Cities of the Seven Churches

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Ancient Cities

The City of Ephesus

  • Ephesus ranked fourth among the most powerful cities in the Roman Empire. (The others were Rome, Alexandria, and Syrian Antioch.)
  • Along with Smyrna and Pergamum, it was one of the three great cities in Asia.
  • Scholars estimate that more than 225,000 people lived there. This is based on records referring to 40,000 male citizens, although some scholars think the number was misread. It really should read 1,040 male citizens, which would calculate into a population of 6-7,000 people – male citizens, women, slaves, children.
  • Ephesus was a harbor town and the center of three separate trade routes.
  • Because of its location, it was thriving economically and culturally.
  • It was also home to the temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. (The temple of Artemis was built in 550 BCE, measuring over 100,000 square feet. It was the largest building in the ancient world -- 4 times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, and comprised entirely out of marble – 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, with 127 pillars that were 60 feet tall. It had been destroyed and rebuilt several times, but was completely destroyed in 400 CE.)
  • It supposedly contained a statue of the goddess Artemis, which fell to earth as a meteorite.
  • Since lots of people came to worship there (and donate money), Ephesus was also a major financial center.
  • Ephesus also had several other temples built in honor of various emperors.
  • Scholars believe there was a large Jewish presence in the city, but no synagogues have been excavated as of yet.
  • It is believed that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, where he claims to have fought with beasts.
  • Paul’s first visit to the city was quite brief, but the second time he remained there between 18-22 months (teaching in a hall after being thrown out of the synagogue).
  • According to Acts 19, he was responsible for a great riot, when the Ephesians chanted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”
  • Paul met with the Ephesian elders on his way to Jerusalem and gave them his famous farewell address (Acts 20:29-30).
  • Most scholars do not think that Paul wrote the Letter to the Ephesians.
  • It is believed that the Apostle John spent his final years in Ephesus.
  • Apparently there is a basilica there commemorating the site of Mary’s grave.
  • Timothy was called the “first bishop of Ephesus.”
  • Some scholars liken Ephesus to the “mother church” of the region, another indication of its importance.

The City of Smyrna

  • Smyrna was another harbor city, located 35-40 miles north of Ephesus.
  • It survives to this day as the modern city of Izmir.
  • It called itself the “first of Asia.”
  • Scholars estimate its population to have been around 100,000.
  • It was the birthplace of several famous people, including Homer (though some dispute this claim).
  • Like Ephesus, it was also destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries.
  • It was the first city to build a temple to the goddess Roma.
  • The people of Smyrna had a good relationship with Rome; hence, this site was chosen for a temple to the emperor Augustus.
  • The city was renowned for its beauty, pleasing architecture, and fine wine.
  • Smyrna also maintained a center for science and medicine.
  • There was a large Jewish population in this city, according to several inscriptions found there.
  • One inscription gives gratitude to “former Jews” for 100,000 drachmae that was designated for a building project (123-24 CE).
  • It was also an important Christian center.
  • It is believed that the Jews were quite hostile to area Christians and took advantage of Roman discontent to denounce any connections with them.
  • Non-canonical writings of Paul and the apostle John speak of visits to this city.
  • Ignatius (second century CE) stopped there on his way to martyrdom in Rome and wrote several letters from there.

The City of Pergamum

  • This city was 70 miles north of Smyrna and 15 miles inland.
  • It was a very important city until 85 BCE, when it was on the wrong side of a war against the Romans. Ultimately, they were defeated and the city lay in disrepair for almost 100 years. It was during this time that Ephesus gained in importance.
  • Pergamum was known as an intellectual center; scholars think it was comparable to Athens and Alexandria.
  • They had a library that held over 200,000 items.
  • Scholars used to think that parchment writing was invented there.
  • They also had temples to Athena and Asclepius (known as the god of healing.)
  • After building a forty foot high altar to Zeus in 230 BCE, priests practiced human sacrifice 24/7 for weeks.
  • This city was one of the leading religious centers of Asia.
  • Pergamum also had a renowned medical center and was the “Lourdes” of its day.
  • Augustus chose the city of Pergamum to be the site of a temple in honor of himself in 29 CE. This is what put Pergamum on the map.
  • It was also the site of the Roman proconsul.
  • Needless to say, Emperor worship/loyalty was big in this town.
  • When Christians refused to participate, it was seen as subversive and resulted in persecutions. They were known as atheists for not worshiping the Roman gods and haters of humanity for not worshiping the Emperor.
  • Jews got by with this behavior because they had a 2000 year old history; Christianity was brand new and fraught with superstitions.

The City of Thyatira

  • This was possibly the least important city among the ones mentioned. Little archeological work has been done because the modern city, Akhisar, is built on this site.
  • It was located 40 miles SE of Pergamum and was a commercial town on the Lycus River.
  • It was militarily strategic in that it was founded as a “buffer town” by Saleucus I in 300 BCE. Since wars were fought there, it was typically unsettled and politically unstable.
  • With the arrival of the Romans, peace was more common.
  • The city was located on a major trade route; they had many guilds.
  • The guilds included shoemakers, dyers of cloth, and bronze smiths. (Lydia was from Thyatira – she was a dealer of purple goods.)
  • These guilds were social as well as commercial centers.
  • Each guild had its own area. Since towns were laid out in squares, it basically meant that each guild had its own square.
  • Each guild would also have its own god or goddess as patron. This put Christians in a very difficult situation. There was a lot of pressure for them to participate in idol worship. Refusing meant losing one’s place in the guild.
  • The main god in this city was Apollo; he was a sun god and the son of Zeus.
  • The city also had a temple to Artemis.
  • It probably was not that involved in Emperor Worship.

The City of Sardis

  • Sardis was located 40 miles SE of Thyatira.
  • Historically, it was a very glorious city.
  • It was founded in 1200 BCE, atop a 1500 foot precipice.
  • Needless to say, the citizens believed themselves impregnable and grew through commerce and trade.
  • In 546 BCE, the city was conquered through a fluke. The enemy, literally, climbed up unseen and opened the city gates.
  • Thereafter, “conquering Sardis” became a catchphrase for doing what was thought to be impossible.
  • Not learning from their history, the citizens were again conquered in 214 BCE and Sardis never regained its stature after that. They lived in the shadow of Pergamum.
  • In 17 CE, the city was destroyed by a huge earthquake. Rome assisted in its rebuilding.
  • In gratitude, the citizens offered to build a temple to Caesar (but it was awarded to Smyrna instead).
  • Sardis did, however, have a temple to Artemis.
  • The citizen’s special interest was in death and immortality (possibly a by-product of their warring history).
  • Their religion was based on nature worship and cycles of fertility.
  • They had a sacred spring in town – thought to be the “god of the underworld.”
  • One of the biggest synagogues was excavated in Sardis, leading scholars to think there was a huge Jewish population there.

The City of Philadelphia

  • Philadelphia was 30 miles SE of Sardis and along a main trade route.
  • It was known as the “gateway to the east.”
  • It was the most recent of all the cities, having been founded in 189 BCE.
  • Legend has it that it was founded by the king of Pergamum, who called it Philadephus in honor of his love for his elderly brother.
  • Hence, it is also known as the city of “brotherly love.”
  • The city was plagued by earthquakes, but had great volcanic soil and a thriving agricultural market (notable for its grape industry).
  • Along with Laodicea, Philadelphia was destroyed by the earthquake in 17 CE.
  • Because of so many earthquakes, the city was unsafe. The city walls were constantly cracking, and many people slept outside the city where it was thought to be safer.
  • After the big earthquake, Rome exempted Philadelphia from paying any taxes for five years.
  • The city had a good and close relationship with Rome.
  • This changed somewhat during the time of Domitian, who needed more grain for his army and ordered the city to cut its grape vines (which take many years to regrow and mature). This decimated the grape crop and led to serious divisions with the Emperor.
  • The patron of the city was Dionysus, the god of wine.
  • There is no evidence of any Jewish population (to date).
  • There is no record of when a Christian church was founded.

The City of Laodicea

  • This city was 45 miles SE of Philadelphia and 100 miles east of Ephesus along a main Roman route.
  • Its location made it critical for trade and communications.
  • It was founded in 253 BCE by Antiochus II and for 150 years grew in importance.
  • Basically there were three sister cities: Laodicea, Herapolis, and Colosse. By 188 BCE, Laodicea was under Roman rule, and Laodicea remained loyal when other cities joined together in a rebellion against Rome.
  • When those other cities were destroyed, Laodicea thrived.
  • It had a flourishing wool market (black wool), which led to great prosperity.
  • It also had a large school of medicine and a temple to the god of healing.
  • Like Philadelphia, Leodicea was earthquake prone.
  • The city was virtually destroyed in 60 CE, but it was so prosperous that it was able to rebuild without Rome’s assistance.
  • The main problem, however, was that it had no water supply.
  • Any water had to come through an aqueduct 6 miles long.
  • That left the citizens very vulnerable to weather and enemies, who would simply cut off their water supply.
  • Religiously speaking, the citizens had both local and Roman gods.
  • They worshiped Zeus and Apollo, also Men Karou (another god of healing)
  • Judaism was quite prominent.
  • The church, like the city, had grown complacent and fat.
  • It had a lot of money, but lacked any spiritual depth.
  • John’s letter has nothing good to say about Laodicea – it is even worse than Sardis.


Aune, David, E. "Revelation." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997.

Barclay, William. "Revelation." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.

Boring, M. Eugene. "Revelation." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press. 1989.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Revelation." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.

Keck, Leander. "Revelation." New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1995.

Osborne, Grant. "Revelation." Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

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