SMYRNA (smîr'na, Gr. Smyrna). A port on the west coast of Asia Minor at the head of the gulf into which the Hermus River flows, a well- protected harbor and the natural terminal of a great inland trade-route up the Hermus Valley. Smyrna’s early history was checkered. It was destroyed by the Lydians in 627 b.c. and for three centuries was little more than a village. It was refounded in the middle of the fourth century before Christ, after Alexander’s capture of Sardis, and rapidly became the chief city of Asia. Smyrna was shrewd enough to mark the rising star of Rome. A common danger, the aggression of Antiochus the Great of Syria, united Smyrna with Rome at the end of the third century before Christ, and the bond formed remained unbroken. Smyrna was, indeed, the handiest of the bridgeheads, balancing the naval power of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. Smyrna referred to their ancient alliance with Rome when, in a.d. 26, they petitioned Tiberius to allow the community to build a temple to his deity. The permission was granted, and Smyrna built the second Asian temple to the emperor. The city had worshiped Rome as a spiritual power since 195 b.c., hence Smyrna’s historical pride in her Caesar cult. Smyrna was famous for science, medicine, and the majesty of its buildings. Apollonius of Tyana referred to her “crown of porticoes,” a circle of beautiful public buildings that ringed the summit of Mount Pagos like a diadem; hence John’s reference (Rev.2.10). Polycarp, Smyrna’s martyred bishop of a.d. 155, had been a disciple of John.——EMB

SMYRNA smûr’ nə (Σμύρνα, myrrh). Smyrna is situated at the head of the gulf into which the Hermus flows, a well-protected harbor, and the natural outlet to the sea for the major trade route which runs inland along the Hermus valley. Aeolian Greeks may have been the first settlers here, a community overlaid and dominated by the later and more powerful Ionian Greeks, but facts are few from the shadowy years at the turn of the first millennium b.c., when these Aegean settlements were founded.

When history takes more certain shape at the end of the Dark Age, which fell on the Aegean world after the Dorian invasions, that last wave of infiltrating Hellenic tribes which ended the Mycenaean world, Smyrna emerges as a sturdy community, ready to assert itself against the powerful neighboring kingdom of Lydia. Mimnermus, poet of Smyrna in the 7th cent. b.c., some of whose poems have survived in single lines and fragments mentions the tension in the Hermus valley between Smyrna and Sardis. It seems to have brought catastrophe about 600 b.c., when Alyattes of Lydia destroyed Smyrna, and left its site devastated for three centuries. Lydian villages are traceable on the shore of the gulf, but the strong Ionian port lay dead.

It rose from the dead, hence a phrase in the imagery of John’s apocalyptic letter (Rev 2:8). Lysimachus, who ruled Thrace and the northwestern part of Asia Minor after the division of Alexander’s empire, refounded Smyrna in 290 b.c. It became a Gr. city again, with assembly and magistrates, and, thanks to the fine site, entered an era of vitality and prosperity which still continues. Izmir is one of the strongest urban communities in modern Turkey. Its progress was aided and promoted by a shrewd recognition of the coming dominance of Rome. Antiochus the Great of Syria (241-187 b.c.) was pushing W in a determined attempt to consolidate his borderlands. Rome, aware of his encroaching ambitions, was thrusting firmly E. Smyrna was a superb bridgehead in a great peninsula, which Rome now was more and more clearly regarding as her buffer region and coming challenge. And Smyrna, too, in Rome’s emerging eastern policy, was a useful counterpoise in the middle Mediterranean to the naval strength of Rhodes.

It was to these significant services that the Smyrneans referred in a.d. 26 when they appealed for permission to build a temple to Tiberius. Tacitus tells the story: “The Smyrnaeans,” he wrote, “having appealed to their ancient records to show whether Tantalus, the son of Jupiter, or Theseus, the son also of a god, or one of the Amazons was their founder, proceeded to the considerations in which they chiefly trusted, namely, their friendly services to the Roman people. They had aided Rome with a naval force, they said, not only in their wars abroad, but also in those they had fought in Italy. It was they, they said, who had first reared a temple in honor of Rome, when the power of the Roman people, though great, had not yet reached their highest glory, for the city of Carthage still stood, and powerful kings governed Asia. Sulla, too, they said, had experienced their generosity, when his army was in imminent peril from the bitter weather and scarcity of clothes. When the matter was made known in the citizens’ assembly at Smyrna, all present stripped off their garments and sent them to the legions.”

In consequence of the eleven applicants, Smyrna was preferred and became the site for the second Asian temple to the deity of Rome and the emperor, and the seat of the sinister Caesar-cult which was to cause so much suffering in the church. At Smyrna as elsewhere the imperial policy of suppression was carried out sporadically, and Domitian, no doubt, was the cause of this outburst with the help of a hostile synagogue, against whose machinations John has a scornful word to say (Rev 2:9). With legislation on the books against the church, as it had been since the middle sixties of the cent., such situations as those which Paul had found frustrating in an earlier decade, assumed a new possibility of danger. Smyrna had worshiped the spirit of Rome since 195 b.c. The temple to Tiberius increased the pride she held in this historic role.

Hence the exhortation to endure and win a “crown of life,” a piece of imagery caught from a diadem of porticoes surrounding her hilltop, and described by Apollonius of Tyana (a.d. 1?-96?). He wrote: “For though your city is the most beautiful of all cities under the sun, and makes the sea its own, and holds the fountains of Zephyrus, yet it is a greater charm to wear a crown of men than a crown of porticoes, for buildings are seen only in their one place, but men are seen everywhere, and spoken about everywhere, and make their city as vast as the range of countries which they visit.”

Aelius Aristides, who knew Smyrna well, spoke in similar terms. He compares the city to the crown of Ariadne, shining in the heavens, and to a statue with its feet in the sea, and rising to its crowned head at the hilltop. Apollonius wrote about the time the letter of Revelation 2 was written. He, like the writer, was in peril under Domitian. Aristides wrote half a cent. or more later. Both writers show that “the crown of Smyrna” was a recognized image of rhetoric.

It remains only to mention Polycarp the martyr bishop of Smyrna, who died in a.d. 155, and as one of the last pupils of John, made a link between the apostles and the middle 2nd cent.

The story of the actual coming of Christianity to Smyrna is not known. It was prob. a result of Paul’s activity in Ephesus, followed up and extended by John. On the evidence of the apocalyptic letter, Smyrna’s Christians stood well in the 1st cent. They continued to stand, and Smyrna was one of the Asian cities which withstood the Turk, and was among the last to fall to Islam. Such resistance played a part in history. The delaying action of surviving remnants of the Empire in the E, allowed Europe time to emerge from the Middle Ages, and receive with creative hands those gifts which brought the Renaissance and the modern world to birth.


W. M. Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches chs. XIX, XX (1905); C. J. Cadoux, Ancient Smyrna (1938); E. M. Blaiklock, Cities of the New Testament, ch. 18 (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Ancient:

Smyrna, a large ancient city on the western coast of Asia Minor, at the head of a gulf which reaches 30 miles inland, was originally peopled by the Asiatics known as the Lelages. The city seems to have been taken from the Lelages by the Aeolian Greeks about 1100 BC; there still remain traces of the cyclopean masonry of that early time. In 688 BC it passed into the possession of the Ionian Greeks and was made one of the cities of the Ionian confederacy, but in 627 BC it was taken by the Lydians. During the years 301 to 281 BC, Lysimachus entirely rebuilt it on a new site to the Southwest of the earlier cities, and surrounded it by a wall. Standing, as it did, upon a good harbor, at the head of one of the chief highways to the interior, it early became a great trading-center and the chief port for the export trade. In Roman times, Smyrna was considered the most brilliant city of Asia Minor, successfully rivaling Pergamos and Ephesus. Its streets were wide and paved. Its system of coinage was old, and now about the city coins of every period are found. It was celebrated for its schools of science and medicine, and for its handsome buildings. Among them was the Homerium, for Smyrna was one of several places which claimed to be the birthplace of the poet. On the slope of Mt. Pagus was a theater which seated 20,000 spectators. In the 23 AD year a temple was built in honor of Tiberius and his mother Julia, and the Golden Street, connecting the temples of Zeus and Cybele, is said to have been the best in any ancient city. Smyrna early became a Christian city, for there was one of the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelation (2:8-11). There Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred, though without the sanction of the Roman government. It seems that the Jews of Smyrna were more antagonistic than were the Romans to the spread of Christianity, for it is said that even on Saturday, their sacred day, they brought wood for the fire in which Polycarp was burned. His grave is still shown in a cemetery there. Like many other cities of Asia Minor, Smyrna suffered frequently, especially during the years 178-80 AD, from earthquakes, but it always escaped entire destruction. During the Middle Ages the city was the scene of many struggles, the most fierce of which was directed by Timur against the Christians. Tradition relates that there he built a tower, using as stones the heads of a thousand captives which he put to death, yet Smyrna was the last of the Christian cities to hold out against the Mohammedans; in 1424 it fell into the hands of the Turks. It was the discovery of America and the resulting discovery of a sea route to India which ruined the Smyrna trade.

2. Modern:

Modern Smyrna is still the largest city in Asia Minor, with a population of about 250,000, of whom half are Greek and less than one-fourth are Mohammedans. Its modern name, Ismir, is but a Turkish corruption of the ancient name. Even under the Turkish government the city is progressive, and is the capital of the Aidin vilayet, and therefore the home of a governor. Several railroads follow the courses of the ancient routes into the distant interior. In its harbor ships from all parts of the world may be seen. The ancient harbor of Paul’s time has been filled in, and there the modern bazaars stand. The old stadium has been destroyed to make room for modern buildings, and a large part of the ancient city lies buried beneath the modern houses and the 40 mosques of which the city boasts. The better of the modern buildings, belonging to the government and occupied by the foreign consuls, stand along the modern quay. Traces of the ancient walls are still to be found. West of Mt. Pagus is the Ephesian gate, and the Black-gate, as the Turks call it, is near the railroad station. The castle upon Mt. Pagus, 460 ft. above the sea, dates from Byzantine times. The prosperity of Smyrna is due, not only to the harbor and the port of entry to the interior, but partly to the perfect climate of spring and autumn--the winters are cold and the summers are hot; and also to the fertility of the surrounding country. Figs, grapes, valonia, opium, sponges, cotton and liquorice root are among the chief articles of trade.