The Archaeology of Antioch Part I

Antioch, modern Antakya in the region of Hatay, Turkey, was one of the great cities of the Roman Empire, alongside Alexandria, Ephesus and Rome, as well as capital of the province of Syria. The Tabula Peutingeriana depicts it as a metropolis. However, Antioch has often been called a ‘lost ancient city’ (see e.g. the recent volume edited by Christine Kondoleon), because of the devastating effects of a series of disasters and the reversal of its fortunes in the post-antique period, that included several earthquakes, one of which is claimed to have killed 250.000 of the city’s inhabitants in AD 526, and bouts of bubonic plague. I visited in the scorching heat of August 2003. The modern city is not one of Turkey’s finest, but the archaeological museum makes the long journey more than worthwhile.

View of modern Antakya from the Grotto of St Peter. Photo: TMK, August 2003.

Excavations were carried out in Antioch in the 1930s by French and American archaeologists, mainly from Princeton University. The city was then part of Syria, and still today both Arabic and Turkish can be heard on the streets. Eighty buildings in Antioch itself and the suburbs of Daphne-Harbie, Seleucia Pieria, Yakto and several other sites were explored. Before the outbreak of World War II, three hundred mosaics were uncovered, many of which had extremely elaborate designs. A large portion of these ended up in American and French museums, although the Antakya Archaeological Museum holds one of the world’s most important collections of late Roman mosaics. A recent attempt to re-compile them has been done by Fatih Cimok (2000). Many of them were found in suburban contexts, especially in the ‘suburb’ of Daphne 7 km south of Antioch. These houses have recently been referred to by Simon Ellis as belonging to “the glitterati of late antiquity” (2004, p. 126).

Antakya Museum
Mosaic in the Antakya Archaeological Museum with a personification of Soteria (Salvation). Second half of the fifth century CE. From the Baths of Apolausis outside Antioch. Photo: TMK, August 2003.

The view of Antioch as a lost city continues to this day. As recently as 2000, an exhibition entitled “Antioch: The Lost Ancient City” was shown at two American museums, Worcester Art Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art. The catalogue that was put together for the exhibition includes a multitude of objects, mostly without a context beyond ‘Syria’ or ‘Antioch’ (Kondoleon 2000). And these finds are indeed the kind that enhance the picture of a ‘lost city’, as they include jewelry, marble statuary, silverware and fancy mosaics from fancy houses.

But even though the systematic excavations ended with the arrival of World War II, and only limited work has been done since, I find that this view of Antioch as a ‘lost city’ is ill-founded. The general topography is fairly well established, although in part based on literary sources. The island in the Orontes river (now no longer an island) was the location of the imperial palace, the hippodrome and the Church of Constantine, and its layout has recently been studied by Grégoire Poccardi using aerial photographs taken in the 1930s (2001). The city’s central colonnade, so typical of a near eastern Roman city, was also excavated in the 1930s and was published in 1977 by Jean Lassus. The agora is thought to be located underneath the modern suq, although this is not necessarily evidence of continuity from the Roman into the Islamic period. The city also has one of the finest preserved late Roman fortifications. On top of all this, there is a wealth of information on both social and religious aspects of Antioch in a wide variety of written sources.

That being said, we know very little of hellenistic Antioch, the capital of Seleucus I. The Charonion that I have dealt with earlier is one of the few Seleucid monuments that can be seen today.

More on the archaeology of Antioch tomorrow. A small selection of photos from Antioch can be seen on the Stoa.

Fatih Cimok. 2000. Antioch Mosaics. A Corpus. Istanbul.
Simon Ellis. 2004. “The Seedier Side of Antioch”, pp. 126-134, in: Isabella Sandwell & Janet Huskinson (ed.) Culture and Society in Later Roman Antioch. Oxford.
Christine Kondoleon. 2000. Antioch: The lost ancient city. Princeton, NJ.
Jean Lassus. 1972. Antioch-on-the-Orontes V. Les Portiques d’Antioche. Princeton, NJ.
Grégoire Poccardi. 1997. “L’île d’Antioche à la fin de l’antiquité: historie et problèmes de topographie urbaine”, pp. 155-172, in: Luke Levan (ed.) Recent Research in Late-Antique Urbanism. JRA Supplementary Series Vol. 42. Portsmouth, RI.

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