A Colourful History of Antioch
A Colourful History of Antioch
Bassam Michael Madany
20 March 2023
Antioch was founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus I Nicator, a general of Alexander the Great. The new city soon became the western terminus of the land routes over which goods were brought from Persia to the Mediterranean.
Antioch’s strategic command of north-south and east-west roads across northwestern Syria greatly contributed to its growth and prosperity during the Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine times. The suburb of Daphne was a favourite pleasure resort and residential area for Antioch’s upper classes. Seleucia Pieria, at the mouth of the Orontes River, was the city’s harbour.
Antioch was the centre of the Seleucid Kingdom until 64 B.C., when it was annexed by Rome, and made the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It became the third largest city of the Roman Empire in size and importance, after Rome and Alexandria, with its magnificent temples, theatres, aqueducts, and baths.
Antioch was also one of the earliest centres of Christianity; it was there that the followers of Christ were first called Christians, and the city was the headquarters of the missionary Saint Paul.i
In the 4th century A.D. Antioch became the seat of a new Roman office that administered all the provinces on the empire’s eastern flank. Because the church of Antioch had the distinction of having been founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, its bishops ranked with the bishops of the other apostolic centers Jerusalem, Rome, and Alexandria.
Antioch prospered in the 4th and 5th centuries from nearby olive plantations, but the 6th century brought a series of disasters from which the city never fully recovered. A fire in 525 was followed by earthquakes in 526 and 528. The city was captured by the Persians in 540 and 611.
During the early Arab-Islamic Futuhat (Conquests), Antioch was occupied in 637, and became much smaller. Its fortunes changed in 969, when the Byzantines recaptured the city, and it served as a frontier barrier against Islamic powers. The Seljuk Turks occupied the city in 1084, only to be ejected in 1098, when it was captured by the Crusaders, who made it the capital of one of their kingdoms. In 1268 the city was taken by the Turkish Mamluks, who razed it to the ground. Antioch never recovered from this last disaster, and it had declined to a small village when it was taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1517. It remained part of the Ottoman Sultanate for the next four centuries.
In WWI, the Ottomans sided with Germany and Austria. The victory of the Allies led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Syria and Lebanon came under the rule of France by Mandate from the League of Nations. With the end of the Ottoman rule, Turkey became a Republic under General Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. He initiated radical changes in the country: Abolishing the Caliphate in 1924, a process of secularization of society, and the adoption of a Latin alphabet in lieu of the Arabic script.
During the 1930s, certain parts of the Turkey were still under occupation by Allied Forces, Ataturk sought to end their rule by negotiation. He succeeded in terminating the French occupation of Cilicia (Asia Minor). Encouraged by that success, Ataturk claimed that the Syrian province of Alexandretta, which included Antioch, belonged to Turkey. Actually, Alexandretta was the most cosmopolitan part of Syria, and was the home of French, British, and Italian schools. The population consisted mostly of Christians from various communions: Orthodox, Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Protestant. A significant remnant of the Armenian Genocide had also settled in Alexandretta. Nevertheless, France handed the province over to Turkey in June 1939. Around 90,000 people of the province moved to other parts of Syria and to Lebanon.
“Remarkably, few remains of the ancient Antioch are now visible, since most of them lie buried beneath thick alluvial deposits from the Orontes River. Nevertheless, important archaeological discoveries have been made in the locality. Excavations conducted in 1932–39 in Daphne and Antioch uncovered many fine mosaic floors from both private houses and public buildings. Dating largely from the Roman imperial period, many of the floors represent copies of famous ancient paintings that otherwise would have been unknown.
“The activities of the modern town are based mainly on the agricultural produce of the area, including the intensively farmed ‘Amok plain. The chief crops are wheat, cotton, grapes, rice, olives, vegetables, and fruit. Antioch has soap and olive-oil factories, cotton ginning and other processing industries. Before the Province of Alexandretta (that included Antioch) was annexed by Turkey, its population was around 220,000. Eight decades later, Antioch’s population alone, had reached 216,960ii”
Demographically, Antioch had become a Turkish city, as I experienced during my visit in July 1975. When reporting on the massive 7.8 earthquake of 6 February 2023, most Western media, referred to Antioch as “the ancient Turkish city of Antakya.” The irony is that Antioch had become Turkish, in a relatively short time! While during the four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule of Syria, which included Antioch, the population retained their Arabic language and culture.
The world response to the 6 February 2023 destructive earthquakes has been heartwarming. Aid groups from several parts of the world rushed to help, not only in Turkey, but in nearby Syrian areas The United Nations’ estimate of the devastating earthquakes is about 50,000 people killed, with many more injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless. The magnitude of the geological damage to the area in and around Antioch is beyond belief! It would make the rebuilding of the city a gargantuan challenge in the future!
1. Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. Acts of the Apostles13:1-4