Twin peaks rise in a peaceful, lush agricultural setting in what is now modern Turkey. They may not inspire confidence that here lay a city—successively a major Hittite settlement, an administrative center in the Persian Empire, the home for a number of Christ-followers, and a famous Byzantine pilgrim destination. Seventeenth-century European visitors were unimpressed because, unlike Ephesus or its neighbors Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 2:1, Col 4:13, Col 4:15-16), so few monuments remained from ancient Colossae. However, a recent pottery survey has demonstrated continuous occupation from the Late Chalcolithic Age (3500 BCE) to the late Byzantine period (1200 CE).
What do we know about Colossae’s history?
The cello-shape of the biconical mound (the locally designated “twin peaks”) matches the fortress-city design of Hittite settlements and originally covered almost thirty acres. Hittite culture valued mountains and water—both are lavishly supplied at Colossae. The course of the River Lycus probably was incorporated within the city walls during the Greco-Roman periods. Smaller waterways fostered the cultivation of olives, vines, timber, and fruit trees but were also crucial in the city’s most famous product, textiles. The city vista is dominated by Mount Cadmus (Honazdağ) towering nearly 8,300 feet above sea level, a fitting prompt to later cosmological speculation (see Col 1:12-20).
The subsequent Phrygian period (1200–600 BCE) left a legacy in people’s names, in the design of funeral monuments, and in certain features of its religious makeup (including the worship of the Phrygian nature-god Mên). During the Persian period (550–330 BCE), Colossae was the city center of a western borderland district (called a “satrapy”). Persian emphasis on the beauty and leisure of gardens and parks (for hunting, bathing, and relaxing) seems to have found Colossae a most conducive settlement.
Following Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late fourth century BCE, Colossae fairly rapidly adopted Hellenistic conventions and culture but lost its preeminent status in the Lycus Valley to Laodicea and Hierapolis. These two cities were backed by Hellenistic rulers (the “Seleucids,” followed by the “Attalids”) who fostered the protection of their interests in the cities they founded by bringing Jewish migrants from Babylonia and Mesopotamia, for which they were awarded land-holdings and tax exemptions.
Formal Roman control was established in 129 BCE with Colossae as part of the province of Asia. At that time, it boasted multiple civic offices, a governing elite with close ties to the senatorial class and to Rome generally, a functioning theatre, baths, athletic games and gladiator spectacles, a prosperous agricultural sector, and a provincial presence.
What makes Colossae of such interest?
Although Colossae gained a small number of notices by ancient authors (Xenophon, Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Polyaenus, Diodotus Siculus), its acclaim comes from two letters in the Second Testament, Paul’s brief Letter to Philemon and the Pauline Letter to the Colossians.
In the late fourth or early fifth century, Colossae’s sacred spring also became the setting for a popular story of Saint Michael the archangel. The city later developed into a leading Byzantine ecclesiastical center, surviving castigation for its veneration of angels (see Col 2:18) and become hailed for the honoring of Saint Michael during the battle over icons in the eighth and ninth centuries. The city was renamed Chonai (meaning “funnels”) because of the dramatic story of Saint Michael’s rescue of the city from a destructive flood—The Miracle of the Archistrategos Michael of Chonai (see the translation in Colossae in Space and Time).
Did Colossae collapse?
The Lycus Valley is prone to seismic activity, being one of the epicenters for the Anatolian conjunction of the Eurasian, African, and Arabian Plates. One particular earthquake, in 60 CE, gained the attention of the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 14.27). He reported that Laodicea, the center of a Roman judicial district, recovered from the destruction using its own resources. In the modern era, this reference was combined with the dearth of monumental remains at Colossae to conjure an interpretation that the city was completely destroyed or at least rendered terminal by the earthquake. This has had a deleterious consequence for interpretation of the New Testament letters associated with the site.
However, about thirty-six inscriptions related to the site, along with seventy-six different types of bronze coins—most dated to the second and third centuries—have challenged this assumption. One recent inscription in particular seems finally to have shelved the misconception about Colossae’s destruction. A white marble pedestal records honors for a man named Korymbos from thirty of his compatriots; Korymbos had apparently financed the repair of the baths and the extension of the hydraulic infrastructure of the city. Dated to the late first or early second century, the inscription seems to be directly related to restoration work after the earthquake. It is a salutary reminder that a city’s existence and prosperity is not necessarily measured by notice in Roman writers hundreds of miles away. In fact, Colossae seems to have gone through a substantial upsurge in prosperity in the second century and remained a vibrant city well into Byzantine times.
- Anderson, Janice Capel. Colossians: Authorship, Rhetoric and Code. London: T&T Clark, 2019.
- Harrison, James R., and L. L. Welborn, eds. The First Urban Churches 5: Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019.
- Cadwallader, Alan H. Fragments of Colossae: Sifting through the Traces. Adelaide: ATF Press, 2015.