Smyrna was known as the city of life and was located about forty miles north of Ephesus. One of the oldest cities in the world it was located at a strategic point on the Aegean coast of Anatolia which makes up most of modern-day Turkey. Smyrna is the only one of the seven cities mentioned in the book of Revelation that remains a strong, inhabited city. Today Smyrna is known as Izmir, a metropolitan city in Turkey. It is the third-largest city in Turkey and houses the second busiest port in the country.
The ancient city of Smyrna was a commercially successful metropolis largely due to its harbor and favorable location along one of the major trade routes through Asia Minor. Some historians identify it as the birthplace of the poet and historian Homer. While the earliest colonization of the area was in the first half of the 3 millennium BC it was later settled by Aeolians who remained in the area until the Ionian Greeks took over the area at the end of the 8th century B.C.
The temple of Athena in Smyrna was built in the 7th century B.C. and destroyed by the Lydian King Alyattes when he captured the city around 600 BC. The Persians captured Smyrna around 545 B.C. until the site of the original city was abandoned around the 4th century B.C.
When Alexander the Great swept through the area he rebuilt the city along the slopes of Mt. Pagus but the city wasn’t actually functional until Alexander’s general Lysimachus took over in the 3rd century B.C. It was after this takeover that Smyrna began to thrive and prosper as a viable seaport and commercial center in Asian Minor.
By the time the 1st century B.C. rolled around Smyrna was being called “the most beautiful of all cities.” Ancient historical sources describe Smyrna as being a thriving urban center with straight paved streets, a gymnasium, and many pagan shrines and temples.
Smyrna was controlled by the Seleucid dynasty for a period of time but managed to become a free city after Antiochus III was defeated by the Romans in 189 B.C. As a sort of homage to the new kid on the block, Smyrna built a temple to the goddess Roma to curry favor with the emerging might of Rome. This was probably a good move because Smyrna soon found itself a vassal state once more, this time under the iron fist of the Roman Republic within the province of Asia.
Smyrna soon became a major center for Emperor worship. The city built several temples dedicated to successive Emperors like Tiberius, Hadrian, and Caracalla. The Romans also improved the city by adding a theatre and a stadium on the slopes of Mt Pagus. A silo was built near the harbor and a commercial agora, as well as a state-sponsored forum, were added to the city.
During the rule of Marcus Aurelius around 178 A.D., a major earthquake devastated the city. The Emperor invested state funds to get the port city back on its feet again. The city continued to thrive and prosper under Rome until the 7th century A.D. when it was battered by successive Arab raids. Once again Smyrna found herself assaulted and passed from hand to hand; first the Seljuk Turks, then the Byzantine rulers, the crusaders, and finally the Ottoman Turks. The most famous Christian of Smyrna was Polycarp who was the Bishop of the church there and who was burned at the stake at the stadium on Mt. Pagus around 156 B.C.
Today the most significant ruins of Smyrna are the columns left from the state agora or forum. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the city itself is the upheaval it faced through the centuries. Just as the city began to thrive and prosper history would hit it with a curveball and it found itself brought to its knees under a new regime or devastated by natural disaster and yet after each devastating wave the city managed to bounce back and keep thriving.
The Church of Smyrna was much the same. With Smyrna being the center of the Imperial cult most Smyrnian Christians would have been relentlessly persecuted for their unwillingness to compromise their faith and yet the church never faltered. Though surrounded by tyranny and oppression she could not be overcome. This is what made Smyrna and the church that resided there unique; fortitude and resilience in the face of devastation. It’s a hard lesson to learn but one that we all need to embrace to face what lies ahead.