Although Paul never mentioned his city of origin, the Book of Acts reports that Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, was the home of the diaspora Jew. In the first century, Tarsus was a major city, home to a Greek University of the Stoic school of philosophy, and the capitol of the coastland and plains province of Cilicia. Churning out of the rugged mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates (Alexander’s army passed this way), the Cydnus River rushed toward Tarsus before slowing and ribboning the last ten miles to the sea.
In A Wretched Man novel, this city and the river provided the setting for many scenes (the names are in the Greek language of the times).
A caterpillar rafted down the river aboard a silvery olive leaf. The larvae had not yet become a moth, a butterfly, or whatever it was destined to be. Speeding through the ripples, slowing in a pool, and spinning in an eddy, the hairy pilgrim drifted with the current.
Perched on a rocky outcropping along the River Kydnos, the teen-aged boy named Paulos dangled his feet in the cool alpine waters, coursing toward the sea from the nearby mountains. Snow-capped peaks loomed over the Cilician plain and the city of Tarsos like white-haired eminences in vigil over their domain. Here was the young man’s sanctuary: a maze of rocks, pools, and small waterfalls just upriver from Tarsos, his home.
Much changes in two millennia. Tarsus is now a small city wedged between the greater burgs of Mersin to the west and Adana to the east. Rivers silt in, dams and levies altar God’s creation. Do modern day pictures of Cydnus river rapids depict the spot where Alexander bathed and nearly caught his death of a chill? Does the slow river beneath Tarsus where Cleopatra’s barge entertained Marc Anthony now follow a different course?
And the centuries spawn myths and legends—here is Cleopatra’s bridge and there is the church of St Paul, the site of his childhood home according to local tradition. Turkey is now Islamic, and St Paul’s church is merely a museum, but that may change if the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate gets his way:
Bardakoğlu called for the reopening of the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus, a district of the southern province of Mersin, comments he reiterated at the iftar. “I find it more correct if the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus serves as a church than in its current role as a museum,” he said.
Go there as a pilgrim and ponder; or join me in my wonderings as I imagined my way onto the shores of first century riverbanks, pricked my ears at hawkers in boisterous marketplaces, and meandered through back alleys as Roman legionaries lurked in the shadows. One reviewer said it this way:
a stupendous novel about Paul … the book is beautifully written full of descriptions of the Holy Land’s landscape and Agriculture … made me read further, stop reading, begin reading and so on throughout the book … I questioned, I discovered, I began to see with a better lighting … birthed in me a desire to know more.