Antioch in Syria


Below, Antakya, Turkey, successor to ancient Antioch in Syria

view of modern antakya


History of Antioch

After the death Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his generals divided up his conquered territories. Seleucus I Nicator (Seleucus the Victor) won the territory of Syria, and, about 3oo BC) he founded Antioch. He named it in memory of his father, Antiochus, and it became the capital of his far-flung empire. It stood 15 miles inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, and was built partly on an island, partly on a levee and partly on the steep, craggy ascent of Mount Silpius, which rose abruptly on the south. Called "Antioch on the Orontes" or "Antioch of Syria" to distinguish it from 15 other Antiochs, the city soon became the western terminus of the Silk Road which recently opened up trade with China. Camels arrived bearing spices, silk and other exotic goods from beyond the Himalayas. Antioch's command of north-south and east-west roads contributed greatly to its growth and prosperity.

Below, souk (market) in modern Antakya

marketplace in antakya

Below, narrow residential street in Antakya

antakya narrow residential street

Antioch remained the center of the Seleucid kingdom until 64 BC, when it was annexed by Rome and made the capital of the Roman province of Syria.

Below, five miles to the south of Antioch were the renowned groves of Daphne, and a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, where secret cult rituals were celebrated in honor of the god. This suburb, now called Harbiye, was a favorite pleasure resort and residential area for Antioch's upper classes.

daphne groves

One of finest collections of Roman mosaics in the world, formerly in the wealthy mansions of Harbiye, are in the Hatay Archaeological Museum, below.

mosaics from harbiye antioch's upper class neighborhood

mosaics from harbiye antioch's upper class neighborhood

mosaic from harbiye antioch's upper class neighborhood

mosaic from harbiye antioch's upper class neighborhood

Below, channel of the Asi River (ancient Orontes) flowing through Antakya.

asi river ancient orantes


Antioch at the time of Saul/Paul

In the first century AD, Antioch ranked behind Rome and Alexandria as the third largest city of the Roman empire, with a population of about 300,000 "free inhabitants" (500,000 if slaves were counted).

ancient city map of antioch

As with many of the eastern Roman cities, Antioch's patron deity was the  goddess Tyche (meaning "luck" in Greek, Roman equivalent: Fortuna) that governed its fortune and prosperity. Known as "Antioch the Beautiful," it possessed majestic mansions, temples, theaters, race-courses, aqueducts and baths. It was further beautified by the Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and Herod "the Great" of Judea paved its four-mile-long main street and lined it with two covered colonnades for pedestrians.

The city was divided into four quarters, each fortified with its own wall, and the whole city, in turn, was enclosed by a common wall. (The city's massive walls played an important role during the Crusades, centuries after the time of Paul.)

Antioch walls

The city was wealthy and blatant in its worship of the material achievements of life. Reminding us of our own time, it had central heating, swimming pools, plumbing and flood-lighting. The city was also called "Queen of the East" because of its mixed population of Romans, Persians, Indians and even Chinese. But, as a center of Greek culture it had a reputation as an immoral city.

Disputes centered around the racing stables of Antioch were known throughout the world. The "Blues" and the "Greens" were competing chariot racing teams famous in Saul's time. They even enlisted the patronage of Emperors. Both Caligula and Claudius wore the colors of the Green Faction. The fanatical support network of the two teams could whip up riots or empty the streets at will; their protection was sometimes essential for finding employment or safely operating a shop. As with modern-day major athletic contests (for example European soccer matches, the Super Bowl and World Series), the races could end in riots, even killings. In the summer of 1998, a mosaic inscription was found in a walkway along a street at the ancient Decapolis city of Scythopolis (Beit Shean) in Israel. It read: "May the Blues be victorious."

Blues victory mosaic

Similar inscriptions wishing the Blues luck have been found in other Middle Eastern cities, while slogans encouraging the Greens have been discovered in eastern Europe and Turkey.

Many Diaspora Jews (those who lived outside Palestine and maintained their religious faith among the Gentiles) lived there, enjoying the rights of Roman citizenship. They were very active in proselytizing and had a large following among the Greeks (Luke mentions Nicholas of Antioch among the Greek-speaking leaders of the Jerusalem church).

Jewish converts fleeing the persecution in Jerusalem following the stoning of Stephen also came to Antioch, and they told the good news about Jesus, not just to Jews, but to Gentiles from varied cultural backgrounds. As a result, a strong church was formed there. It was in fact at Antioch that the followers of "The Way" (the early name for the church) were first called "Christians."

Who used "Christian" for the first time, and on what occasion? The Jews did not coin the word; they used the word Nazarine to refer to the sect. It is unlikely that the followers of The Way applied it to themselves; they used the terms "saints," "brethren" and "believers." It could be that the word was originated by a Greek who, knowing something about the new faith (but not enough to fully understand it), incorporated the name of Jesus Christ (Greek Christianos "Anointed One") with those who believed in him. It is also likely that the word was used as a sarcastic reference to the "devotees of the Anointed One" by the Roman officials at Antioch, in the same manner as the followers of Herod were called "Herodiani," of Pompey, "Pompeiani" or Caesar, who where dubbed "Caesariani." In any event, the followers of Jesus soon adopted it for themselves as an honorable term.

The large number of converts in Antioch attracted the attention of the church leadership in Jerusalem and Barnabas, a Christian Jew from the island of Cyprus, was sent to oversee affairs. He was satisfied that the Holy Spirit was at work there, but recognized that the young church needed more thorough instruction in the new faith. So he went to Tarsus to look for Saul and brought him to Antioch. It was Barnabas who had earlier convinced his fellow believers in Jerusalem that Saul had genuinely converted. Together, they remained in Antioch for a year, teaching and strengthening the church.

During this year in Antioch, the famine mentioned in Acts 11 (also by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus) began in Palestine:

"The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:29-30).

Upon completion of their mission to Jerusalem, Saul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, accompanied by a young man named John Mark who, at a later time is thought to have authored the Gospel of Mark, based on the personal recollections of Simon Peter.

It was in Antioch that the idea of sending missionaries out to convert the heathens was born. In Acts, only Jerusalem is more closely related to the spread of early Christianity. It was the place where Saul (with Barnabas and John Mark) set out on his first commissioned missionary journey. It would also be the starting point for the second and third...