The possible tomb of Saint Philip. Credit: Courtesy of Institute of Archaeological Heritage
The tomb of Saint Philip, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, might have been unearthed in southwestern Turkey, according to Italian archaeologists who have been excavating the area for decades.
Francesco D'Andria, director of the Institute of Archaeological Heritage, Monuments and Sites at Italy's National Research Council in Lecce, found the burial after intensive geophysical research at the World Heritage Site of Hierapolis, now called Pamukkale.
“It was believed that the tomb of St. Philip was on Martyrs’ Hill, but we found no traces of him in that area," D’Andria said. "The tomb emerged as we excavated a fifth century church 40 meters away from the church dedicated to the saint on Martyrs’ Hill.”
According to D'Andria, the grave was moved from its previous location in the St. Philip Church to the new church in the Bizantine era.
The alleged apostle's tomb, which has not yet been opened, is at the center of some controversy. The finding is mainly based on an apocryphal fourth-century text called the Acts of Philip, which is not recognized by the Catholic Church.
Not much is known about Philip. Born in Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he is often confused with Philip the Evangelist.
Apart from his inclusion in the list of the twelve apostles, much information comes from the Gospel of John, where he is described as one of the first followers of Jesus.
The gospel mentions him in connection with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand and with Jesus' discourse at the Last Supper.
Outside of the New Testament, it’s the apocryphal Acts of Philip which traces the history of the saint.
According to the text, after Jesus’ resurrection, Philip preached in Greece, Syria and Asia Minor. He is said to have met a martyr's death in Hierapolis, in what is now Turkey, around 80 A.D.
Following a conflict with the snake worshippers of Hierapolis, a city famous at that time for its wealth and idolatry, he was allegedly executed by the Romans — hung on a tree upside down with irons in his heels and ankles.
"In answer to Philip’s cry while hanging upside-down on the tree, an abyss suddenly opened and swallowed the proconsul and the viper temple where he was sitting, as well as the viper priests and 7,000 men, plus women and children," reads the apocryphal account.
D’Andria concedes that many of the details recounted in the Acts of Philip are uncertain.
"Elements of the story are richly imaginative, legendary and symbolic. But a Christian following centered on the sainted Philip the Apostle soon grew up at the site. And on his supposed grave was built one of the most remarkable structures in all of ancient Christendom — the martyrium of St. Philip," D’Andria writes in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Indeed, D’Andria, who has been excavating Philip’s eight-sided martyrium since 2003, has been able to reconstruct the entire pilgrimage site.
"The octagon of Philip’s martyrium is enclosed in a rectangular portico, consisting of 28 small square rooms. Within the octagon are eight chapels, which end in four triangular courtyards in the corners of the outer rectangle," he wrote.
The relics of the saint were likely housed in the center of the octagonal structure.
D’Andria also unearthed a great processional road which led pilgrims to the hill northeast of the city on which the martyrium stood.
"Indeed in the channels of the building, in addition to the usual glass ampules and jars for unguents, were numerous terra-cotta eulogiae (small Christian mementos thought to confer blessings and memories of a holy visit). They bore crosses and images of St. Philip," said D’Andria.
After ascending the final flight of steps, the pilgrims spent the night in the 28 small square rooms enclosed the octagonal martyrium. Finally, they entered the great octagon where the tomb of the apostle Philip was venerated.
A disastrous earthquake in the second half of the seventh century, accompanied by a fire, destroyed the entire complex.
D’Andria found a confirmation to the scenario highlighted by his excavations in a rare sixth-century bronze bread stamp, found at Hierapolis, and now on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
The round stamp, just 4 inches in diameter, was probably used to give pilgrims loaves of bread during the rites in honor of the saint.
It shows a full-length illustration of St. Philip, identified as Hagios Philippos (St. Philip) by a Greek inscription, standing on the monumental staircase between two churches.
"The building on the right is the martyrium, the other is the fifth century church we have just unearthed which was built around the saint’s tomb," D’Andria told Discovery News.