The fifth letter of St. John to the seven churches was to the ancient and historic city of Sardis. As one of the oldest cities of Asia Minor, the city lay along a highway that stretched from the Persian city of Susa, following a parallel course to the Tigris River, passing through Cappadocia to Sardis. Located in the Hermus Valley (modern R. Gediz) on the banks of a southern tributary, the Pactolus (modern Sart Cay) and north of the range of the Tmolus Mountains (modern Bozdag). It is about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and about 45 miles of Izmir (Smyrna).
The name Sardis is that of the stone, sardius (Greek: sardinos; carnelian, RSV, cp. Rev 4:3). The semi-precious stone is orange-brown but reflects deep red when light is passed through. It was an economic stronghold of the wool industry. The acropolis was built about 1500 feet above the plain on a ridge of the 5,800 foot high Mount Tmolus. The precipice was difficult to reach and was considered unassailable by an enemy. The lower city was more accessible. Today the site is a ruin, but nearby the small Turkish village bears the name Sart, and the memory of fabled characters such as Midas and King Croesus of Sardis live on.
Sardis was a place of importance from the Lydian Kingdom in the 13th century BCE. The Lydian Kingdom made Sardis its capital as early as 700 B.C. The first king of the Mermnad Dynasty was Gyges (687-652 B.C.), credited with the invention of the first coined money. The earliest coins were made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. In excavations in the early 1980s, many were found in buildings of the Lydian period.
The last and most famous Lydian King Croesus (560-546 B.C.) was said to have panned gold from the nearby river Pactolus introduced coinage of pure gold and pure silver. Crucibles and a few gold objects have made conclusive evidence for the gold-refining process from the 6th century B.C. for modern archaeologists.
Following the Lydian Kingdom, Persian domination began in 546 BCE, when King Croesus and Sardis fell to Cyrus. Herodotus records the shock of the Lydian defeat, as they considered the city impregnable. According to the ancient historian, the Persian forces were in the valley below the citadel, when a Lydian soldier dropped his helmet over the city wall. He scaled down the rock to get it. A local slave watched carefully and when captured, revealed the city’s vulnerability. The soldiers used the information to capture the city for Cyrus, and King Croesus was taken prisoner. At the end of the Susa Road, Sardis became the most important Persian city in Asia Minor.
With the decline of the Persians under the advancing Greeks, the city surrendered willingly to Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. Sardis became the western administrative center for the Seleucid Dynasty. One notable battle of the period was in 214 BCE, when the city fell to Antiochus the Great through the use of the employed by the Persians more than three centuries earlier.
Sardis came under Pergamene rule from 189 to 133 BCE, and was passed into the hands of the Romans upon the death of Attallus II. Under Roman rule the city flourished until it was devastated by the great earthquake in 17 CE (called by Eusebius the greatest earthquake in human memory). and Tiberias assisted in the rebuilding of the city (Tacitus Annals II.47). Some scholars feel that because of this great indebtedness to Tiberius, the city gave itself to the cult of emperor-worship, largely abandoning its historic love affair with the Cybele cult. In 26 CE, Sardis lost the competition with Smyrna for the coveted permission to build a temple to the emperor.
Until the change in 17 CE, Sardis was a center for the worship of Cybele. Nash provides us with a good summary of information about the Cult of Cybele: Cybele, also known as the Great Mother, was worshipped throughout much of the Hellenistic world. The cult of Cybele underwent a number of significant changes over a period of several hundred years. Cybele undoubtedly began as a goddess of nature; the early worship of her in Phrygia was not unlike that of Dionysus. But it went beyond the sexual orgies that were part of the primitive Dionysias cult, as the frenzied male worshipers of Cybele were led to castrate themselves. Following their act of self-mutilation, these followers of Cybele became Galli, or eunuch-priests of the cult.
From her beginnings as a Nature-goddess, Cybele eventually came to be viewed as the Mother of all gods and the mistress of all life (Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic World, pp.138-139). Barclay points out that even on pagan lips, Sardis was a name of contempt. Its people were notoriously loose living, notoriously pleasure-and luxury loving. Sardis was a city of the decadence. In the old days it had been a frontier town on the borders of Phyrgia, but now it was a byword for slack and effeminate living... The most splendid temple in Sardis was the one devoted to Artemis, the later memory of the Cybele worship. It had apparently undergone three specific phases of construction beginning in the C3 BCE, and ending at the earthquake of 17 CE. Coins also depict sanctuaries to Aphrodite Paphia.
A great colonnaded marble road of 4600 feet in length divided the Roman city, whose population was estimated as large as 120,000 in the time of the St. John. A variety of inscriptions on extant statuary reveal the relationship with succeeding Emperors. Hadrian visited the city in 123 CE. Later, Emperor Diocletian reorganized Asia in (297 CE) and Sardis became capital of the revived district of Lydia. Melito, Bishop of Sardis, served in the second century, and some of his sermons have been preserved. Several representatives from Sardis attended the First Council of Nicaea (325), Council of Ephesus (431), and the so-called Robber Council of Ephesus (449). Sardis was conquered by the Arabs in 716 CE, and eventually by the Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.