SARDIS (sar'dĭs, Gr. Sardeis). The chief city of Lydia, under a fortified spur of Mount Tmolus in the Hermus Valley; near the junction of the roads from central Asia Minor, Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum; capital of Lydia under Croesus; and seat of the governor after the Persian conquest. Sardis was famous for arts and crafts and was the first center to mint gold and silver coins. So wealthy were the Lydian kings that Croesus became a legend for riches, and it was said that the sands of the Pactolus were golden. Croesus also became a legend for pride and presumptuous arrogance, when his attack on Persia led to the fall of Sardis and the eclipse of his kingdom. The capture of the great citadel by surprise attack by Cyrus and his Persians in 549 b.c., and three centuries later by the Romans, may have provided the imagery for John’s warning in Rev.3.3. The great earthquake of a.d. 17 ruined Sardis physically and financially. The Romans contributed ten million sesterces in relief, an indication of the damage done, but the city never recovered.

SARDIS särdĭs (Σάρδεις, G4915). Sardis lay on the junction of the principal highways linking Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum with the high country of inner Asia Minor. Lydia, of which Sardis was the ancient capital and royal seat, straddled the communications route between the Aegean coast and the hinterland and was in consequence an area where the Gr. and native culture met and creatively mingled. Under Croesus, whose name became a legend for wealth, prosperity, and the doom which sometimes falls shockingly upon the rich and fortunate, Sardis was famed for its affluence. Golden and silver minted coinage had its origin there, and the Pactolus River, which flowed nearby, was a proverb for its easily won alluvial gold.

The site itself was marked by geography for greatness. The broad ridge of Mount Tmolus thrusts seaward from the central plateau, and a cluster of sharp-sided promontories of highland dominate the Hermus valley plain, where Tmolus ends. On one of these easily defended ridges stood the stronghold of Sardis, 1500 ft. above the alluvial plain onto which, in days of peace, her population and habitations flowed. Like Troy, Sardis was a citadel and place of refuge, the residence of king and courtier. It must have been inhabited from the first coming of man to the Hermus valley, and a place of importance from the first days of the Lydian kingdom in the 13th cent. b.c.

Under Croesus, in the Golden Age of Sardis, Lydian power extended to the Aegean coast and the cities of the Ionian Greeks: Smyrna, Ephesus, and the rest. It was the doctrine of the historian Herodotus that power and wealth breed arrogance, and arrogance ends in ruin; in Sardis and its greatest king the historian found a somber and striking illustration. Persia was rising to power in the E in the middle of the 6th cent., and Croesus marked the fact with anxious eye. “Croesus,” says Herodotus, “learned that Cyrus had destroyed the empire of Astyages, and that the Persians were becoming daily more powerful. This led him to consider with himself whether it were possible to check the growing power of that people before it came to a head.” One thought haunted Croesus as he weighed the chances of preventive war. Solon the lawgiver had once visited him in Sardis, and warned him to beware of self-satisfaction, and to count no man happy until the end of life had set him free at last from all danger of a sudden change of fortune. Said Solon: “Sire, he who unites the greatest number of advantages, and, retaining them to the day of his death, then dies in peace, that man alone is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’ In every matter it behooves us to mark well the end, for often God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”

Among his precautions, Croesus consulted the Delphic oracle, who with customary ambiguity answered, “If you cross the Halys you will destroy a great Empire.” This is what the king did. He crossed the river frontier and destroyed a great empire—his own.

Croesus retreated to his stronghold and Cyrus’ armies closed in. How disaster befell is best told in Herodotus’ own words: “On the fourteenth day of the siege, Cyrus made proclamation that he would give a reward to the man who should first mount the wall. After this he made an assault but without success. His troops retired, but one Hyroeades, resolved to approach the citadel and attempt it at a place where no guards were ever set. On this side the rock was so precipitous, and the citadel so impregnable, that no fear was entertained of its being carried in this place....Hyroeades, however, had observed a Lydian soldier descend the rock to retrieve a helmet which had rolled down from the top, and having seen the man pick it up and carry it back, thought over what he had witnessed, and formed his plan. He climbed the rock himself, and other Persians followed in his track, until a large number had mounted to the top. Thus Sardis was taken.” The real reason, of course, was decay of the structure of the conglomerate rock which formed the ridge. Its erosion had undermined the defenses. Little is left today of the substantial plateau on which the royal stronghold had stood and the connecting neck of land which joined it to the major mountain mass. The rest of Croesus’ story may be read in Herodotus, that prince of storytellers (Book I).

Alexander destroyed the Pers. empire, and Sardis passed from hand to hand under the successive regimes. It fell first to Antigonus, then to the Seleucids of Syria, and then to Pergamum when the Attalid dynasty broke free from Seleucid power, which was perennially overstretched in western Asia Minor. It was during an attempt by Antiochus the Great in 214 b.c. to bring Sardis back under Syrian rule that the lone feat of Hyroeades of 549 b.c. was precisely repeated.

Rome succeeded Pergamum in 133 b.c. when Attalus III, aware of emerging history, bequeathed his kingdom to the Republic. Sardis became an administrative center of Rom. Asia, and when in a.d. 26 the cities of the province contended for the honor of building a second temple for the Caesar-cult, the envoys spoke long and eloquently about the past glory of the place. Sardis, as the apocalyptic letter put it “had a name but was dead.” Ramsay writes: “It was a city whose history conspicuously and pre-eminently blazoned forth the uncertainty of human fortunes, the weakness of human strength and the shortness of the step which separates over-confident might from sudden and irreparable disaster. It was a city whose name was almost synonymous with pretentions unjustified, promise unfulfilled, appearance without reality, confidence which heralded ruin.” All the imagery of the letter is vivid in the history of the place, the works undone, the climbing “thief in the night,” the sudden surprise. The Christian community was infected by the complacency of the place.

All but a few had not “defiled their garments”; that is, they had not compromised with the worship of Cybele—the horrible cult of hysteria and mutilation reflected in Catullus’ grim poem Attis—or with the more subtle Caesar-cult that had become strong in Sardis after a.d. 17 when the beneficence of Rome and Tiberius, after the mighty Asian earthquake of that year, put the city heavily in debt.

Some Christian inscrs. have been found in Sardis, but nothing is known of the origins or end of the Christian community, unless Ramsay is right in finding their sad relics in a strange Moslem splinter sect. The universities of Harvard and Cornell are currently working there. The temple of Artemis, whose worship enveloped that of Cybele in the city, has been uncovered together with evidence of its transformation into a church.


W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (1904); E. M. Blaiklock, The Cities of the New Testament (1965), 112-119.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Sardis is of special interest to the student of Herodotus and Xenophon, for there Artaphernes, the brother of Darius, lived, and from there Xerxes invaded Greece and Cyrus marched against his brother Artaxerxes; it is also of interest to the student of early Christian history as the home of one of the Seven Churches of Re (1:11; 3:1 ff). It was moreover one of the oldest and most important cities of Asia Minor, and until 549 BC, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. It stood on the northern slope of Mt. Tmolus; its acropolis occupied one of the spurs of the mountain. At the base flowed the river Pactolus which served as a moat, rendering the city practically impregnable. Through the failure to watch, however, the acropolis had been successfully scaled in 549 BC by a Median soldier, and in 218 by a Cretan (compare Re 3:2,3). Because of its strength during the Persian period, the satraps here made their homes. However, the city was burned by the Ionians in 501 BC, but it was quickly rebuilt and regained its importance. In 334 BC it surrendered to Alexander the Great who gave it independence, but its period of independence was brief, for 12 years later in 322 BC it was taken by Antigonus. In 301 BC, it fell into the possession of the Seleucidan kings who made it the residence of their governor. It became free again in 190 BC, when it formed a part of the empire of Pergamos, and later of the Roman province of Asia. In 17 AD, when it was destroyed by an earthquake, the Roman emperor Tiberius remitted the taxes of the people and rebuilt the city, and in his honor the citizens of that and of neighboring towns erected a large monument, but Sardis never recovered its former importance (compare Re 3:12). Again in 295 AD, after the Roman province of Asia was broken up, Sardis became the capital of Lydia, and during the early Christian age it was the home of a bishop. The city continued to flourish until 1402, when it was so completely destroyed by Tamerlane that it was never rebuilt. Among the ruins there now stands a small village called Sert, a corruption of its ancient name. The ruins may be reached by rail from Smyrna, on the way to Philadelphia.

The ancient city was noted for its fruits and wool, and for its temple of the goddess Cybele, whose worship resembled that of Diana of Ephesus. Its wealth was also partly due to the gold which was found in the sand of the river Pactolus, and it was here that gold and silver coins were first struck. During the Roman period its coins formed a beautiful series, and are found in abundance by the peasants who till the surrounding fields. The ruins of the buildings which stood at the base of the hill have now been nearly buried by the dirt washed down from above. The hill upon which the acropolis stood measures 950 ft. high: the triple walls still surround it. The more imposing of the ruins are on the lower slope of the hill, and among them the temple of Cybele is the most interesting, yet only two of its many stone columns are still standing. Equally imposing is the necropolis of the city, which is at a distance of two hours’ ride from Sert, South of the Gygaean lake. The modern name of the necropolis is Bin Tepe or Thousand Mounds, because of the large group of great mounds in which the kings and nobles were buried. Many of the mounds were long ago excavated and plundered.

We quote the following from the Missionary Herald (Boston, Massachusetts, August, 1911, pp. 361-62):

Dr. C. C. Tracy, of Marsovan, has made a visit to ancient Sardis and observed the work of his countryman, Professor Butler, of Princeton University, who is uncovering the ruins of that famous city of the past. Already rich "finds" have been made; among them portions of a temple of Artemis, indicating a building of the same stupendous character as those at Ephesus and Baalbec, and a necropolis from whose tombs were unearthed three thousand relics, including utensils, ornaments of gold and precious stones, mirrors, etc. What chiefly impressed Dr. Tracy was the significance of those "Seven Churches of Asia," of which Sardis held one. "When I think of the myriads of various nationality and advanced civilization for whose evangelization these churches were responsible, the messages to the Christian communities occupying the splendid strategic centers fill me with awe. While established amid the splendors of civilization, they were set as candlesticks in the midst of gross spiritual darkness. Did they fulfill their mission?"

One of Dr. Butler’s recoveries is the marble throne of the Bishop of Sardis; looking upon it the message to Sardis recurs to mind. A fact of current history quickened the visitor’s appreciation of the word to "the angel" of that church. "Yonder among the mountains overhanging Sardis there is a robber gang led by the notorious Chakirjali. He rules in the mountains; no government force can take him. Again and again he swoops down like an eagle out of the sky, in one quarter of the region or another. From time immemorial these mountains have been the haunts of robbers; very likely it was so when Re was written, `I will come upon thee as a thief.’ In each case the message was addressed to `the angel of the church.’ Over every church in the world there is a spirit hovering, as it were--a spirit representing that church and by whose name it can be addressed. The messages are as vital as they were at the first. `He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.’"