Revelation Road

"Blue mosque tourist" by Prof-B via Flickr

From three thousand loudspeakers affixed to the city’s three thousand minarets, the canned wailing of muezzins rings out the call to prayer just as the sun puts the first hints of color in the sky over the Bosporus. Istanbul has been a Muslim city for five hundred years, and yet still there seems to be no coordination when it comes to scheduling this most basic of Islamic customs. With each chorus of allahu akbar beginning imprecisely at sunrise, it’s pretty much every mosque for itself. Some start ten seconds early, some ten seconds late; at least one seems to wait until the coast is clear so that its adhan will have the air all to itself. The effect is devotional chaos, the ear-rattling racket of competing voices shouting the same holy words not quite simultaneously from every corner of the city, five times every day.

“That’s nothing,” a Turkish friend would tell me later. “You should hear this place on Atatürk’s birthday. You ever been in a city of ten million when every car honks its horn at once?”

Before six o’clock on a summer morning, the cacophonous call to prayer is as close as I ever want to get. Inescapable, intense, it sounds to my lapsed Catholic ears like a rosary recitation mashed up with an air raid alarm.

Turkey at the time is bracing itself for an election that in its outcome will serve as a good reminder of all the ways it’s easy to get fumbled up when talking about “religion” and other words with meanings that are hard to pin down. The defeat of so-called “secular” forces by “religious” ones would seem by the usual use of the words to be very bad news for liberally inclined people. Yet Turkey’s secularism has long been as religious in its own way as the Islamic elements the secular establishment so fears. After all, this is a country whose supposedly secular fealty to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, surpasses even American genuflections to the Founding Fathers. It is illegal to defame Atatürk, for example, and every year on his birthday, the country stops. No matter where Turks find themselves, they take a moment to go out and make the tremendous noise my friend later described. “Truck horns blare, car horns bleat, all the ships on the Bosporus blow their stacks.” Maybe this is not religion in the usual sense, but there is certainly something very religious about it.

Once inside the immaculate, Muzak-filled confines of the Point Hotel, I don’t hear a thing. The Point is one of a new generation of high-end Istanbul lodgings—most within a few blocks of trendy Taksim Square—that seem to cater to travelers who do not want to know they are in Turkey. To enter the lobby from the predawn din is suddenly to inhabit another universe, one equipped with a Japanese restaurant, a “wellness spa,” and molded plastic furniture apparently borrowed from the lounge deck of the Starship Enterprise.

In the suites above, a group of Christian tourists is hoping to glimpse another vision of the future. Traveling with a Seattle-based touring company called Ultimate Journeys, they have come to Turkey for the “Seven Churches Experience,” which allows scripture-toting adventurers to visit the seven cities addressed in the closing pages of the New Testament, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, also known as the Apocalypse.

Featured prominently in a text that many believe foretells the end of the world, the ancient Turkish cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea were home to first-century churches that now lay in ruins. Naturally, they now all welcome postcard-buying visitors in hopes of reaping a few lira from their place in the earliest history of Christendom.

In the world of spiritual tourism—travel to places known for either their religious significance or ethereal emanations—Turkey is sometimes called the Second Holy Land. With more biblical sites than any place outside Israel, the western region of Anatolia has for centuries attracted pilgrims in search of contact with the origins of their faith. Of the many faith-based tours of the region available—ranging from reenactments of the travels of Saint Paul to pilgrimages in Antioch, where followers of Jesus first called themselves Christians—I’m most interested in tracing the Revelation route because, wherever I go in the world, small “r” revelation is part of my reason for traveling. Too cynical to expect life-changing experiences every time I hop on a plane, I hope instead for feelings of connection, inklings of what it might have meant to live in another place or time, flashes of significance that let a world teetering on meaninglessness make sense, if only for an instant. As soon as I heard that groups of tourists were looking for big “R” Revelation explicitly—in the land of Revelation no less—I knew I had to have a look.

When Ultimate Journeys agreed a few days before to let me tour with them, I supposed their sense of revelation and my own would be very different. After all, to travel across ten time zones just to see the places mentioned in a biblical book that also speaks of Armageddon, Antichrist, and the Great Tribulation, I guessed they must be Christians of the Left Behind school: jet-setting holy rollers out to get a leg up on everyone else awaiting the End of Days. Did these faithful come to Turkey—a vibrant, modern nation at once fiercely secular and 95 percent Muslim—to experience the country as it is, as it was? Or rather only as it exists in relationship to their faith? And what, I wondered, would they make of the call to prayer? I expected to find pilgrims so focused on the spiritual dimension of their trip they would be blind to the practical reality around them. What’s more, part of me hoped this would be the case. Though I didn’t share their faith, I thought proximity to their search for Revelation might provide me with some revelations of my own.

I am scanning the lobby for wild-eyed zealots when Russ Goodman appears at my side. Together with his wife, he’s the force behind Ultimate Journeys. A barrel-chested fellow with a graying crew cut and matching mustache, he wears navy blue shorts and bright white sneakers that seem right for a day of walking in the Aegean heat, but not quite appropriate for the churches and mosques on today’s itinerary. He holds out his hand and shakes mine like he means it.

“I am fired up for this tour,” he says with a football coach’s pep. He is the dictionary illustration of a practical man at leisure: polo shirt tucked in, two cell phones on his belt. He’s the past president of Seattle’s Space Needle and seems very much a man who can keep the elevators running on time. His plan is to spend a few hours showing the sites of Istanbul before leading the group off for the main event: a week-long bus trek between the seven cities of Revelation, all about a day’s travel to the south.

Russ checks his watch, scrolls his BlackBerry, then looks up in the direction of the balcony above the lobby. “Here come the troops.”

Twenty-nine women and men ranging in age from early twenties to mid-sixties descend the Point’s floating staircase to the polished floor below. To my surprise, they do not look like people eagerly anticipating the end of the world. Pale legs and fanny packs, cameras and wallet holders and water bottle slings around their necks, they look like people eagerly anticipating a day at the beach.

In the beginning, Revelation was essentially a book of comfort. Most think of the Apocalypse of Saint John as a text that tells how the world will eventually come to a frightening end; yet the intention of its author, John of Patmos, was more immediate than that. He mainly wanted to cheer up early Christian communities as they suffered religious persecution. In letters addressed to the “seven churches of Asia,” and then in an often inscrutable prophecy depicting a battle between Jesus Christ and a beast that scholars now say symbolizes the Roman Empire, John offers assurance that hard times will soon come to an end.

On the Ultimate Journeys chartered bus, comfort comes without the wait. We ride through a hot morning in near-cryogenic air conditioning, listening to a local guide the tour organizers hire whenever they are in town.

A smiling Turk in a plaid shirt and khakis, Ali keeps up a steady patter of Turkish history even as those in his audience press their noses against the windows and talk among themselves. He calls the streets through which we roll “Constantinopolis,” as if this group of twenty-first-century Christians might still hold a grudge eighty years after Atatürk permanently unseated the Christian emperor Constantine as the city’s namesake. I’m sitting next to Rikk Watts, who is probably the only one to notice. A professor of New Testament who will take over tour guide duties once the group is on its way to the seven churches, he has done this trip before with Ultimate Journeys and so he knows Ali’s script well. Just now Ali is holding up the umbrella we are to look for if we get separated from the group.

“We call him Ali Poppins when he’s got that umbrella,” Rikk says. “He seems to like it, but I’m not sure he gets the reference.”

Rikk teaches at Vancouver’s Regent College, the kind of religiously affiliated institution that requires a yearly signing of a statement of faith by all faculty members. Regent in fact is the main reason the seats around us are full. Rikk is among the school’s most popular professors, a dynamic speaker who, more than one tour member tells me, “makes history come alive.”

That Rikk and his students believe in Revelation goes without saying, but he is an academic at heart and so seems far more interested in context than prophecy. Within minutes of introducing himself, he is explaining to me that many of the sites on which the seven churches were built once held pagan temples.

“What you need to understand,” he says with the urgency of an evangelist, “is that these temples were built along lines that were considered almost like a power grid. Rituals were performed to coax power out of the earth, out of the gods. It was inevitable that Christian churches would end up there.”

As Rikk speaks of pagan temples giving rising to churches that would later make way for mosques, Ali is at the front of the bus explaining that indeed, “Constantinopolis” was once a Christian city, before it became an Islamic one. The only inevitable change, it seems, is change, one faith morphing into another.

As if to prove it, our first stop is the Aya Sofia. Built as the world’s largest church by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century, it was converted into the world’s largest mosque by Mehmed the Conquerer in 1453. Not long after Atatürk’s secular government took over following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it was converted again. Since 1935, it has been a museum of its own history, proudly displaying both ornate Arabic calligraphy and painstakingly restored Byzantine mosaics destroyed or obscured through the centuries.

We are deep inside the Aya Sofia when I meet two more members of the Ultimate Journeys group. David and Tamara Duke of Seattle both work in construction. She’s a project manager for industrial building; he oversees major public works projects: highways, bridges, tunnels. I ask Dave what he thinks of the tour so far.

“Impressive,” he tells me. “I keep looking at this place, and all I can see is the cost!”

He pats a carved stone column the diameter of a California redwood.

“Jeez, just think of the infrastructure this must have taken! Build something on this scale today, we’re in the billions, right? And think of the overpass you’d need!”

It seems a rather secular preoccupation for a member of a faith-based tour, and so I begin to wonder if I’ve stumbled into the wrong group, or if I’ve just asked the wrong member. Fishing for something that might connect the people I’m with to what I suppose to be the spiritual goals of their trip, I ask another of the Ultimate Journeys travelers—Robert Ralston, a fifty-something fellow also dressed in shorts, sneakers, and a polo shirt—if he has come to Turkey for religious reasons.

“Well, sure,” he says. “But that’s like saying you get married for religious reasons. That may be part of it, but you also want to have sex, right?”

“This way,” Ali calls out, and we all follow his umbrella out through the gates of the Aya Sofia, back out to the street. “This way, everyone! We go now to the Blue Mosque.”

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque—also called the Blue Mosque for the cerulean tiles decorating its interior walls—is just a short stroll away. With six minarets and a vast marble courtyard leading to its main entrance, it is easily the most impressive of Istanbul’s thousands of religious buildings. It is also the only Islamic site Ultimate Journeys will visit while in Turkey.

Ali leads us across the courtyard to the non-Muslim entrance, where a team of sextants waits to inspect the tourists and ensure that they are dressed appropriately. Judging from their exasperated reaction, the Ultimate Journeys group is certainly not.

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“Please, please,” the men at the door call out, frantically handing electric blue headscarves to the women of the tour, asking them to cover their hair, their shoulders, their legs. Then they look down at the bare knees of Russ, Dave, and nearly every other man in the group, and they begin handing out headscarves to them as well, urging the men to wrap the lengths of fabric around their waists like sarongs. “Please be so kind to cover!” they shout. “Please be so kind to cover!”

Once through this gauntlet, we search for Ali’s umbrella and join him beneath the hundreds of hanging lamps that light the mosque. He begins his tour again as soon as a dozen or so have found him.

“The front section is for the men doing their prayers,” he says. “The rear section is for the ladies. The question is often asked, why they cannot pray together? The answer, very simple: How you can concentrate on God when a lady does like this in front of you?”

Ali bends over prayerfully then makes a show of wiggling his khaki-clad behind in our direction. The men of Ultimate Journeys seem to find this very funny. Inspired, Rikk Watts spots a few male members of the group standing near each other in their blue modesty skirts and can’t resist capturing the image. “Get together now, gentlemen,” he says with a grin as his camera jumps to his eye, “or dare I say gentlemen?” Russ and Dave and Robert pose next to each other, each pulling the hem of his skirt up to show a little ankle.

“You all seem to get along so well, for a tour group,” I say to Tamara Duke, who likewise has been watching the show.

“Oh, a bunch of us have been traveling together for years now,” she tells me. “We don’t just go on religious trips. We also play golf.”

Why am I disappointed? Despite myself, I feel snookered. Revelation, after all, implies intensity of experience, heightened awareness, at least the possibility of life-changing discovery. John of Patmos is said to have been in a fever dream when he composed the prophetic parts of his book. His vision tells of a seven-headed, ten-horned beast that was a key to understanding the state of the world in which he and his audience lived. The original meaning of “apocalypse” is unveiling: it is the moment at which the seeming reality of things falls away and the hidden truth is made known.

So far my time among those preparing for the Revelation trail has felt less like an unveiling and more like an ice-cream social. There is a lot of talking, a lot of gawking. We travel through Istanbul as if behind glass, insulated not just by the tour bus but by the very fact that we are a tour—a self-contained unit that has no need to meet or interact with anyone who lives among the sites we see.

After a long day with the group, I decide to set off on my own. Maybe solo revelation would be easier to find.

The city of Smyrna, like all the locations named in Revelation, now has a new name: Izmir. Once the most important coastal city in Asia Minor, it remains Turkey’s third-largest metropolis, yet is visited by tourists almost exclusively for its airport. I rent a Ford Festiva from the Hertz counter and ask for a map.

“Where do you go?” one of the two clerks on duty asks. “Efes?”

Of the seven cities mentioned by John of Patmos, Ephesus— now called Efes—is the only one non-Revelation-seeking travelers flock to. It is considered a high point of any trip to Turkey and so I plan to go there last.

“Yes,” I say, “but first I will go to Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”

The Hertz clerks look at me as if I have just rattled off the moons of Neptune. The old names mean nothing to them. I dig out a list of the modern names and the clerks help me plot a course from the airport. With the seven churches marked with red dots on my map, I see now that they make a rough circle. Really, it’s more of a kidney shape, but still I am pleased to see I will be able to start and end just where I am standing.

The clerks, however, are less happy with my plan.

“There is nothing to see here, here, here, here, or here,” one of them says, pointing at five of my seven dots, which is to say every site with the exception of Efes and Izmir. He puts two thin fingers on two of the dots, reconsidering. “Here, there is a little something. Maybe here.”

The second clerk disagrees. Now that they have something to talk about it seems they don’t need to include me at all.

“No, there is nothing there also,” Clerk #2 says. “He should go to Efes. Efes is a good trip. These other places, this is not a good trip.”

“Or maybe go Efes, then another place, then back to Efes, then another place, then back to Efes.”

“I only have a day,” I say.

They look down at the map, then back up at me, then down at the map.

“One day?”

It’s true: for a variety of reasons—money, a two-year-old daughter back home, and maybe a peculiarly American wish to supply with speed the intensity I’m afraid history won’t provide—I have about twenty-four hours to see all seven cities of the Book of Revelation. I have the next day’s plane ticket out of Izmir in my pocket.

The clerks talk briefly between themselves and then reach a consensus. “One day? Efes.”

It is already late in the evening when I pull out of the parking lot. I make my way into the first city of Revelation in darkness.

Because of its airport, Izmir is the beginning and end—the alpha and omega, to use John’s language—for most seven churches tours. Yet there is really not much to see. The modern city has been so thoroughly grafted onto the ancient one that signs of the community addressed in scripture barely exist. I discover this by the headlights of the Festiva as I cruise through downtown. I head north in hopes of crossing two of the seven churches sites off my list before I can drive no more.

The road between Smyrna and Pergamos is both antediluvian and postapocalyptic. Izmir may be a thoroughly modern urban center, but it is bordered by a shantytown filled with homes that seem made of mud, concrete, and salvaged materials. Satellite dishes spring up even here, and as I drive by I can see a warm glow emanating from windows cut in walls of corrugated metal. It seems desolate until I am beyond them, when the permanent haze of television radiance mixed with cooking fires gives way to empty night.

When I reach Pergamum, “where Satan’s throne is,” according to John—it’s now called Bergama—four hours and several wrong turns later, I find a closet of a hotel room with a dirty orange carpet, a leaky sink, and no windows, and I don’t mind at all.

The next morning I get an early start for the long day ahead. Bergama’s main archaeological attractions are high up on the hill that overlooks the town, but the site of most interest to faith-based tour groups is down a quiet road just off the main drag. As Rikk suggested, the visible remains of the Christian community are located on ground that once held a pagan temple, then a church, and now a collection of half-collapsed walls and broken building stones that seem all but forgotten. The ancient buildings felled by history are nearly indistinguishable from the buildings of more recent construction that have fallen from simple neglect. The Church of Saint John the Theologian, as Bergama’s main seven churches site is known, sits catty-cornered to an abandoned storehouse, a crumbling barn, and a dusty field where a skinny horse scrapes for grass in the hot morning sun.

I linger for an hour, then climb back into my car. The skinny horse has moved closer to the Festiva, but otherwise there has been no action in Bergama. Despite the rising temperature, this morning the Revelation trail seems cold, indeed.

With five more stops to make, I push on, setting out to check off first-century ruin sites like items on a shopping list. From Bergama I head east, then south, beginning what will quickly turn into several hours of hard driving through a landscape of arid-looking earth that nonetheless has been coaxed to agricultural life. Along the roadsides, women work in green fields with their heads wrapped in blue, red, and black scarves.

Driving five hundred miles in a single day in Turkey is not unlike driving five hundred miles in a single day anywhere in the world. The radio plays different music, but the drivers are just as impatient with foreigners slowing to read every sign, ignorant of all etiquette of the road. It is not long before I learn my first lesson in Turkish driving. Back home in Washington, the car horn usually means something simple and not very expressive, like Watch it, buddy. Here, it means something closer to You’d better get ready because I’m going pass you on either the left or the right; I haven’t decided which yet, so if you’re smart you will slow down a bit and drive as straight as possible while my truck full of chickens roars by.

My only breaks from the road are at remnants of civilizations long gone that dot this region like strip malls. I stop first at Thyatira (Thus spoke Saint John: “I hold this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel”), then Sardis (“If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief ”), then Philadelphia (“Because you have kept my message of endurance, I will keep you safe”), and I am surprised to find, at each spot, that I am the only soul there. I had heard—from Ultimate Journeys and others—that business was booming on the seven churches trail. So where were all those walking in the footsteps of the people for whom Revelation was born?

I am somewhere on the highway south of Philadelphia and have two church sites to go: Laodicea (now Laodokia), which is near the modern city of Denzili, and then finally on to Ephesus, which has become a beacon in the mist of this long, hot, and mostly fruitless day. The roads wraps first to the right, then to the left, and I ride it as Wile E. Coyote might ride a mine cart down a mountain pass— faster and faster until the dusty world around me seems to be an endlessly repeating backdrop of yellow and brown. I take a hairpin turn which suddenly slopes into a winding valley road that speeds traffic only to throw a stoplight up at the bottom of the hill. Hitting the brakes, I lurch to a stop so sudden it kicks up a storm of sand and stones around me.

And then I see them. As if they have been formed within the dust cloud, they stand like a mirage in the near-desert landscape. Three men, two women, all in crisp white shirts and navy blue pants or skirts that make them seem like a lost field trip from a Catholic high school.

When the stoplight changes, I begin to roll forward, but then stop again. One of the men in the group has raised his hand into the air, calling to me. I roll down my window and he leans in, smiling with relief as he says, “Wa salaam aleichem” (“And to you, peace”). I know that one should answer “Wa aleichem salaam,” but I haven’t spoken to anyone all day and I can’t help but blurt out “Hello!”

“English?” he says, then he turns to the others. “Englitze,” he calls to them.

Another young man steps forward and also puts his head through the window.

“We are schoolteachers,” the second one says. “The autobus goes.”

“Went,” the first schoolteacher says.

“Where are you going?” I ask.


I lean across the passenger seat, push open the door, and wave inward, offering what I hope is the international sign for “get in.”

“We all are schoolteachers,” the second one says, as if my offer of a ride was limited only to the educators in the group.

So far on this trip the Ford Festiva has seated one comfortably. Now, we would see if it could live up to its festive name. The five schoolteachers pile in without a second thought.

“Denzili?” I ask.

“Evet, evet,” they say. Yes, yes. “Denzili.”

From the backseat there soon comes a period of spirited discussion I cannot understand, followed by flashes of carefully considered questions and comments intended for me.

“What is your name?” they ask slowly, rolling each word like a letter in a spelling bee.

I tell them, and soon they tell me theirs as well. In the passenger seat next to me is the young man who first put his head through the window: Mehmet. Directly behind me, with his head pushed up against the Festiva’s ceiling because he is seated on a lap, is the second man, Esra. Under him is the third male teacher, Ihsan. The women are Gokcen and Ulas. It takes about twenty minutes to convey all this but we are still forty kilometers from Denzili, which is another ten kilometers from Laodokia, so we’ve got nothing but time.

Once names have been established, there follows another five minutes of intense Turkish debate. Finally Gokcen tries her hand at a translation of what they have been saying. She says haltingly, “We… love… you… Peter.”

Ulas laughs and buries her face in Gokcen’s ear. In the rearview mirror I see her turn red.

“For the driving we are loving you,” she says. “For the driving.”

“Thank you,” Mehmet suggests. “She means to say ‘Thank you.’”

Every English word is followed by what seems to be a fierce disputation on grammar and vocabulary. They have all had plenty of instruction in the language, I gather, but rarely get to speak it.

Gokcen is the most fearless: “Peter, are you drinking something?”

Ulas covers her face to stifle more laughter, but Gokcen forges ahead.

“Do you like to drink something? Liquids? Soft drinks, or tea?”

“Do I like drinking liquids?” I ask. There’s nothing like travel to cause you to answer questions you never thought to consider. “Yes, I do like drinking liquids,” I say. “When I am thirsty.”

“We would drink anything with you.”

I check my watch—four o’clock—and tell them that in fact I need to get to Laodokia and then to Ephesus before my flight out of Izmir late that night.

“We drink something to thank you,” Mehmet says, and all in the backseat make sincere sounds of assent.

On the outskirts of Denzili we stop at a Burger King, where we pile into a small booth. Only after we have all crammed in together does Esra extract himself to order six Cokes at the counter.

Each of the schoolteachers takes a turn trying to tell me something in English, and then I try out a bit of my guidebook Turkish. When I have said my three words and they have blushed through their quiet but useful English vocabularies, we fall into a pleasant silence.

“We want to speak,” Esra says, “but we cannot.”

Then it seems to be Gokcen’s turn. Everyone watches her, waiting.

Finally she opens her mouth to speak.

“The words,” she says.

She seems about to add a verb to her noun but instead she breaks into a wide smile that turns into a laugh. In a moment we’re all laughing. At what? The words, and the space between them.

We finish our Cokes, climb back into the Festiva, and continue in the direction of Denzili. As Mehmet directs me, I make one stop, then another, dropping off Gokcen, Ulas, and Ihsan near their homes.

“Where now?” I ask, expecting that I will now drive my last two accidental fares to their destinations.

Mehmet and Esra share a few words conspiratorially in Turkish.

“Laodokia!” they shout.

We drive on, out of the city, beginning on a boulevard that thins as it carves through hills of green and yellow. The land is beautiful, the road a labyrinth. There is no way I could have navigated this part of the trip without them. Turning left off the pavement, we bump down a narrow channel of stone and dirt, finally rolling through a chainlink gate pulled halfway across the road. Out before us the sky opens behind fallen white columns and the remnants of buildings that look like Atlantis pulled up from the sea.

“We’re here?” I ask.

“No problem,” Esra says, and then they both grin. This site is as neglected as the other seven church sites. In fact there is a far more impressive site just down the road—Pamulkake. Not only is it a favorite of the guidebooks, it is also a place locals are just as likely to visit as tourists. But Laodokia? Mehmet and Esra smile at each other at least in part because they have no reason to be here other than that they happened to cross my path.

I park the car and we set out on foot, walking among the ruins we saw from the road.

My new friends jog from shattered statues to building remnants to broken slabs of ancient roadway, occasionally grabbing my hand to show me something they are afraid I might miss. Beyond the ruins we make our way up a slight grassy slope. Soon we stand on the cusp of what was once a vast open-air theater, a steep hill with stone benches set deep enough in the earth that they have not budged in two thousand years.

We walk back through the ruins, entering a wide thoroughfare with white marble columns on either side that provide the sensation of walking through the husk of a giant whale washed up on shore.

Esra puts a hand on one of these bones of the civilization that once stood here, pats it heartily, grinning. His look says he desperately wants to tell me something about this place. He is a schoolteacher, after all.

“History!” he finally says. “History!”

Then he laughs at the absurdity of it. We all laugh.

“History!” I agree.

“No problem!” Mehmet says.

“Laodokia!” Esra shouts, with a tone that is unmistakable: Why on earth are we here? There are other, better ruins not far away.

“Why come Turkey, Peter?” Mehmet asks.

I try to explain. “Well, there were these seven churches,” I say. “And this guy John, he wrote them each a letter, and those letters ended up in a book of the Bible. Some people believe that book tells how the world will end.”

I give up there, and we all laugh again. Standing in a place that was once a city center but now is thick with weeds and silence, we all know that the world is too flexible to ever end—at least not in the ways any book could foretell.

Dusk is approaching when I drop Mehmet and Esra back in Denzili. I have about a hundred kilometers to go to reach Ephesus by nightfall and I push the Festiva hard to make it. Miraculously, I do not get lost.

Except in my thoughts: I think about the local people to whom John of Patmos once wrote, and I wonder if they remained, like the arid yet fertile land of Anatolia, virtually unchanged as creeds came and went through the centuries. If that was the case, then my new friends—Turks, Muslims, schoolteachers—though separated by faith and language might be the closest living relatives of those for whom Revelation was written.

I miss my two accidental tour groups—both the one I went looking for and the one that found me—but I am glad now to be on my own. I am not a believer in prophecies. I am not a speaker of creeds. I never met a church, mosque, coven, or temple I wanted to join.

And so it makes a certain amount of sense to me that I would need to leave one country caught in a seemingly endless struggle between the religious and the secular and come to another caught in a struggle very different but much the same, in order to make sense of the desire to enter into the story of other people’s faith, only to move on to another story, and another story, and another. I put my foot to the floor of the Festiva and revel in the feeling of racing toward the setting sun in a foreign land, thinking about friends just made who likely will never be seen again.

The ruins at Ephesus are closed by the time I get there. The sun hangs low in the sky, and the only people around are armed guards smoking cigarettes in the parking lot.

With nowhere else to go, I keep driving toward what is left of the sun.

A mile or two beyond Ephesus, the road to Revelation ends at a beach. I park the Festiva, walk to the water, and strip down to my boxer shorts.

I wade into the sea, sinking in over my head just as the last light of the sun and the softbreeze turn the surface a rippling orange and red. The wind whistles faintly on the water. It’s not quite a revelation, nor a call to prayer. But it’s close.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.