This is to give a little historical background on each of the seven cities named in Chapters 2 & 3 of the Book of Revelation. It is fascinating to see how the historical data matches up with what Jesus said about each city.
Over a quarter of a million people lived in Ephesus, the chief seaport of Asia and one of the foremost cities of the Empire. It was both the religious and commercial center of that entire area. Through Ephesus passed goods from China and the eastern provinces bound for Italy. Wide avenues, huge public buildings and squares, and luxurious private homes were designed to impress tourists. The theater could hold twenty five thousand people.
Ephesus flaunted dozens of temples for various gods, but it was world famous for the one dedicated to Ephesian's Artemis, a mother-goddess, who was similar to the Roman goddess Diana but was not the same goddess.
Artemis' temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, being the largest Greek temple ever built. Gold, marble, and jewels adorned this structure that was 418 feet by 240 feet. There were 117 external columns about 56 feet in height, of which 36 were hand carved. The doors were of cypress wood; columns and walls were of Parian marble; the staircase was carved out of one vine from Cyprus.
The temple served as the bank of Asia and the depository of vast sums of money. It was also an art gallery displaying the masterpieces. The citizens also prided themselves that Ephesus was the warden of two temples dedicated to the worship of the emperor. Further, the city was known for magical scrolls called "Ephesian letters".
By the end of the first century, the church in Ephesus was probably the largest and most influential one in the world. The Apostle Paul and his colleagues established it in about 52- 55 B.C. (Acts 19), and he later sent his protégé Timothy to pastor the church there (1 timothy 1:3). Tradition has it that John himself lived there before and after he wrote Revelation.
The name Ephesus means "Maiden of choice" or "desirable."
Smyrna (old name Ismir) was about 35 miles north of Ephesus and was a splendid city on the Agen sea, of rare beauty on a fine bay. It was celebrated for its schools of science and medicine, for its handsome buildings, and wide paved roads. The temple of Bacchus, god of wine, was there.
Smyrna means "bitter " or "myrrh," a tree risen with a bitter taste that was crushed and used in perfume, in incense, and as a preservative in burial.
Smyrna was prosperous because it sat on the coast at the end of a major trade route between India and Persia in the east to Rome. It remains a thriving city to this day. It is the second largest city in Asiatic Turkey. In Johns time it had been solidly loyal to Rome for centuries and contained a temple to the goddess of Rome and another to the emperor. It also boasted a stadium, a library, and the largest public theater in Asia.
The real danger to Smyman Christians was not the Roman patriots but the large population of Jews who detested Christians as heretics and inflamed the Romans to persecute them. One of the most famous martyrs of the second century was Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. The contemporary record of his death states that he was "the twelfth to meet a martyr's death in Smyrna." Polycarp was burned to death on a Saturday in 155 AD, and the Jews of Smyrna broke the Sabbath to gather wood for the fire. They abhorred the ideas that a man executed for blasphemy was the Messiah and that a person became pleasing to God not by obeying the Law of Moses but by putting faith in this Messiah.
Pergamum means something like "additional marriage." (Per is "elevation" and gamum is "marriage."
Pergamum was about 15 miles inland and about 75 miles north of Ephesus, and was set on terraces set on a steep hillside, and about 1000 feet above the surrounding country side, and formed a natural fortress.
It was the political capital of Asia and was the center of the imperial cult in the province. In addition to its temple to Caesar and Rome, Pergamum's most popular tourist attraction was the temple of Asclepios, the god of healing. People flocked to the shrine in hopes of miraculous cures. ( The myth of Asclepios had its roots in Babylon. His symbol was the serpent; doctors use it today.)
Three other major temples also loomed over Pergamum atop its mountain citadel. one of these, an enormous altar of Zeus, stood on a platform on the hill overlooking the city. The others were for the gods Dionysius and Athene.
The city was very educational because it was the center of Greek culture and Greek education center. It had one of the finest libraries of antiquity which contained some 200,000 volumes. This library was later given by Mark Anthony to Cleopatra. It was in this city that parchment was first used.
Thyatira was located 35 miles southeast from Pergamum (Pergamos) and was probably founded by Alexander the Great around 300 BC.
This was a working mans town (blue collar). There were many trade guilds here, such as tanners, potters, weavers, dyers, and rope makers.
This city had no particular religions. This city had no great distinctions other than its trade guilds. However, practically everyone in town belonged to one of the dozens of trade and craft guilds.
Membership in one of these was crucial, since they were the focus of business and social life. But each was dedicated to a patron god, and meetings included a common meal in its honor. The meat for the meal came from an animal sacrificed to the god. In addition, drunkenness, carousing, and even orgies were not rare. What should a Christian do? Evidently, many who were otherwise full of love and faith were willing to listen to a woman teaching that it was okay to tolerate, or even participate in these pagan practices.
Sardis was located 30 miles south of Thyatira, and was the capital of Lydia. This was a wealthy city, coins were first minted here. Much of its wealth came from a flourishing carpet industry. It was also the commercial center for woolens and was known for its dyeing works.
The city was built in two sections, the older section of the city was on a mountain and when the population of Sardis grew too large, a newer section of the city was built in the valley below.
The patron of Sardis was Cybele, an Asian mother goddess who was said to have the power to restore life to the dead. Sardis may mean "remnant".
Philadelpha was a city that was founded as a front for a commercial center. It was built by Pergamos. It was built in a frontier area as a gateway to the central plateau of Asia minor. Philadelpha kept the barbarians out and brought the Greek language in.
But it was built on a fault line and was subject to earthquakes. It was destroyed and rebuilt in 17 AD.
For the church in Philadelphia, the source of instability was the local synagogue, where the Jews may have taunted the Gentile Christians, saying they had no right of access or belonging to the Kingdom of God. The Jews had a very heavy population. In addition commercial discrimination and even outright mob violence were possibilities.
Laodicea was the richest of the 7 cities and was known for banking, and had immense wealth. It was known for the manufacture of garments made of black glossy wool, and even had an excellent and well known medical school that produced eye salve called cellyrium.
The city had beautiful temples and theaters. This was the last city and is about ninety miles due east of Ephesus and 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia.
The city always had a problem with its water supply. An aqueduct brought water from 2 different locations. One was from the city of Hierapolis with hot mineral springs which were used for mediational baths. The other was 6 miles in the other direction lay the springs of Denedli which were icy cold and were used to refresh the travelers thirst.
One duct from each, but by the time the water flowed from the hot springs across the plain it was cooled to lukewarm, useless for healing and poisonous to drink. And when the water from the icy waters traveled across the plain it too was lukewarm.
It's vulnerability, together with the city's exposed position, and it's easy wealth caused the growth in the community, of that spirit of compromise and worldly mindedness, being punished in the book of Revelation.