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RELIGION & TOURISM

The first Christians and St. Paul
Tarsus is among the places where Christianity first spread.

St. Paul (or Saul) was born in Tarsus as a Jew. The members of his family were Roman citizens. He went to Jerusalem to study and took part in attacks against Christianity, which had just started to spread.

During a trip to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus, leading to his conversion to Christianity. After being baptised he took the name of Paul. He dedicated his life to the spreading of Christianity and for this cause he travelled far and wide. These missions during the first century, done in the name of Christianity, were not only the longest done for this cause, but were also very effective.

These missions, described in the Bible, encompassed the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, with all its islands. The sermons of Paul brought about the foundation of the first Christian communities.

The well in the city centre, in a courtyard that is considered to be the place where Saint Paul’s home stood, is known as Saint Paul’s well. As a result of excavations done in this courtyard, remains of some walls have been found. Due to Saint Paul’s importance for Christianity, these remains and the well have been considered sacred for a long time and the fact that they remain is considered to be the result of there having been a Christian community in Tarsus until relatively recent times. The remains of the house brought to daylight as a result of the excavations are being protected by a glass roof.

The well has a depth of 38 m. and it never runs dry throughout the year.

In the past, Christian pilgrims passing through Tarsus on their way to Jerusalem, never failed to drink from this well that is considered sacred.

Ayatekla (Hagia Theokleia – Saint Thecla) / Meryemlik
During the celebrations for Saint Thecla, held each year on 13th – 14th September, there is a procession along the ancient Roman road towards the sacred area.

The tomb of the saint is in a grotto that is reached by going down a few steps. The life of this saint, which has a very important place in Christian belief, is rather impressive.

Hagia Theokleia
Saint Paul from Mersin-Tarsus (5 -15 / 67 AD) was one of the people most important to the spread of Christianity. When he was expelled from Antioch in Pisidia (the present day town of Yalvaç in the province of Isparta) while spreading the Lord’s teachings, he fled to Iconium (Konya).

While the saint was giving sermons in the house where he had been given refuge, a young girl in the neighbouring house overheard him. This girl was Thecla (Theocleia meaning God’s Glory), 17 years old and engaged. Impressed by the sermons, she broke off her engagement. The mother of the girl and the fiancé complained to the authorities. The governor had Saint Paul thrown into jail to be interrogated. Thecla convinced the guards and went into the cell of the saint, whom she had not even seen up to that point. She knelt in front of him and listened to his teachings.

When Thecla’s family and the governor heard about this, Saint Paul was beaten and expelled from the city. Thecla was sentenced to be burned.

The fire was lit, but a rainstorm that began right at that moment, extinguished it. The square was inundated and Thecla was saved.

The girl found Saint Paul, who had hidden in the cemetery with his followers, and having cut her hair and donned the clothes of a man, decided to follow the apostle forever.

Saint Paul and Thecla went to Pisidia. There they got into trouble again when a nobleman called Alexandros fell in love with the girl. This time Thecla was condemned to be eaten by the lions. The sentence was carried out, but not only did the lions not eat her, they also became protective of her.

In Pisidia, not being able to stand the torment to which she was subjected, she fainted and the old woman who had given her refuge had to let her go. Thecla started to wander once more and found Saint Paul in Derbe (it is widely believed that Derbe is present day Demre). She told him all that had happened to her.

She bid farewell to Saint Paul and went back to Konya. After having stayed there for a short while she went to Seleucia (Silifke).

What we have summarised here is actually a long life story. By then Thecla had grown old. She took refuge in a grotto. She preached to the locals trying to convert them to Christianity, and performed miraculous healings. Consequently the medicine men of the area went to the grotto to try and kill her. Thecla hid deep inside the grotto. At that moment the rock broke apart and Thecla disappeared, leaving behind only her cloak, which had turned to stone.

Being the first woman who spread the teachings of Jesus and who was as a result martyred, she was later declared to be a saint. The grotto where Thecla disappeared was transformed into a secret place of worship by the local Christians. This went on like this until the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of state in 312.

Thecla is recognised as a saint by both Catholics and the Orthodox. The Catholics celebrate her on the 23 September and the Orthodox on the 24th.

The Church of St. Paul (Tarsus)
The church which is located in the south of the city, about 200 meters south of Ulu Mosque is thought to be built in 11th or 12th Century B.C. and dedicated to St. Paul. In recent years, the building underwent restoration work. In the interior, the nave is separated from the aisles by rows of four columns each and covered with vaults. At the center of the ceiling there are frescos depicting Jesus Christ, St. John, St. Matthews, St. Mark and St.Luke, the four Holy Apostles who wrote the four accepted versions of the Holy Bible. The church also has a belfry.

There are figures depicting angels and a landscape next to the window opening to the nave. There is also a wooden mezzanine above the entrance to the building supported by two columns.

Today, the church is serving as a museum. But pious Christians come here frequently for pilgrimage.

The Monastery of Alahan (Apandos) (Mut)
The first Westerner to write about Alahan was Leon de Laborde who visited this spot in 1826. The book he wrote that includes sketches of “L’Eglise D'Alahan” was published in 1847. In 1955 an Italian researcher called P. Verzone made a comprehensive study of the monastery.

Evliya Chelebi also saw the monastery wrote, “It looks like its master builder has just finished the work.” Maybe, today it does not look as new as Evliya Chelebi says but it is in a very good shape and quite impressive.

To reach the monastery, you have to turn right on the Mut – Karaman road and climb up two kilometers to the hilltop. Here you have to park your car and continue on foot to make a tour of the monastery.

It is rewarding to watch below at the scenery from the hilltop. You see the valley of Göksu River from an altitude of 1000 t0 1200 meters.

The church, to the east of the monastery is in very good condition, only the roof is missing. You cannot but think that if there were a roof, the church would be ready for worship.

There is a blue-colored natural rock serving as the northern wall of the chapel. You should not be content by only visiting the interior of the church. Climb a little further up and watch the building from outside to perceive its magnificence. The eastern wall looks like as if it’s newly constructed from outside. Those who have seen Hagia Sophia in Istanbul would think that this church somewhat resembles it. They would not be mistaken because the dome of the monastery built in 440-442 A.D. is one of the prototypes of the dome technique used in Hagia Sophia.

Western Church (Evangelical Basilica), the monastery, the eastern church and monks’ cells carved into the rocks constitute the cluster of buildings to be seen here. The western church is in a ruined condition.

In both churches the nave and the aisles are separated by rows of Corinthian columns. The craftsmanship displayed by the columns, column capitals, figures of human beings, animals and plants on the portals are very attractive.

The figures of St. Paul and St.Pierre, angels Gabriel and Michael carrying a wreath and other ornamentations depicting roaring lions, eagles, fish and bunches of grapes and vine leaves have all been hewn into stone in embroidery like esthetic skill.

The Grotto of Seven Sleepers (Eshab-ı Kehf Mağarası)(Tarsus)
The cave is 330 square meters large and 10 meters high. There are three tunnels in the cave. It is known as the Grotto of Seven Sleepers, although there are many similar caves in many other places known by the same name, the most famous of them being near Ephesus, Turkey.

Next to the entrance of the cave, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz ordered a small mosque to be built in 1873. This is an interesting mosque with two minarets, one of them tall the other short! The cave is located on high ground near the village of Ulas, 14 kilometers northwest of Tarsus. Since it is located on high ground, the spot has a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. The cave is considered “sacred” by both Christians and Muslims. Those who come to visit the cave, park their cars below the hill and climb up passing in front of several memorabilia shops selling postcards, posters, rosaries, religious books and pamphlets. After walking past the small mosque with two minarets in strikingly discrepant height, you come to the entrance of the cave. Walking down 10 or 15 steps you enter the cave. There are usually people praying or lying down in the cavities imitating the seven Christian youths who slept for centuries escaping persecution.

Old Mosque (Eski Cami) (Mersin - Central)
The mosque is again dedicated to Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan, the protector of Mersin. The building was constructed in 1870. It is a rectangular, wooden, gable roofed structure with a single minaret. The mosque was renovated in 1901.

Mufti Mosque (Mersin - Central)
This mosque was built by Mufti Emin Efendi in 1884 next to the stream and the bridge over it having the same name as the mosque: Mufti. The building was also used as a madrasa, religious school. The mosque has Baroque style ornamentation. Its altar carries the tugra, or the seal of the Ottoman sultan.

The Avniye Mosque (Mersin - Central)
Because its minaret is wooden, this mosque was also known as “Wooden Mosque.” It has been built in 1898.

There are two more mosques that would attract your attention as you go on a city tour in Mersin. But these mosques are not historical; they are the structures of more modern times.

The Ulu Mosque (Grand Mosque) (Mersin - Central)
This is a new mosque. The location was called the Customs Square in the old days. Now it is known as Ulu Çarşı. There was an old mosque built in 1898 called the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) at this spot. This mosque was torn down and the new structure was built on the same place. About 2000 worshippers can pray at the same time in the mosque which is decorated with Kütahya tiles.

The Mosque of Hazreti Mikdat (Mugdat) (Mersin - Central)
This is the second biggest mosque built during the republican period in Turkey after the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara. The mosque, which holds 5,500 worshippers at a time, has four minarets with three balconies each. It is reminiscent of Ottoman mosque complexes (külliye) with its conference room, library, public kitchen, hostel and health center.

The Italian Catholic Cathedral (Mersin - Central)
The construction of the cathedral was begun in 1853 when the authorities gave permission to the Catholic merchants and Levantines who settled in Mersin after the development of maritime trade in the city. The church, which is run by Capuchin friars, is located on the Uray Street. The construction of the complex with its auxiliary sections and the clock tower was only completed in 1991. The Italian Catholic Cathedral is open to worship.

The Arab Orthodox Church (Mersin - Central)
This is the oldest church still functioning in Mersin. It was built in 1878 on the street now named after Atatürk. It is open to worshippers.

Ulu Mosque (Cami –i Nur) (Tarsus)
This mosque in the southern part of the town was built in 1579 when Tarsus was a principality ruled by the Ramazanoğlu family. The building of the mosque is attributed to a certain Ibrahim Bey, the son of Piri Pasha.

The mosque is also known by the name “Heavenly Light” and the neighborhood where it is located carries this name. The mosque is built on the ruins of St. Pierre Church in the traditional Seljukite style with a single-balcony minaret.

The building is constructed solely with hewn stone blocks according to a rectangular plan measuring 47 meters by 13 meters. The entrance to the mosque is through a 10-meter high and 7.20-meter wide portico supported by 14 marble columns and running along the eastern, northern and western sections. There are three naves running parallel to the altar in the interior. Adjoining the northern façade there is a courtyard twice as large as the interior, with porticos on the sides. In the middle of the courtyard there is a fountain. On the northeastern and northwestern corners of the portico there are two minarets. The one on the northwestern corner stands apart from the building and an inscription on it says that it was built in 1363. It seems that this minaret used to belong to another mosque. The second minaret was converted into a clock tower in late 19th Century.

The interior columns of the mosque are bound together by arches with sharp tips that are called “Iranian arches.” The altar, the pulpit and the prayer section for the Moslem clergy are made of marble. At the eastern section of the mosque, there is the tomb of Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun who died near Tarsus in the year 833.

Makam-ı Şerif Mosque and Prophet Daniel’s Tomb (Tarsus)
It is believed that Prophet Daniel is buried inside this mosque. That is why the mosque is called Madam-ı Şerif, roughly translated into English it means “Sublime Place.”

The mosque is located just northwest of Kubat Pasha Madrasa. Although the mosque was built in 1857, annexes were added to it in later years. Today, the old section is entered through three separate doors and then by walking down three steps you find yourself at the main chamber. The structure is covered by a low dome and its altar is very simple. In the eastern part, there is a tomb that is believed to belong to Prophet Daniel who was one of the major prophets of the Old Testament. But the Moslems also believe in all the prophets listed in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Old Mosque or the Church Mosque (Tarsus)
The mosque at Çarşıbaşı was originally a church that was built in 1102 as the Cathedral of St. Paul. It is a Roman style building with thick and high walls, wide interior, deep windows narrowing towards the exterior and heavy columns. The church was converted into a mosque in 1415 during the reign of Ramazanoğlu Ahmet Bey.

Some sources also mention a church by the name of Aghia Sophia in the early Middle Ages and there are records that the Archbishop of Mainz Konrad Wittelsbach came here as a Papal envoy to enthrone and bless Leon I as the King of Armenians on 6 January 1198. P. Lucas who visited Tarsus in 1704 mentions a Greek and an Armenian church saying that the Armenian Church was built by St. Paul himself. V. Langlois who also came to Tarsus in 1851 says that he visited this particular church.

After the building was converted to a mosque, the altar was placed where the south entrance was. Along the interior of the northern façade a narthex and two rooms on both sides of the apse have been added to the building. There is a minaret on the southwest corner of the mosque.




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