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