(No) Fear and Loathing in Antioch

For our third weekend of this year’s campaign, we planned an overnight trip to Antakya from the 10th to the 11th of September. Antakya presented itself as a compelling destination for the modern city is partially located on the site of the ancient city of Antioch ad Orontes. The Hellenistic city of Antioch, having been founded at the eastern side of the Orontes River by the diadochus Seleucus I Nicator in 300 BCE, eventually rose to become the centre and capital of the Seleucid Kingdom. Due to a beneficial geographical location between the Levantine Sea and the surrounding mountain ranges, Antioch, together with its seaport Seleucia Pieria, became one of the most prosperous gates to north-south as well as west-east trade routes to and from Syria and the whole of southwest Asia. Wealth and prosperity did not see a stop, when the Roman Empire took over the administration in 63 BCE and made Antioch the capital of the province of Syria while simultaneously granting the city the status of a civitas libera, which it kept until after the Roman occupation. An estimated population of 200,000 – 250,000 inhabitants in early Roman times made Antioch the third-largest city in the entire empire, only beaten by Rome and Alexandria.

Antioch is located in the most southern part of modern Turkye, close to today’s Syrian border and west of Aleppo.

Although the city kept an important role in the following centuries, especially for the early Christian community as the so-called “cradle of Christianity” and later during the crusader era when the city was the capital of the principality of Antioch, as you know, we classical archaeologists tend to be more interested in history led by the adjective “ancient”.

Now we shall return to the present and our trip to a city of a vibrant and most interesting history, that started for 11 of us after we had finished our work on Saturday and drove off at 2 PM. The 3-hour drive on the smooth Turkish motorway offered the perfect opportunity to introduce our Bavarian friends to some iconic North Rhine-Westphalian Karneval music, while the Turkish students, in wise foresight, chose to take the second car. As expected, the mood was boisterous when we arrived in Antakya – the playlist had not failed its duty. The first thing we all noticed when we got out of our climatized cars was the difference in climate and humidity. Compared to Gaziantep, Antakya, due to its closeness to the sea and mountains, greeted everyone with a patina of sweat that would not leave until we left the city. Suddenly, we came to appreciate the dry heat of Keber Tepe. It was, however, a very much acceptable price to pay for being near the picturesque mountain ranges the city is nestled in and close to water, in form of the Orontes.

After a quick check-in at the hotels we met for our night off and started exploring the city. As soon as we left the crowded main road, Antakya offered a lot to find and see, such as tiny winding alleys and lively old houses with big inviting atriums of which many are used today for restaurants and bars. Energetic Turkish music was played by small bands from a lot of them, sometimes melting into one another while walking along, and every peak into a different street offered more and more to see. The sun went down, and the streets became more crowded. They lit up with lampions and lanterns, it smelled of food and warm late-summer air. We stopped for a delicious dinner at a sort of traditional place, Mahal, that offered a fantastic Hummus and local cuisine with Syrian influence. Afterwards we crossed the alley to the No11 Beer House, baited by the locally brewed Antioch beer, that could not exactly live up to its promising name, but did not stop us from having a great time in the cosy and welcoming courtyard. Let me spare some details of the rest of the night for the sake of the scientific respectability of this report. Maybe this much: The night might have included a beautiful musical street performance by one of us and a small permanent memory on the skin of seven – you could argue that it was rather frech.

Gangs of Antioch

After a revitalizing breakfast, the first stop of the day was The Museum Hotel – a striking modern hotel which has been built on top of an archaeological excavation site. The hotel’s modern industrial look clashes interestingly with the antique ruins it is built on. Walkways and bridges stretch across foundations of residential and governmental buildings from different periods of Antioch’s long history, a bath complex, and the breathtaking and world’s largest Hellenistic mosaic, spanning over 830 square metres. Antioch has not only been the capital of the Seleucid Kingdom and the Roman province of Syria, but surely also that of mosaics in the entire ancient world. The beauty and richness in detail of the mosaics of Antioch and the entire region are unmatched in the ancient world, and I am willing to fight anyone arguing against that. The Zeugma Museum in Gaziantep had offered a fantastic introduction to extraordinarily crafted mosaics (we visited the museum a couple of weeks ago) and our visit to Antakya completed that picture. It is of no surprise that the city of Antioch used to be greatly appreciated for their craft in Roman times, and still is to that day.

With enough time on our hands we decided to dip out of our comfort zone for a moment and visit the Church of Saint Peter located up the hill and only a few minutes’ drive away from the museum. The original small cave church from the fourth or fifth century is named to be one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. The façade visible today has been added by the crusaders of the first crusade and has later been restored by Pope Pius IX and Napoleon III. The plain interior in combination with the notion of early Christians living out their religion in face of persecution in that very cave somehow got to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed our detour. Additionally, the view over the city and landscape alone would have already been worth the trip. 

The main attraction of our search for a glimpse of ancient Antioch had to be the Hatay Archaeological Museum. Over 3500 square metres of mosaic and an exhibition space of over 10,000 square metres make the museum the largest mosaic museum in the world – fantastic! The size is especially noteworthy regarding that it is solely a regional museum for the Hatay province and that many finds from several excavations have been brought to museums all over the world (Usual suspects like the Louvre could not keep their hands from Antioch’s beautiful mosaics…).

Starting in the Palaeolithic Age, the museum offers a wide range of exhibits from Hittite and Roman statues, frescos, and a large coin collection to the wonderful mosaics themselves. I especially enjoyed the abundance of Dionysus illustrations in the mosaics. The Greek god of wine and fertility (and many things more, including ritual madness and insanity, but we will pretend we did not hear that) appears comparatively often in any sort of depiction from the Hatay region, due to the fertility and richness of the lands. Also, the association of Dionysus with drinking culture and festivities in general probably made him such an appealing character for the wealthy upper class inhabitants of Anitoch to depict in their houses.

Another personal highlight of mine was what might be the best depiction of a Roman banquet scene (convivium) from the third-fourth century CE: A relaxed and mellow looking skeleton reclining on its left side, holding a cup in its hand, while greeting the viewer with word ΕΥΦΡΟΣΥΝΟΣ (enjoy, having fun, cheering up). Not only do I relish the art itself, it is also a cheerful, yet slightly grim, reminder to observers during their banquet in ancient times as well as today’s visitors of the museum to enjoy life to the fullest in the form of food and drink and good company – as long as it lasts. A message rather fitting for the end of a trip embracing all of the above, during a time all of us came together for the adventure that is this year’s excavation in Doliche.

With this, our stay in Antakya concluded. We left a liberal and compelling modern city where we got the chance to see and feel the luxury from days past and got an impression of the exceptional rich history spanning over empires and millennia. The excavation house welcomed us back with the usual Sunday Barbecue and somewhere a cheeky skeleton grinned slightly more, knowing that its message had been understood. Cheers!

written by Timo Kulartz

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