The ancient importance of the city was such that the area, which includes the famed white travertine formations and hot springs at nearby Pamukkale, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So it was with great interest that the team undertook geophysical surveys, including ground penetrating radar (GPR), electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), to examine the site of the apostle’s tomb in 2003. These were done in anticipation of actual excavations, the results of which are now being reported.
Hierapolis was founded in the 3rd century BC and by 133 BC was under the control of the Roman Empire. Its importance lay in the fact that it connected trade routes from the interior of Anatolia to the Mediterranean Sea. As such it was one of the most important Hellenistic and Roman cities in the region of Phrygia. This was the area through which Paul passed with Silas on the apostle’s second missionary journey in order to strengthen the churches he had begun with Barnabas on his first journey (Acts 14, 16).
A devastating earthquake leveled the city in the 7th century AD after which it went into decline. However, the veneration of Philip continued with the building of small churches in the 9th and 10th centuries among the ruins of the martyrium. And even after the conquest of the area by the Seljuk Turks in the 12th century, western pilgrims continued to visit the site as its association with Philip remained unchanged.
Who was Philip?
What is known of the apostle comes primarily from two sources; the New Testament and the apocryphal Acts of Philip, a 4th or 5th century work of the Gnostic sect. According to the Gospel of John, Philip, like Peter and Andrew, was from the town of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus found Philip and urged him to “Follow me,” which prompted Philip to report to Nathanael that “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). He was named as one of the twelve apostles in all four gospel accounts. The Gospel of John records three additional incidents which involved Philip:
1. Before the miraculous feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus asked Philip “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” in order to test him (John 6:5). Philip’s answer evidently failed: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient…”
2. When certain Greeks came seeking Jesus in Jerusalem, they approached Philip who, along with Andrew, brought the news to Jesus (John 12: 21–23).
3. Jesus preached to the disciples saying, “If you had known Me, you would have known My father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him” to which Philip replied “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus admonished the apostle for not knowing Him better despite having been with Him so long (John 14:7–9).
A final mention of Philip occurs in the Book of Acts where he is listed among the inhabitants of the upper room in Jerusalem when Peter exhorts the brethren after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:13).
The Acts of Philip
Later traditions regarding the missionary travels of the apostle are contained in the Acts of Philip. These consist of accounts of his journeys, preaching and miracles after the death of Jesus, believed to be the work of Gnostics in the Byzantine period. The Gnostics were a Christian sect who believed they had secret knowledge of God and humanity. The spirit was seen as divine and good whereas the body was inherently evil. Salvation was achieved by relational and experiential knowledge of the divine within; a form of awakening. The Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt includes a number of their works, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.
According to the Acts of Philip, the apostle traveled to Lydia in Asia Minor with his sister Mariamne and the apostle Bartholomew in order to preach the gospel. They arrived at the city of Hierapolis, where the inhabitants worshipped the snake and displayed images of it. Their preaching in the city brought many to Christ. When the proconsul’s wife Nicanora heard Philip, she believed and was cured of various maladies, particularly concerning her eyes.
But the proconsul became incensed, and had the apostles arrested and scourged. They were dragged through the streets and finally brought to the serpent temple, where they were “hanged head downwards” with nails and iron hooks in their heels and ankles. As for Mariamne, she was stripped and displayed naked to the townspeople, but a cloud of fire engulfed her so that she could not be seen by the crowd.
After a miraculous sequence of events, some of the faithful attempted to rescue Philip, but he refused saying “Do not come near me, for this shall be my end.” After Philip’s death, Bartholomew and Mariamne buried him at the spot and built a church there. The town was converted to Christianity and the name of the city was changed from Ophiorhyme (Serpent’s Town) to Hierapolis (the Holy City).
At some point later the remains of Philip were translated to the Byzantine capital at Constantinople and eventually made their way to the Church of the Dodici Apostoli (Twelve Apostles) in Rome where, in addition to Philip, the tomb of the Apostle James the Lesser is also located.
The Martyrium of Philip
The Martyrium, like other comparable structures—the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and St. Peter’s house in Capernaum—is octagonal in shape. This monumental building consists of a circular central hall in which the sepulcher of the saint was venerated, surrounded by eight small chapels and four triangular courtyards in the corners. 28 small square rooms for pilgrims encircle the structure. The only substantial architecture that survives today is the travertine (stone) supports of the original wood central dome that once crowned the edifice. Beneath the dome in the interior was a canopy structure placed over the tomb, as depicted on a sixth century bread stamp showing a robed St. Philip standing between the canopy and the dome.
Recent investigations using Ground Penetrating Radar showed an “anomaly” exactly in the center of the central hall below the floor, which the excavators presume is the tomb or sepulchre itself. It has not been excavated. The Martyrium of Philip was once an impressive building that doubtless attracted multitudes of pilgrims.
However, the complex was much more than a single building. A processional road led out of the city to a hill outside the city walls. It continued across a bridge built over a stream and to the foot of a monumental staircase flanked by a bathhouse, where numbers of votive objects bearing crosses and images of the saint were found. It must have functioned as a ritual bathing spot for pilgrims not unlike the mikva’ot of ancient Jewish tradition, such as found at Qumran.
The pilgrims then began a climb up a 225-foot long staircase 12 feet wide. On the way was a water fountain to provide relief, followed by a final ascent of 40 steps nearly 40 feet wide. At the top sat the monumental octagon housing the tomb of the apostle.
The martyrium suffered destruction during a disastrous earthquake in the seventh century. In the following centuries, two small churches were built among the ruins along with small cemeteries. The area was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in the 12th century. But the memory endured as the site continued to be associated with Philip and pilgrims have made visits throughout the centuries. As the excavations and restorations are completed, the Martyrium of St. Philip will no doubt attract new generations of pilgrims from across the globe.
Conversion, Crucifixion and Celebration: St. Philip’s Martyrium at Hierapolis Draws Thousands Over the Centuries. BAR 37/4: 34–46, 70, 2011.
The Apocryphal New Testament. Translation and Notes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.
Nuzzo, L., Leucci, G., and Negri, S.
GPR, ERT and Magnetic Investigations Inside the Martyrium of St Philip, Hierapolis, Turkey. Archaeological Prospection 16/3: 177–92, 2009.