed visiting Colossae because there is “practically nothing to see.” An even earlier traveler noted the nature of the local people, echoing a sentiment that reflected the depression that came upon him from finding nothing on Colossae’s hüyük: “Colossae, by the Turks called Chonos, is situated very high upon a hill, the plains under it very pleasant; but we were no sooner entered into it, but we thought it fit to leave it; the inhabitants being a vile sort of people so that we doubted of our safety among them.”?

Today, research interest in Colossae is eclipsed by the archaeological energy that surrounds Laodicea and Hierapolis. Laodicea is a large site that is considered by some to be the “new Ephesus.” The excavating team from nearby Pamukkale University directed by Dr. Celal Şimşek with resources and support from Denizli’s civic and industrial sector continues to uncover major sections of the ancient city, especially from the Byzantine period. Hierapolis sits on the northern edge of the Lycus Valley. Its cascading white limestone ledges, sacred pools, and travertine basins are tourists’ introduction to the magnificent city. Today the visitor passes through the city’s ancient necropolis before arriving at the Arch of Domitian and a colonnaded street from the Byzantine period. Still visible are the city’s grid pattern, the cardo with its Roman baths, fountains and shops, a theater, and a temple to Apollo, all of which date to the third and fourth centuries C.E. The recently excavated Martyrion of the Apostle Philip is of interest to many Christians.

By contrast, Turkish archaeologists remain unenthusiastic about formally excavating Colossae. However, the earlier judgment that there is “practically nothing to see” is not entirely accurate.

The hüyük is a biconical acropolis nearly 100 feet high, covering an area a little more than 22 acres.6 On its eastern slope sits a theater, which may be close to an agora that abuts the city’s main north-south road, the Cardo Maximus. The theater’s cavea probably seated 5,000 people, which is evocative of a city of around 25,000–30,000 inhabitants within its walls. It appears that the area was significantly reworked in the Roman period to create the cavea and build the theater.

Most of the ceramic finds in and around the theater date to the Early Bronze Age (c. 3300–2000 B.C.E.).7 These confirm Colossae’s early occupation in the third and second millennia B.C.E.

On initial visits to Colossae, it was possible to see sections of columns in nearby paddocks that defined the boundary of an orchard or grain field for modern farmers. One of these marks the place where locals believe there was a church, perhaps that of St. Michael. In Colossae’s heyday, these remains were part of large columns possibly marking a processional way or the cardo. In other words, Colossae was larger than just the hüyük.

Colossae’s necropolis, as in all ancient cities, was outside the city walls. Northeast of the hüyük, the necropolis has two main styles of burial monuments: Hellenistic tombs with an antecedent room attached to the inner space and tumuli (below-ground tombs with stepped entrances from the surface that lead down to the place of burial).

One of the few identified Colossian funerary monuments (stelae) was discovered about a century ago in Honaz, where it had been relocated from the ancient site. Dated to the late first century C.E., the stela depicts a funerary banquet. Two figures, a husband and wife, are reclining before a table upon which sits some bread. Underneath the table lies a dog. Two small children, a girl on the left and possibly a boy on the right, touch the food. A Greek inscription, barely legible underneath the scene, reads, “The youngest members of the clan [syngenikon] for Tatianos, son of Tatianos grandson of Artas.”?8 Relatives erected this memorial to one of the deceased male members of their clan. The inscription remembers Tatianos, and it attests to the connection between the deceased and earlier generations.

Besides the hüyük and the necropolis, water channels are also noticeable at Colossae, closer to the Lycus River. These were hewn out of rock with a complex of sluice gates and pipes that allowed water to be diverted from the Lycus for irrigation, washing, and industrial purposes. An early-second-century C.E. inscription on a marble statue base honors the repairer of Colossae’s baths, attesting to these pools as one of the city’s important institutions.9 The role of water is also featured in Byzantine textual descriptions of the cult of angels, especially of St. Michael.

While devotion to St. Michael was popular throughout Asia Minor in the Byzantine period, his cult was particularly revered at Colossae. Space does not allow a full description of the intricacies of the legend, but essentially two narratives about Michael, one from Laodicea and the other from Chonos, became fused into one.10 Their common features have the archangel Michael heal the sick and respond to the intercession of the holy priest Archippus (mentioned in Colossians 4:17). Archippus seeks divine intervention to rescue the Christian populace of Colossae from a pagan invasion intent on diverting the waters of the Lycus River to flood and kill the city-dwellers. Michael intervenes, drives his spear into the earth, diverts the waters underground, saves the people, and creates the chasm that appears in the topography near Colossae. This story became a popular iconographic theme throughout Asia Minor and the Middle East. The etiological legend explains several topographical features of the landscape around Colossae, the movement of the Lycus River’s water underground and its healing properties, the meaning of the name given to Chonos/Honaz (meaning “plunging” or “funnels”), Colossae’s alleged relocation, and the largest church building in Asia Minor named after St. Michael. Local memory locates this church close to the Lycus River, while another tradition associates it with a mosque in Honaz, which was once a Greek Orthodox church.

The holiness of Colossae’s waters and its healing qualities, first associated with Michael in the Byzantine period, continue today at the Göz picnic ground, a couple of miles west of Colossae. The grounds surround a pool into which waters from the Lycus River pour. Local Turks consider these waters therapeutic.

Colossae’s origins go back to the Chalcolithic period. In the Greek and Persian periods, it was a celebrated, large and wealthy city, and its popularity continued during Roman and Byzantine times. Today, though it might appear that there is “practically nothing to see,” there are hints of its former glory—as it awaits the spade.