Antioch on Orontes (Antakya), once called the ‘Queen of the East’ and known as the third largest city of the Roman empire, played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity from Palestine to the diaspora.
On the main trade routes from the east to the Mediterranean and from Syria to Anatolia this prosperous city was founded by Seleucus I Nicator about 300 BCE. Seleucus I’s father Antiochus was one of the generals of Alexander the Great and inherited the largest portion of Alexander’s lands after the latter’s death. His kingdom’s frontiers extended from the Hellespont to India. ‘Orontes’ was attached to city’s name to distinguish it from the other fifteen more Antioch which this king is said to have founded, naming all of them after his father.
Among its foundation stories the one which does justice to the character of the later Antiochenes, who seem in course time to have cultivated a great number of harmless vanities, is probably the one constructed by the people of the city of the present day. According to this, a king who suffered from insomnia came to the slope of Mt. Silpius in his search to find a place which would help him to fall asleep. Here, to the surprise of his family and retinue he descended from his horse, lay on the grass, put his head on a piece of stone and started snoring. After waking up he decided that this was the right spot for his new city.
Limited excavation and fairly extensive ancient sources provide the evidence for our knowledge of the ancient city. It was laid out between the Orontes (Asi) river and Mt Silpius (Habib Neccar Dagl) and surrounded by a wall. It was founded on the grid plan, which was the fashion of the period and possessed all the indispensable institutions of a polis.
With the decline of the Seleucid power the city became a prey for Tigranes I of Armenia (95-64 BCE) for a short period and then in 64 BCE was taken over by Rome, to be made the capital of the province of Syria which would be established a few years later. Among its monuments Antioch’s fame came from the great colonnaded street which ran from east to west along the walls of the earlier city. By the time it was completed, in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CEI the 10 meter-wide marble-paved street, with pavements totaling the same width, was flanked by roofed double-storeyed colonnades, making it possible to walk for 4 km under porticoes. It was known as one of the earliest of such kind of main streets.
The city was founded in the major earthquake zone and there was regular rebuilding under both its Hellenistic and Roman rulers. During an earthquake in 115 CE, the emperor Trajan, who was then staying in the city, saved his life by jumping out of a window of his palace. Though almost nothing is left of this once great city, the stunning mosaics brought to light from the excavations in Antioch, its suburbs, Daphne (Defnel and Seleucia Pieria give at least some idea of the prosperity and high living standard of ancient Antioch.
By St. Paul’s time the city was already spreading towards the level plain to the south of the Orontes river which Strabo claims to have been navigable until it reached the Mediterranean. Pausanias, however, states that the river ‘does not flow throughout its whole course to the sea on level ground, but tumbles over a precipitous ledge of rock. Wishing, then, that ships should sail up the river from the sea to the city of Antioch, the Roman emperor [thought to be Vespasian] had a navigable canal dug with much labor and at great expense, and into this canal he diverted the river’. The information about the work of Vespasian shows the importance that the Romans afforded to the Orontes as a communication route from the Mediterranean to the city and Syria.
Agricultural produce was bountiful in the warm climate and its position on trade routes, notably the silk route, helped to make this an extremely wealthy city, attracting traders and artists from many countries. The inhabitants of city according to Tacitus ‘enjoyed having dealings with the soldiers they knew, and many of the provincials were linked with them by marriage and family ties’. The Roman soldiers who were based at the camps near Antioch were known to have been reluctant to leave the region. The wealth and luxury of the city were famed and the sybaritic, self indulgent lifestyle of its inhabitants was immortalized by the first-century Roman satirist Juvenal, commenting on the effect of oriental excesses on Roman life:
‘…For years now Syrian Orontes has poured its sewerage into our native Tiber
Its lingo and manners, its flutes, its outlandish harps
With their transverse strings, its native tambourines,
And the whores who hang out round the race-course’.
Visiting the city some three hundred years later the Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate (361-631 could not help himself from dwelling on, among many other vanities, on the greed, effeminacy or laziness of the Antiochenes.
The earliest inhabitants of the city were the Macedonian veterans in the Seleucid army, immigrants from Greece and Jews. In the first century CE the city’s population was more than 200,000 of which perhaps more than one fifth were Jews. In general, the Jews of Antioch were wealthy and since Seleucid times had enjoyed almost all the rights of full citizenship to the chagrin of non-Jewish citizens; in contrast to the Jews of Palestine, they were not riven by factions. Most were Greek-speaking and used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Judaism’s monotheism and its ethical teachings for the conduct of life, together with the fact that Greek was spoken in the synagogues, ‘regularly attracted large numbers of Greeks to their worship, and they had, to some degree, made them a part of their community’. To this cosmopolitan and tolerant city, with its Greek and oriental cults and philosophies, came Hellenistic Jewish Christians, fleeing the persecutions of Jerusalem that had been responsible for the death of St Stephen in about 34.
Within a few years, perhaps by about 40, following the popular practice of the time to refer to the partisans of a famous person as ‘Herodians’ or ‘Pompeians’ (supporters or clients of Pompey), the term Christians, a Greek word with a Latin adjectival ending, first came into use (Acts 11 :26), originating in the city to describe the Greek speaking Gentile followers of Christ, as distinct from the Jews. The new term comprised all the known terms used until then to refer to the believers of the new faith: brethren, witnesses, those of the way, saints etc. The coinage of the word also shows that at the beginning Christianity was regarded as a sort of semi-political movement.
It was at about this time, about 40/43 that St. Paul came to Antioch to assist St. Barnabas . For many years, this multi-cultural city was the main base and focal point of their missionary activity amongst the Gentiles. It is a measure of the success of their mission, that during the severe famine (4547), the Antiochene community sent aid to the believers in Jerusalem. St. Peter too was associated with Antioch, having been there at the time of St. Paul and St. Barnabas ; according to one tradition, he is regarded as the founder of the church of Antioch and even its first bishop. A cave on the slope of Mt. Staurin, the eastern extension of Mt. Silpius, is traditionally regarded as a meeting place of the early Christians. The grotto was given a facade, probably in the eleventh century after the crusader conquest, since which time it has been the church of St. Peter.
There is nothing left to be seen from St. Paul’s time in Antioch. If there was one sight that the Apostle could not have missed during his frequent stays in the city, this must have been the giant relief situated next to the grotto of St. Peter. Ancient literature relates that in the reign of Antiochus I (280-261BCE) to protect Antioch from a plague a ‘philosopher and wonder-worker’ named Laiios commanded the carving of a great mask with some special words on it for the salvation of the city. The talisman was called by the people of Antioch ‘Charanion’. On its right shoulder a smaller figure was carved.