Antakya (Antioch) in Hatay Turkey


On The Orontes...

Antioch (Antakya) - where Christians were first named - is a city on each bank of the Orontes River (called Asi Nehri in Turkey), the surrounding hills and the generally mild climate make the site an attractive one. The Orontes River begins in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon and flows north through Syria until it reaches the southern side of the Amanus Mountains (Nur Daglari) where it turns sharply west. The old houses of Antakya are well preserved.

The control which the location of Antioch affords over the approaches to it from all directions, the abundant supply of water, the fertile plain, and the protecting mountains have contributed to its strategic importance for the many armies that have fought for its possession ever since Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucus Nicator, founded it in 300 BC. An earlier city had been started by another of Alexander’s generals, Antigonus, who placed his city on the Karasu River northeast of the present site. That city was shortly abandoned when Seleucus trounced Antigonus and then was used merely as a supply center for building materials for the new one. The name Antakya, however, did not come from that general, but from Seleucus Nicator’s father, Antiochus (one of many in the Seleucid family to bear that name). From this period there exists a rock relief.

The Hatay (Antakya) Mosaic Museum

The Hatay Mosaic Museum, located on the right bank of the Orontes River, holds the richest, most varied collection of Greek and Roman mosaics in Turkey. Almost all were floor mosaics, bits of marble, glazed ceramic, colored stone, or glass, set into a lime mortar; almost all illustrate some mythological story. Animals, sometimes comically misshapen, sometimes drawn with the eye of a scientist, cavort around the gods and goddesses. One almost intact panel shows a dramatic Boat of the Psyches with the god Eros urging the group on. In another, a collection of a lion, a wild boar, a panther, an eagle and other animals - all smiling - listens entranced to the music of Orpheus. In a third, a sad-looking goddess of the sea is accompanied by fish, octopuses, and shrimp while young boys ride on dolphins across the border.

The Mosaic Museum has the second largest collection of its kind in the world after the mosaic museum in Tunisia. One of the Roman mosaics here depicts the story of Narcissus. Surrounded by an ornate border, Narcissus, with a flute hanging from a string around his neck, a staff in his hand and hat on his head, is seated on a rock on a riverbank, watching his reflection in the water. Behind him, the water nymph Echo looks yearningly upon her beloved, for whom she burns with unrequited love. Could we compare the city, the ancient Antioch, which stands on the River Asi - the ancient Orontes - to Narcissus? Perhaps, yes, because throughout its history how many nymphs, gods, and kings have gazed with passion longing at this magnificent city. Today, however, the waters of the river are too clouded to reflect the city's image, and it requires some effort and patience to reveal the city's beauty beneath the shell of economic 'development'. Despite everything, it remains a beautiful and unique city, with its magnificent setting, traces of a long and colorful history, and cosmopolitan culture. Like all cities which rest their backs against the lower slopes of a mountain, it has an air of detached self-confidence.

Through times of war, earthquake, turmoil, and the pursuit of pleasure, the city has remained unperturbed. Legends relating to the place begin with Mount Habib Neccar (Silpius) which towers behind the city. According to one such legend, the city was founded over 2300 years ago by Seleucus Nicator I, one of Alexander the Great's generals, on the spot where an eagle dropped a headless sheep from its talons. The city's future king, Seleucus Nicator, had no trouble finding a name, calling it after his beloved son Antiochus. Following the Macedonians, it frequently changed hands, being ruled in succession by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Byzantines again, Seljuks, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Each stitched their own motifs into the tapestry of the city's history, forming tody'sg cultural, architectural, and ethnic synthesis.

At one point, in its history, it was one of the three greatest cities in the Roman Empire, and at another, a terrible earthquake left 250,000 people dead. Its destiny swung between being a prosperous trading city, and catastrophe in the form of war, siege, and occupation. One of the most memorable periods in its history occurred between the two world wars. In the wake of the First World War, France occupied first the area and then later Syria, and in 1938, the region became the independent Republic of Hatay. After less than a year of independence, however, on 23 June 1939, the Hatay parliament passed a resolution to become part of the Turkish Republic. The parliament building on the banks of the Asi in Antakya is a reminder of that period. It is hard to believe today that this strikingly lovely building was for years used as a cinema!

Antioch is also a biblical site, revered by Christians as the place where the Apostles began to spread Christ's teachings. Indeed the followers of Christ were first described as 'Christians' here in the cave church where St Peter was elected patriarch. In one sense, therefore, this church was the forerunner of the Vatican and is an important shrine for Christian pilgrims today. One of the most moving millennium celebrations was held in the Church of St. Peter's. To discover the traces of its time of greatest power and prosperity, you must visit Harbiye, the area's loveliest picnic spot, today best known for its waterfall, 7-8 km from the area.

This was known in antiquity as Daphne, after the beautiful river nymph who fled into the forest to escape the impassioned Apollo. She pleaded for help from her father, the river god Peneus, who turned her into a bay tree to save her from Apollo's clutches. It is this poignant story that lies behind the fragrance of the area's famous bay leaf soap. The great majority of the mosaics in the museum were excavated at Harbiye. They belonged to the magnificent temples and palaces which once graced this idyllic spot. Another interesting place to visit near Antakya is Cevlik just north of the town of Samandag. Here you can see the extraordinary Roman water tunnel built by Titus, rock tombs, and the shrine of Hizir. In your travels, through the region, you will receive a hospitable welcome at every village, and perhaps this warmth is just as worthy of conservation as its historic sites. So as Cezanne said, 'Everything has its day, so if you wish to see it make haste.' And one last thing; as you speed off to Antakya at the first opportunity, do not forget to taste two local specialties: pumpkin pudding and kunefe, a crisp sweet pastry made of vermicelli filled with cheese.

Cave Church of St. Peter

The very first church built ever in Turkey...

On the north-eastern outskirts of town, three km from the center is the Senpiyer Kilisesi or Grotto Church of St Peter, open from 9 am to noon and 1.30 to 6 pm (closed Monday). Tradition has it that this cave was the property of St Luke the Evangelist, who was from, and that he donated it to the burgeoning Christian congregation as a place of worship. Saints Peter and Paul lived in the area for a few years and are thought to have preached here. When the Crusaders marched through, they constructed the wall at the front and a narthex. Traces of fresco and mosaic can still be seen, the floor mosaics inside may be from the 4 or 5 century AD; the facade dates from 1863 and mass is still celebrated here each Sunday from 3 to 4.30 pm.

Tradition has it that Peter was the first to establish a church in here, this belief is based on the references in Acts 9:32 and in Galatians 2:11. When Barnabas was sent shortly thereafter by the Jerusalem church to Antioch he encountered an enthusiastic community. Needing a helper, he went up to Tarsus to get Paul to join him. Together they worked in the area for some time before they started off on their first missionary journey. It was to identify this large group as distinct from the rest of the Jewish congregation that they were given the name Christian. The city served as the home base for Peter, Paul, and Barnabas; shortly it became the third most important bishopric (after Jerusalem and Rome) in the developing church.

Antakya Mosaic Museum Turkey
Hatay Antioch Turkey
Hatay Mosaic Turkey

The settlement was not a typical 1st-century Jewish community, even before Peter’s arrival. In some of their synagogues the Jewish community had been using Greek in the service rather than Hebrew or Aramaic, and reading from the Septuagint the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament (translated perhaps about 288 BC). Before the refugees from Jerusalem arrived in Antakya there were several Antiochene Gentiles who had already been attracted to the high moral qualities of Judaism and the Judaic concept of God. They were not converts to Judaism, nor were the men circumcised, but they were encouraged in their leanings by the Antiochene Jews, and they also presented fertile ground for planting the seed of Christianity.

One of the earliest differences among the Jewish Christians of the area was over the question of circumcision. The conservative group held that according to Mosaic practice only those who had been circumcised could be saved. Faithful to a vision which he had received, Peter already had baptized the Gentile Roman centurion Cornelius, his family, and his relatives, and had eaten a meal with them, both acts in contravention of Mosaic practice which prevented such association. Barnabas and Paul also believed that the gift of the Holy Spirit as evidence of God’s acceptance of a person was stronger than circumcision. Thus they were chosen to present the views of the Antioch church to the elders and apostles in Jerusalem, an act which they accomplished.

These details suggest that this diasporic group was less conservative than the Jews of Jerusalem who stuck rigidly to their customs and beliefs. The details are the shreds of evidence, used to explain in part why the Christian community moved from Antioch rather than from Jerusalem into the Gentile Greek- (and then Latino) speaking Western world.