Spiritual Journey of a Different Kind

I never imagined I’d have a Christian awakening in a Muslim country, but I did. You can too. The spiritual sensation of this travel experience is so intense, they should put a warning in the brochure.

By: John Sotomayor

Some experiences cannot be adequately defined in a travel brochure. Like the spiritual transformation one feels in the knowledge that you are literally walking along the same path traveled by the disciples of Christ as they taught the gospel during the early days of Christianity.

St Peter – pinch me! This cannot be happening. But it was.

That was my experience as I heard the statement made by our guide while walking the dusty Arcadian Way of the ruins of Ephesus, which pulled my attention away from the amazingly, well preserved Library of Celsus, an ancient landmark. She also mentioned the Arcadian Way was also traveled by Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 33 BC, but that had less of an impact.

There are many similar locations throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean, for sure. Yet there was something extraordinary about this path. About Ephesus. An ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia, the ruins Ephesus is located southwest of present-day Selcuk in the Izmir Province, Turkey. For starters, the ruins of Ephesus have the distinction, according to our guide, of being the only archeological excavation site entirely restored and permissible for visitors to walk through, to experience what it would have been like to live there in ancient times. Other excavation sites are not as extensively preserved and are inadmissible for visitors to walk through, only glance at from afar.

Secondly, Ephesus was an important center for early Christianity. Between 53 and 57 AD, Paul wrote the letter 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, as well as preached within the Great Theater – the largest in history with a 24,000 seat capacity. The Gospel of John may have been written in Ephesus between 90 – 100 AD.

My mind-blowing experience came about as a traveler with the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce, now known as the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP) in 2012. It was a Mediterranean cruise of Greece and Turkey that included Athens, the Greek Islands – Myconos, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini, as well as Istanbul, Izmir, and Kusadasi, Turkey. Like most cruises, this one was designed for a luxurious travel experience exploring historical landmarks and modern cultural centers. I thought I would delve in classical Greek history, and get some face-time with historic arts and artifacts. It did not occur to me there would be more. Something deeper. This cruise came with a personalized spiritual explosion so intense, I returned home feeling touched by the Holy Spirit.

Although the travel experience began with a flight into Athens, Greece, for me, that religious experience began as the cruise ship entered the port of Instanbul.

Where East Meets West

From the moment you glimpse the iconic Byzantine Hagia Sophia soaring 6th-century cathedral dome – a symbol of Christianity since its construction by Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great for more than a thousand years – adjacent to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, built in 1616, as the cruise ship enters the Great Horn, you sense the enormity, and seemingly complexity, of two major religions sitting side by side where East meets West, in the only city in the world that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia.

The two share a common park – Sultanahmet Park – located on opposite sides. The Hagia Sophia has red walls and minarets. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is bright blue. Nearly two hundred years before the construction of the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a Muslim mosque when the Ottoman empire conquered Constaninople, as Istanbul was formerly known. In 1935, it was converted into a museum. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Blue Mosque, only the second visit in recorded history for a Christian pope to visit a Muslim place of worship. With two buildings, two religions, hundreds of years, one history, Pope Benedict stated Turkey “will be a bridge of friendship and collaboration between East and West.”

I felt the same.

Patmos Revealed

My religious experience continued upon arrival to the Greek island, Patmos. I am not alone. The island is a significant Christian pilgrimage site. Its Cave of the Apocalypse is where St John the Theologian wrote the Book of Revelation. Patmos is actually mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The book’s introduction states John was in Patmos when he was given, and recorded, a vision from Jesus. Within the Grotto, niches in the walls mark the ledges used as a desk by St John, and cracks in the rock were purportedly made by the voice of God.

That is significantly hard to beat. Which leads me back to where we began, in Ephesus, and adding Kusadasi.

Kindness in Kusadasi

After our guided walk within the ancient ruins of Ephesus, we took a bus ride through the colorful city of Kusadasi to Mt Koressos, in Turkey. Perched high above overlooking the ancient city was the House of the Virgin Mary, a humble cottage restored as a chapel, where it is believed the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, spent her final days in recluse, protected by the Apostle John. He kept her safe high atop the mountain visiting her with food and supplies from the pagan city Ephesus below. He chose to preach Christianity there to convert those who believed in numerous Greek Gods. The House of the Virgin Mary has been officially sanctioned by the Vatican, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and was visited by three popes.

At the center of the chapel is am altar adorned with a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A small room lies on the right, believed to have been where the Virgin Mary slept.

Outside, a wishing wall has been constructed, called Meryemana. Visitors light candles and tie personalized prayers on paper or fabric. At the time, my mother was ill with terminal cancer. I prayed to the Virgin Mary for her and tied my prayer message onto the wall. I purchased some holy water taken from a water fountain located just outside the house, believed to have miraculous powers of healing.

Upon return to Florida, I gave the bottle to my mother. She lived an additional year beyond what the doctors diagnosed, and beyond what they believed possible given her condition. I like to think the Virgin Mary heard my prayer, and gave us another year to enjoy with her. It goes without saying, my religious experience visiting Istanbul, Patmos, Ephesus and Kusadasi was profound.

Editor’s Note: Elevate magazine seeks other travel stories with religious theme, including missionary trips. If you would like to share yours, or know someone’s story you would like to recommend, please contact the publisher/editor at john@sotomayormedia.com.

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