May 30, 2023

The 23 Turkish Martyrs of Thyatira (+ 1649): Account by a 17th Century Jesuit Missionary to Smyrna

The following narrative is translated from an old volume in French (Auguste Carayon, Unpublished Relations of the Missions of the Company of Jesus Christ in Constantinople and the Middle East in the XII Century, Poitiers – Paris 1864), containing some account of the Jesuit missions in Constantinople and the Levant during the seventeenth century. The translation, which had come into the hands of Rev. Marcellus Bowen, formerly missionary at Smyrna, has been kindly furnished by him.

By Francis Lucas
Jesuit Missionary of Smyrna (17th century)

A notorious martyrdom of twenty-three Turks occurred in the town of Thyatira,* famous in old times, of which St. John made mention in the Revelation, since there were more than 200,000 inhabitants, despite the fact that the plague killed more than 50,000 during the year 1656. It is still among the most populous cities of Asia Minor. In our times, God chose this city to become the arena of twenty-three athletes of Jesus Christ, that He willfully crowned with immortal glory, after much more struggling than naturally expected from such people.

There was in that town a sheik, or doctor in the law of Mohammed, who was in high repute among his people. He had been entrusted with the teaching of one hundred and fifty young men from twenty-five to thirty years of age, in order to prepare them to fill the offices of judges and cadis. He was a thorough master of the Alcoran,** and had read in it that the prophet did not condemn the teachings of the New Testament, but, on the contrary, had spoken well of Jesus Christ and of Moses. He had, therefore, curiosity to see what was written in the Holy Gospel, and by a special direction of Divine Providence met with a New Testament translated into Arabic.

He was not long in possession of that Divine Book without receiving light from heaven and accepting the Christian truths. They had so powerful an influence on his mind that he was constrained to condemn all that was contrary to the teachings of the New Testament, and to act according to what was contained in it.

He could not, however, stop there, neither could he hide the light he had received from heaven. He succeeded so far, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, that many of his young scholars were convinced that there was no salvation but by Jesus Christ.

These young men kept this as a secret for a long time, but used often to meet together with their master to confer on the great subject of their salvation. As it is, however, difficult to keep a burning fire in a dark place, without its being discovered, these young men could not always effectually conceal the faith that filled their hearts, in their intercourse with their companions, and even with their relatives, who perceived such a notable change in their children, and tried to ascertain the cause. The whole case soon came to the knowledge of the judicial authorities, who are very strict on this subject, and who, in order to quench this fire in its beginning, laid hands upon the sheik. They tried at first to win the old man by gentle means, not wishing to ruin one enjoying so great repute. They represented to him the great esteem in which they held him, and promised to raise him to the highest dignities if he would consent to undeceive those whom he had misled. He well knew, also, how important a religious matter of this kind was, and what vigorous punishment their faith ordered upon those who were in fault.

Those in authority thought this would be enough to bring the old man back to his duty, and oblige him to disown his convictions. But they were astonished to hear him answer that he was no longer of an age to disavow his conscientious convictions in a matter in which nothing less than his own salvation was at stake, and that all he had taught concerning the truth of the faith in Jesus Christ was too positive to allow him to disown his teaching.

The cadi, greatly surprised at this answer, and hoping to frighten him by the prospect of torture, told him with much anger that he must choose one of the two following courses: either to retract his teaching, or to undergo a most cruel death. The venerable old man, prompted by a holy zeal to bear witness before all men of his faith given from heaven, answered the cadi: "How! do you think that the stake, the gallows, or the flames frighten me, and that I am afraid to die for the glory of God, and for the truth in Jesus Christ? Know, then, that I am ready to die a thousand times, if possible, for the love of him who died once for me, and that it will be a great honor to seal with my blood the truth I have taught. I am not deceived in the doctrine I have accepted, and happy are they who abandon Mohammed to live in Jesus Christ."

Hearing these words, the judges forbade him to speak, beating him at the same time with sticks so severely that he could no longer utter a word. But, though he could not speak, his countenance showed perfect calmness, and the constancy and quietness with which he suffered astonished his judges. Being afraid, however, that if they continued to torment him publicly the common people, who had great respect for the old man, might revolt against such treatment, they resolved, after much consultation, lest his example should engage others to imitate him, to have him strangled in prison. This was done, and his immortal soul went to receive the crown from Him whom he had so firmly confessed. After this, the authorities tried to seize the disciples of the old man, and ascertain how far they held and persevered in the faith of their master. Some of them had fled from the town, or had concealed themselves. Others went in different directions, and taught publicly the truths they had learned from their master. Finally, twenty-two of these young men were seized, and the authorities decided to force them to deny their faith in Jesus Christ, or, if they would not, to punish them in such a way that none of them would afterwards be bold enough to speak of that doctrine or profess it longer. What decided the judges to pursue this course was the great excitement caused by the cruel death of the old sheik. It was talked over by all the common people and, for the most part, in the old man's favor. The cadi summoned the young men, and told them they must renounce the doctrine they had learned, or forfeit their lives; that they should entertain no hope of being treated as the old sheik had been, but must undergo the most atrocious tortures.

Oh, how powerful is the grace of God! On hearing of tortures the young men showed more readiness to submit to them than the judge to inflict them. The cadi, after trying a long time to persuade them to retract, seeing that they were all as decided to maintain their faith in Christ as the old sheik had been, handed them over to the executioners. Some were pierced with arrows; some were impaled; some were burnt alive; others were thrown upon a cruel and horrid implement of torture called garich, composed of numerous iron crampoons upon which the tortured person is thrown from a high place, and there remains suspended, pining away for a long time before dying. Thus ended their glorious career, triumphing over death and their tyrants.

It is said that their holy remains – through their death – have worked many miracles and some confirm that a blind man received his vision after touching one of the martyrs on his way to martyrdom. Whatever the case, their death astounded all the Muslims and comforted the Christians very much, who thought it to be a sign of their happiness. They believed that it was the fulfilment of Markos Kyriakopoulos' prophesy – that many were to follow him and that the time had come when God would have decided to wash in blood the country's reproach.

It is certainly reasonable that heaven would not allow for such a good seed to fall on this earth without it bearing such good fruits and buds, which all holy souls have desire to see for years now. Just as a field that is watered with such sweet water may soon regain it's ancient fertility, may God grant that we may see His holy Name glorified everywhere.***


* The modern Ak Hissar is an out-station of the Western Turkey Mission of the American Board, and is situated about sixty miles northeast of Smyrna. Its present population is not far from 8,000, made up of Turks, Greeks, and Armenians. (Transl. note)

** Quran.

*** These Holy Martyrs are commemorated in the Orthodox Church on May 30th, with a Divine Office composed by Haralambos Bousias.
Source: Many Lands: A Book for Young People, published in Boston in 1894.

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