Three Sister Churches of Asia

The "Tri-city area"


Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were three closely-situated cities mentioned by Paul in the New Testament, each possessing Christians. 

Two of these cities had churches that had Biblical letters of spiritual instruction written to them directly: 

Colossae (the Book of Colossians and probably the Book of Philemon), and Laodicea (written to by Christ Himself in Revelation 3:14-22). 

[NEWT NOTE: The Revelation would have been written in middle to late AD 50's, prophesying the judgment to come to Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22.]  

Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were the target of a devastating earthquake around AD 61-62, probably just after Paul wrote to the tri-cities (assuming he was also the author of the lost letter to Laodicea mentioned in Colossians 4:16). The devastation was massive, and probably claimed many lives, perhaps lives of our Christian ancestors who were the first to read these letters of spiritual destruction. 

The video above (filmed in 1999)—and those shown later—provides a frightening insight into the devastation and suddeness of earthquakes in Turkey, highlighting the need that we should be prepared to meet God at all times—for we are warned repeatedly that He will come "like a thief" (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4). [NEWT NOTE: Only comes like a thief to those walking in darkness, CONTEXT].

I'll have much more on the AD 60-61 earthquake of the tri-city area later in this article. 

The information written to these churches is incredibly valuable, giving a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit (through Paul) and Christ Himself (the Head of the church) felt about existing congregations of the day. In other words, these books provide an excellent summary of God's expectations for any modern church. 

On those lines, the book of Colossians provides some of the most important practical teachings for Christian living in all the New Testament, especially in Colossians 3 and 4. 

Sadly, Laodicea had become a church of wealthy members who were spiritually poor. Consequently, Christ's letter to Laodicea represent one of only two Revelation churches about which He had nothing good to say (Revelation 3:14-22). 

Our understanding and appreciation of these valuable Christian teachings is certainly deepened as we learn more about the history, geography, and (especially) the culture and predominant societal attitudes early Christians were exposed to. 

Time of Christ's, Paul's writings 

Colossians and Philemon were probably written around AD 60-61, while Revelation was likely written near AD 56* [NEWT NOTE]. Hierapolis is mentioned as possessing Christians, and likely a church as well (Colossians 4:13), though the existence of a formal church is speculative. 

In addition to the letter Christ wrote to Laodicea, this church actually received a second ("lost") letter as well, probably from Paul or one of his companions near AD 60-61 (see Colossians 4:16). Although Paul asked the church at Colossae to read this letter to the Laodiceans (and vice-versa), early Christians chose not to include it in the canon of the Bible (perhaps due to redundancy of information [OR COULD HAVE BEEN LOST] , but this is also speculative). 

Location of the the tri-city area 

Laodicea was ~10 miles ~WNW of Colossae. Hierapolis was believed to be ~13 miles ~NNE of Laodicea. These three cities formed a crude triangle, the so-called "tri-city" area. 

Interesting facts of the tri-city area

A local preacher, Epaphras, operated in the tri-city area, and was the first to tell the Colossians about Christ (1:6-7; 4:13). It is believed Epaphras heard the truth from Paul during Paul's 3 year ministry in Ephesus (~120 miles to the west). Epaphras visited Paul in Rome, and may have transported the letter to Colossae, as well as the nearby church in Laodicea. 

In Jesus' message to the Laodicean church (Rev 3:14-22), he speaks of the lukewarmness of Laodicea, that they were "neither cold nor hot" (vv. 15-16). This was apparently an allusion contrasting the cold springs that bubbled out of the ground in nearby Colossae, and the hot springs at nearby Hierapolis (which still attract visitors today).

These hot springs were believed to have healing properties, and people bathed in their rich mineral waters believing they could cure various ailments (similar beliefs existed elsewhere—see the "angel stirring the pool" account in John 5:1-8).

Regarding the cold water of Colossae, historians record that the Lycus River actually disappear underground near Colossae and reappeared 1/4 mile or so later. This may have been the source of underground cold springs in the area

Specific information about Colossae

More geographical facts of the tri-city area

Colossae was part of a tri-city area nestled in a scenic, mountainous region that was a tourist attraction in Biblical times just as it is today. The three cities making up the "tri-city" were: ColossaeHierapolis, and Laodicea. These three Turkish cities are now modern day 

  1. Honaz (former Colossae—modern day population ~25,000),
  2. Denizli (former Hieropolis ~900,000 pop.), and
  3. Eski Hissar (former Laodicea, unknown population). 

"Colossae was one of three Christian cities in the unusually fertile but earthquake-prone Lycus valley...Colossae was the first of the three to achieve city status." Link 

The Lycus Valley (along the Lycus river) was a natural travel route evidently used by many travelling through the region. The Lycus joined the Meander river which empties to the Aegean sea near ancient Miletus  where Paul set sail back to Jerusalem on his third journey. This was a natural port, since the river emptied there and land travel naturally led there. 

Colossae's climate was evidently relatively mild but very hot occasionally. 

The economy of the tri-city area"

The area around these cities was very wealthy.

The land was fertile and the pastures produced great flocks of sheep. The area was a great center for the wool industry and the associated trade of the dyeing of woolen garments. The wealthy city of Laodicea was the financial headquarters for the whole area and the political center for the district. Thousands of people visited Hierapolis to bathe in the spas and drink the water due to the claims that the water had medicinal benefits. Even though Colosse was at one time as important as both Laodicea and Hierapolis, by the time Paul wrote to Colosse it was a small, fairly insignificant town." (Link

"There were many Jews living there, and a chief article of commerce, for which the place was renowned, was the collossinus, a peculiar wool, probably of a purple color." (Link

Honaz—the nearest modern city to ancient Colossae—has an economy centered on growing cherries. 80% of the crop is exported from Turkey. Tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables are grown too, including a local variety of oleaster. 

The Romans were skilled in water delivery. The longest aqueduct served Rome and delivered water 59 miles. 11 aqueducts served Rome and were designed to deliver to 1 million people a minimum of one cubic meter of water per person per day. Ancient Rome during Paul's time actually enjoyed indoor plumbing, including a sewer system to carry away waste. Some of these ancient structures are still in use today in various capacities. Ancient Laodicea was also a primary hub for the Roman aqueduct system, probably attracting engineers and laborers, undoubtedly aiding the economy.

Historical facts of the tri-city area

Christian tradition and legend has it that Philip (one of the 12 disciples of Jesus) was martyred in Hierapolis by crucifixion. Much of the legend surrounding Philip is believed untrustworthy. One such example is the overly imaginative "Acts of Philip." Some actually claim it was written by the Apostle Philip, but not only is there no proof of his authorship, its reading makes it clear this was not the case. Due to the relatively early date of its writing (~mid to late fourth-century), at the very least it provides a glimpse into the culture and philosophies of the day, which greatly impacted the church at Colossae (more on philosophies later). 
Link 1 link 2 

Regarding how the city of Colossae began, little seems to be known by historians. It apparently "...flourished as a trading town until eclipsed by neighboring Laodicea." (Link

Nearby Laodicea was founded by the Seleucid king Antiochus II and named for his wife Laodice about 260 B.C. (see Link 1 and link 2 for details). 

Hierapolis was a Roman-built city adjacent to Pamukkale, and had many visitors, including many who were ill seeking remedies. It was built there because of the hot springs of Hierapolis. This video also excellently shows the ruins of Laodicea and Hierapolis. 

Excellent historical information on the tri-city area

The tragic earthquake that destroyed the tri-cities

"That this city [Colossae] perished by an earthquake, a short time after the date of this epistle, we have the testimony of Eusebius..." (Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible). 

Tacitus records the quake in the 7th year of Nero [AD 61] (Annals 14.27), indicating it destroyed Laodicea (Nero was Emperor of Rome from AD 54-68). He further related that Laodicea rebuilt itself apparently without Roman assistance. 

Eusbeius is said to have chronicled an earthquake destroying Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (Chron. Olymp. 210.4) in the 10th year of Nero [AD 64]. 

Most scholars seem to agree that the earthquake actually occurred around AD 60-61. 

Paul did not refer to this catastrophic event; thus, scholars believe Paul had either not yet heard the news, or that his letters to Colossians and Philemon predated the quake. 

Obviously, Colossian Christians reading Paul's letter may have been on the brink of disaster, and many may have lost their lives or family members shortly after Paul wrote to them. Fortunately, all indications were that they were living a life "worthy" of Christ, and that life is described briefly and partially in Colossians 3. Christians today need to live accordingly, for sudden disasters in our lives likewise often bring no warning. 

Colossae was so utterly devastated from the earthquake that historians record it never fully recovered, and now lies in unexcavated ruins. Apparently the former inhabitants of Colossae attempted to regather in a nearby village, but it eventually faded away. 

"In the 12th century the church was destroyed by the Turks and the city disappeared." (Link

To get an idea of the damage that earthquakes in Turkey can cause, read this article"The magnitude 7.4 catastrophe created headlines worldwide. Tens of thousands dead. Some 250,000 homeless..." 

For post-earthquake videos of the damage caused by the Turkey earthquake of August 17, 1999: Video 1 Video 2 Video 3 Video 3 

The hot springs of Hierapolis, which extended to the beautiful pools of Pamukkale (just a few miles to the NE), may have been formed due to the earthquake faults of the area, which may have caused the great earthquake. 

The principal "god" of Hierapolis was Apollo, who was worshiped at the temple of Apollo.

However, the temple was located at a bad location regarding earthquakes, purposely positioned over an active fault (the temple's foundations are all that remain): "The temple of Apollo has deliberately been built over an active fault passing underneath, giving rise to the cave of the Plutonium, as shown by seismological investigations. 

Temples dedicated to Apollo were often built over sites with geological activity, such as his most famous temple, the temple at Delphi... [The cave of Plutonium] was described by several ancient writers including Strabo, Cassius Dio, and Damascius. It is a small cave, just large enough for one person to enter through a fenced entrance, beyond which stairs go down, and from which emerges suffocating carbon dioxide gas caused by underground geologic activity. Behind the 3 square metres (32 sq ft) roofed chamber is a deep cleft in the rock, through which fast flowing hot water passes releasing a sharp smelling gas. Because people died in the gas, people thought that the gas was sent by Pluto, god of the underworld... 

During the early years of the town castrated priests of Cybele descended into the Plutonium, crawled over the floor to pockets of oxygen or held their breath. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and so tends to settle in hollows. They then came up to show that they were immune to the gas. People believed a miracle had happened and that therefore the priests were infused with superior powers and had divine protection. 

An enclosed area of 2,000 square metres (22,000 sq ft) stood in front of the entrance. It was covered by a thick layer of suffocating gas, killing everyone who dared to enter this area. The priests sold birds and other animals to the visitors, so that they could try out how deadly this enclosed area was. Visitors could (for a fee) ask questions of the oracle of Pluto. This provided a considerable source of income for the temple. The entrance to the Plutonium was closed off during the Christian times.
" (Link

For a description of the fault line area in Lycus valley and under the temple of Apollo in Hierapolis, see this link

As mentioned, the church at Colossae may have met in the home of Philemon, to whom Paul also wrote a brief letter (the "Book of Philemon"). Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had escaped to Rome, where evidently Paul met him and led him to Christ. Paul urged Onesimus to return to Philemon. One wonders if Onesimus returned and, along with the inhabitants of Colossae, became a victim of the quake. No known historians indicate if Philemon's home was destroyed in the earthquake. 

More on the Denizli Basin earthquake of ~60 AD: Link 1 link 2 link 3 

See also (must read information): Myth and geology by Luigi Piccardi, W. Bruce Masse, pp 95-104

Religious and philosophical influences of the tri-city area 

Like many modern Christians in our nation—who are exposed to many spiriutally dangerous and seductive influences—influences that are actively promoted by the wealthy and powerful of our day (Hollywood, unregulated internet, media, religious correctness, etc, etc)—so it was with Christians of the tri-city area. 

These Christians were exposed to probably an unusually high variety of culture and religious thinking. The temptation might be for one to start adopting the modern attitude that "all of them are acceptable to God, but I simply choose a different religion or set of beliefs." 

Paul's letter to the Colossians indicates how they were evidently the target of several religious and philosophical influences that could have potentially misled them from the pure doctrine of Christ. 

In fact, perhaps no other letter of the New Testament gives warning of a greater variety of deceptive and dangerous concepts than Paul's letter to the Colossians. And Christ's letter to the Laodiceans suggests the Laodiceans had caved into a relaxed, casual , complacent attitude about their surrounding culture. 

In Colossians, Paul could well have been referring to such false belief systems as:Greek philosophies (non-pagan related—2:8),Gnosticism (2:9),Judaism (2:13-19),Paganism (2:23; 3:5—see related video for a glimpse of pagan temples in the tri-city area),Early evolutionary thinking (1:15-17), and,"Hybrid thinking" (mixtures of the above—2:18).While most of today's Christian world would probably not take these "various perversions of Christianity" seriously, Paul considered them extremely serious indeed, describing them as deceptive and dangerous influences. He warned them not to be seduced by the popular mindsets of their day, mindsets that opposed the truth of Christ:I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments
(Colossians 2:4)See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. 
(Colossians 2:8)Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 
(Colossians 2:18)Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. 
(Colossians 2:23)But now he has reconciled you [to God]—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. 
(Colossians 1:23)Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to walk in him, firmly rooted and built up in Him, established in the faith—just as you were taught—and overflowing with thankfulness. 
(Colossians 2:6-7)Obviously, not perverting Christian doctrine—with seemingly harmless philosophies and "interesting" albeit false religious viewpoints—is critically important to God. 

Read more detail about the religious and philosophical influences the Colossians were exposed to