Ancient history seems not so ancient when you can see it, touch it, feel it, walk around in it. Living in Turkey gives me the opportunity to do exactly that just about every day. In the center of the suburb where I live on the edge of Istanbul, stands a collection of brick and stone ruins that date back at least a thousand years to the Byzantium Empire. No one around here seems to know really how old they are, but comparing them to other structures in the area leads me to believe that they may be closer to two thousand years old. When Thomas Jefferson penned the words of the Declaration of Independence, these ancient ruins had already stood for centuries. Some of the local residents actually use them today, keeping chickens underneath the vaulted ceilings of what appears to be either a Roman bathhouse or a church.
Just three hours south of Istanbul, on the other side of a large bay and over a modest mountain range, is the verdant valley of Nicea, or Iznik as it’s known in Turkish. The ancient town of Nicea sits next to a huge lake surrounded by olive-tree covered mountains. For the past five hundred years or more Turks have lived in the town, growing their olives and gardens, fishing in the lake, and drinking strong cups of Turkish coffee while they sit about chatting mostly about nothing in particular.
Romans built a large wall around Nicea, marking it as an important city in the region. The Turks have left the Roman structures intact, so you can find in Nicea one of the most completely preserved city walls in the country. One of the gates is dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, built close to the time that the Romans built the Hadrian wall across England to keep out the barbaric tribes of Scotland. In other words, it is all really old …but there it is still standing around Nicea, with turrets, gates, and lots of lots of bricks.
If Nicea sounds familiar to someone, it’s likely that they recognize it from either attending church or reading The Da Vinci Code, or both. I also perk up my ears at the mention of Nicea (or Iznik) because the olives from that area are quite delicious.
In a recent visit to Nicea with my wife, I took some time to get out of the car and get in touch with ancient history. My main objective, in this my second visit to the town, was to accurately locate the scene of the first Council of Nicea, convened at the request of the Byzantium Emperor Constantine in 323 A.D. Actually my first objective when I arrived in Nicea was to find a tasty fish restaurant (not an easy thing since Turks eat twenty cows to every one fish). My wife and I walked to the lakefront following someone’s directions to a decent place to get some fish. We discovered a small place right across from the lake and sat outside in a small pine grove. While we waited for the food, we meandered over to a large semi-sunken area next to the lake. A brown marker identified the place as the Senators’ Court. A half-sunken wall built with massive blocks of stone jutted out from the main city wall and ran about a hundred yards in a straight line all the way into the lake water. A couple of folks enjoying the breezy evening sat on the wall at the very end where it met the water. To get a good photo of the wall, I had to stretch my arm way out and lean over the swamp nine feet below.
Though we could not find any other markers explaining the purpose of the Senators’ Court, we later learned that this large structure, half sunk in the lakeside soil after 1700 years, was the probable location of the First Council of Nicea.
People with various motives have targeted the Council of Nicea, falsifying the historical facts about this pivotal event. Before Dan Brown came along, rumors have circulated in the Middle East that the Nicene Council met to sort through hundreds of different Gospel accounts to find the ones that fit their political agenda. In fact, the council had nothing to do with choosing what versions of the Gospel would be in the New Testament. Others had already decided that in 185 A.D. The Council met to give a thoughtful, debated answer to a bishop named Arius, who believed Jesus was a being higher than a human and lower than God. Leaders came from as far as Iran, some whose eyes had been gauged out or hands cut off during persecutions under hostile Roman emperors. After debate, all but two of the hundreds gathered there agreed that Arius was wrong. They crafted a succinct statement of what they believed true and accurate, which became known as the Nicene Creed. In doing so they simply reaffirmed what earlier generations of Christians considered the foundational teaching of the New Testament. The New Testament used at the Nicene Council differed very little from one you can pick up at Wal-Mart.
A couple of days after doing some other sight seeing, my wife and I drove back through Nicea. Walking under arches of the “Four Gate” entrance into the city, I had one of those moments when one wishes, “O that these stones could tell what they have heard and seen!” But never mind trying to haul around the massive stones from Nicea with their muted story since we have the Nicene Creed faithfully transcribed, translated into hundreds of languages, and spoken in countless gatherings every Sunday around the world.