How I Discovered the Tomb of the Apostle Philip

Interview With Archaeologist Francesco D'Andria

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By Renzo Allegri

ROME, MAY 2, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On May 3, the Church remembers St. Philip and St. James the Less, two apostles who formed part of the Twelve.

Last summer the news broke that the Apostle Philip’s tomb was found at Hierapolis, in Phrygia. “The value of this finding is undoubtedly of a very high level,” says Professor Francesco D’Andria, director of the archaeological mission that made the discovery.

D’Andria teaches archaeology at the University of Salento-Lecce and is the director of the School of Specialization in Archaeology of that university. He has been working in Hierapolis for more than 30 years, looking for St. Philip’s tomb and, since the year 2000, he has been director of this mission.

We asked Professor D’Andria to speak to us about St. Philip and the exceptional finding that he and his team of researchers carried out. “Historical news on Saint Philip is scarce,” said D’Andria. “From the Gospels we know that he was a native of Bethsaida, on Lake Gennesaret; hence, he belonged to a family of fishermen. John is the only evangelist who mentions him several times. In the first chapter of his Gospel, he recounts that Philip entered the group of the apostles from the beginning of Jesus’ public life, called directly by the Master. In the order of calling, he is the fifth after James, John, Andrew and Peter. In the sixth chapter, when he recounts the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, John says that, before doing this miracle, Jesus turned to Philip and asked him how all those people could be fed, and Philip answered that 200 denarii worth of bread would not be sufficient even to give a piece to each one. And in Chapter 12, John says that after Jesus’ triumphal entrance in Jerusalem, some Greeks wished to speak with the Master and went to Philip. And during the Last Supper, when Jesus spoke of the Father (“If you had known me, you would have known my Father also”), Philip said: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” From the Acts of the Apostles we know that Philip was present with the others at the moment of Jesus’ Ascension and on the day of Pentecost, when the descent of the Holy Spirit took place. Written information ceases on that day. All the rest comes from Tradition.”

ZENIT: What does Tradition say in addition?

D’Andria: After Jesus’ death, the Apostles dispersed through the world to spread the Gospel message. And, according to Tradition and ancient documents written by the Holy Fathers, we know that Philip carried out his mission in Scizia, in Lydia, and in the last days of his life, in Hierapolis, in Phrygia. In a letter written to Pope Victor I, Polycrates, who toward the end of the second century was bishop of Ephesus, recalls the important personalities of his Church, among them the Apostles Philip and John. Of Philip, he said: “He was one of the twelve Apostles and died in Hierapolis, as did two of his daughters who grew old in virginity … Another daughter of his … was buried in Ephesus.”

“All scholars agree in considering that Polycrates’ information is absolutely reliable. The Letter, which dates back to about 190 after Christ, 100 years after Philip’s death, is a fundamental document for relations between the Latin and the Greek Church

It refers to the dispute about the date of the celebration of Easter. And in that letter, Polycrates, who was patriarch of the Greek Church, claims the nobility of the origins of the Church in Asia, stating that just as the trophies (mortal remains) of Peter and Paul are in Rome, the tombs of the Apostles Philip and John are in Asia. Moreover, from that letter we know that Philip spent the last years of his life in Hierapolis, with two of his three daughters, who undoubtedly helped him in his work of evangelization. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea says that Papias, who was bishop of Hierapolis at the beginning of the third century, knew Philip’s daughters and from them learned important details of the Apostle’s life, among them also the account of a tremendous miracle: the resurrection of a dead man.”

ZENIT: Is it known how and when the Apostle died?

D’Andria: Most of the ancient documents state that Philip died in Hierapolis, in the year 80 after Christ, when he was about 85. He died a martyr for his faith, crucified upside down like St. Peter. He was buried in Hierapolis. In the ancient necropolis of that city an inscription was found that alludes to a church dedicated to St. Philip. On an unspecified date, Philip’s body was taken to Constantinople to remove it from the danger of profanation by barbarians. And in the sixth century, under Pope Pelagius I, it was taken to Rome and buried, next to the Apostle James, in a church built specifically for them. The Byzantine-style church, which was called “of Sts. James and Philip,” was transformed in 1500 into a magnificent Renaissance church, which is the present one called “Of the Holy Apostles.”

ZENIT: When did research begin on St. Philip’s tomb in Hierapolis?

D’Andria: In 1957, thanks to professor Paolo Verzone, who taught engineering at Turin’s Polytechnic and was very passionate about archaeological research. An agreement was stipulated between the Italian and Turkish Republics, which enabled our team of archaeologists to carry out searches in Hierapolis. Professor Verzone was the first director of that mission. He began immediately, of course, to look for the Apostle Philip’s tomb. He concentrated the excavations on a monument that was already visible in part and known as the church of St. Philip, and he discovered an extraordinary octagonal church, a genuine masterpiece of Byzantine architecture of the fifth century, with wonderful arches in travertine stone.

All this complex of constructions made with so much care and detail made one think that it was a great church of pilgrimage, a very important shrine, and Professor Verzone identified it as the Martyrion, namely the martyrial church of St. Philip. And therefore he thought that it was built on the saint’s tomb. Hence he had several excavations carried out in the area of the main altar, but he never found anything that made one think of a tomb.

I myself thought the tomb was in the area of the church, but in 2000, when I became director of the Italian archaeological mission of Hierapolis, by concession of the Ministry of Culture of Turkey, I changed my opinion.

ZENIT: Why?

D’Andria: All the excavations carried out over so many years had no result. I also carried out research through geo-physical explorations, that is, special explorations of the subsoil, and not obtaining anything, I was convinced we had to look elsewhere, still in the same area but in another direction.

ZENIT: And towards what did you direct your research?

D’Andria: My collaborators and I studied a series of satellite photos of the area carefully, and the observations of a group of brave topographers of the CNR-IBAM, directed by Giuseppe Scardozzi, and we understood that the Martyrion, the octagonal church was the center of a large and well-developed devotional complex. We identified a great processional street that took the pilgrims of the city to the octagonal church, the Martyrion at the top of the hill, the remains of a bridge that enabled pilgrims to go across a valley through which a torrent flowed; we say that at the foot of the hill there were stairs in travertine stone, with wide ascending steps that led to the summit.

At the bottom of the stairs we identified another octagonal building that could not be seen from the surface but only on satellite photos. We excavated around that building and realized it was a thermal complex.

This was an enlightening discovery that made us understand that the whole hill was part of a course of pilgrimage with several stages. Continuing our excavations, we found another flight of steps that led directly to the Martyrion, and on the Square, next to the Martyrion, there was a fountain where pilgrims did their ablutions with water, and near there a small plain, in front of the Martyrion, where there were vestiges of buildings. Professor Verzone had not dared to carry out an excavation in that area because it was an immense heap of stones. In 2010, we began to do some cleaning and elements of extreme importance came to light.

ZENIT: Of what sort?

D’Andria: A marble architrave of a ciborium with a monogram on which the name Theodosius could be read. I thought it was the name of the emperor and so that architrave made it possible to date the martyrial church between the fourth and fifth centuries. Then, little by little we found vestiges of an apse. Excavating and cleaning the floor, a great church came to light. Whereas the floor of the Martyrion was octagonal, this floor was that of a basilica, with three naves. A stupendous church with marble capitals refined decorations, crosses, friezes, plant branches, stylized palms in the niches and a central pavement with marble tesserae with colored geometrical motifs: all referable to the fifth century, namely, the age of the other church, the Martyrion. However, at the center of this wonderful construction what enthused and moved us was something disconcerting that left us breathless.

ZENIT: And it was?

D’Andria: A typical Roman tomb that went back to the first century after Christ. In a certain sense, its presence could be justified by the fact that in that area, before Christians built the proto-Byzantine shrine, there was a Roman necropolis. However, examining its position carefully, we realized that that Roman tomb was at the center of the church. Hence, in the fifth century the church had been built precisely around that pagan Roman tomb, to protect it, because, evidently, that tomb was extremely important. And immediately we thought that perhaps that could be the tomb where the body of St. Philip was placed after his death.

ZENIT: And did you find confirmations of this supposition?

D’Andria: Indeed. In the summer of 2011, we carried out extensive excavation in the area of this church with the coordination of Piera Caggia, research archaeologist of the IBAM-CNR, and extraordinary elements emerged that confirmed are suppositions fully. The tomb was included in a structure in which there is a platform that is reached by a marble staircase. Pilgrims, entering in the narthex, went up to the higher part of the tomb, where there was a place for prayer and they went down on the opposite side. And we saw that the marble surface of the steps was completely consumed by the steps of thousands upon thousands of people. Hence, the tomb received an extraordinary tribute of veneration.

On the façade of the tomb, near the entrance, there are nail holes which undoubtedly served to support an applied metallic locking device. Moreover, there are grooves in the pavement that make one think of an additional wooden door: all precautions that indicate that in that tomb there was an inestimable treasure, namely, the apostle’s body.

And on the façade, on the walls there are numerous graffiti with crosses, which in some way have consecrated the pagan tomb.

Excavating next to the tomb we found water baths for individual immersions, which undoubtedly served for healings. After venerating the tomb, sick pilgrims were submerged in the baths exactly as happens in Lourdes.

However, the main -- I would say mathematical -- confirmation which attests, without a shadow of a doubt, that that construction is really St. Philip’s tomb comes from a small object that is in the Museum of Richmond in the United States. An object in which there are images that up to now could not be fully deciphered, whereas now they have an obvious significance.

ZENIT: What object is it?

D’Andria: it is a bronze seal about 10 centimeters (four inches) in diameter, which served to authenticate St. Philip’s bread to be distributed to pilgrims. Icons have been found that represent St. Philip with a large loaf in his hand. And, to be distinguished from ordinary bread, this bread was marked with the seal so that pilgrims would know that it was a special bread, to be kept with devotion.

There are images on the seal. There is the figure of a saint with a pilgrims’ cloak and an inscription that says “Saint Philip.” On the border is a phrase in Greek, an ancient phrase of praise to God: Agios o Theos, agios ischyros, agios athanatos, eleison imas (Holy God, strong Holy One, immortal Holy One, have mercy on us). All the specialists of Byzantine history who know that seal have always said that it came from Hierapolis. However, what is most extraordinary is the fact that the figure of the saint is presented between two buildings: the one on the left is covered by a cupola, and it is understood that it represents the octagonal Martyrion; the one on the right of the saint, has a roof like the one of the church of three naves which we have now discovered. The two buildings are at the top of a stairway. It seems that it was an image of the complex then existing around St. Philip’s tomb. A photograph made in the sixth century. Moreover, in the image of the seal there is an emblematic element: a lamp hanging at the entrance, typical signs that served to indicate a saint’s sepulcher. Hence, already indicated in that seal is that the tomb was in the basilica church and not in the Martyrion.

ZENIT: You have made all these discoveries in recent times.

D’Andria: I would say very recent times. We did so between 2010 and 2011. Above all 2011 was the year of the greatest emotions for us: we discovered the second church and Philip’s tomb. We concluded a work begun 55 years ago. The news has gone around the world. And it has attracted scholars and the curious to Hierapolis. Among others, at the end of last August, hundreds of Chinese arrived, as well as numerous Koreans and journalists of several nationalities.

Last Nov. 24, I had the honor of presenting the discovery, at the Pontifical Archaeological Academy of Rome, to scholars and Vatican representatives. Also Bartholomew the patriarch of Constantinople, primate of the Orthodox Church, wished to receive me to know the details of the discovery, and on Nov. 14, feast of St. Philip in the Orthodox Church, he celebrated Mass precisely on the tomb found in Hierapolis. And I was present, 1,000 thousand years, the chants of the Greek liturgy resounded among the ruins of the church.

In the forthcoming months, we will take up the works again and I am certain that other important surprises await us.

[Translation by ZENIT]