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The Lost Ancient City

By Sara E. Wilson | HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

What city can we say is worthy to be compared with this? More fortunate than the oldest, it is superior to some in size, surpasses others in the nobility of its lineage, and others in its all-producing territory," Libanius wrote in the fourth century. The city beyond compare was Antioch.

The rhetorician conceded that Constantinople may have had finer walls, but Antioch was greater "in the abundance of its water and in the mildness of its winter, in the refinement of its inhabitants and in its pursuit of learning." It was better than Rome "because of that fairest thing, Hellenic education and literature."

Located in what is today southeastern Turkey, Antioch flourished from its founding in 300 b.c. until the sixth century a.d. Sitting as it did at the crossroads between Persia and the West, Antioch drew missionaries and merchants, saints and soldiers, actors and artisans. As Libanius wrote, if a man "sits in our marketplace, he will sample every city; there will be so many people from each place with whom he can talk."

The city's vitality unfolds in a new exhibition scheduled to open at the Worcester Art Museum in October. "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City" will travel to Cleveland and Baltimore in 2001. The exhibition highlights the Antiochene passion for spectacle in theaters, games, and festivals; the beauty of homes in the well-to-do city; and its role in the growth and melding together of diverse religions. It gathers objects that have not been together since their excavation more than sixty years ago.

"I proposed an exhibit to tell the story of a wonderful city that was really unknown," says Christine Kondoleon, Worcester's curator of Greek and Roman art. "It was kind of a rescue operation."

Antioch was founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great's generals. "Alexander the Great made no provisions for his succession," says Rice University historian Michael Maas, a contributor to the exhibition catalog. "After his death, his generals began to compete for the empire. After long and bloody civil wars, Seleucus founded what became the Seleucid Empire and made Antioch his capital."

Seleucus had chosen the location carefully, keeping in mind climate, water supply, and security. He built a port city, called Seleucia Pieria, where the Orontes River meets the Mediterranean and located Antioch about ten miles up the river. Halfway between the port and Antioch, he built the resort town of Daphne. Its natural springs and gorgeous vistas made it a favorite retreat for the wealthy of Antioch.

Describing Daphne, Libanius wrote, "If the gods ever really leave heaven and come to earth, I believe that they must come together and hold their councils here, since they could not spend their time in a fairer place."

Antioch reflected the Hellenistic culture of its Graeco-Macedonian founder. "Cities were the emblem of civilization in the Hellenistic world. Cities were places where Greek culture could express itself. They were centers of art, literature, drama -- all were acted out on an urban stage," says Maas.

"But cities had an economic and political function as well. They governed the areas surrounding them, exploiting the local territories for their economic benefit."

Antioch's wide streets accommodated caravans carrying goods from the East. There were theaters, temples, and a library, and public squares adorned with statues of heroes and deities that provided meeting spaces for the city's inhabitants, who spent much of their time outdoors.

When the Romans defeated the weakened Seleucids in 64 b.c., they annexed Antioch and made it the capital of the province of Syria. While it behooved those who wished to gain positions of power in the Roman administration to learn Latin, Greek remained the primary language of the city.

Hellenistic culture remained intact; the Romans just added to the city's beauty and comfort, lining the main street with colonnades, building temples to Roman gods, paving the gravel roads, and constructing aqueducts. Later, as the Roman Empire became a Christian one, several magnificent churches were built.

At the time of the Roman takeover, Antioch was polytheist, but had a large Jewish sector that had been established at the time of the city's settlement.

Antioch also became an important center for the early Christians. There the Gospel of Matthew was written, and there Peter and Paul converted gentiles. It was in Antioch that followers of Christ were first called "Christians."

So, why did the city attract Christian proselytizers? "Antioch was a big, cosmopolitan city. It was big, grand, wealthy, very sophisticated, a major trade link. It would be like San Francisco or Chicago in the U.S. today," says Susan Harvey, a professor of religion at Brown University and a contributing author to the exhibition's catalog.

"It had a very diverse population because of the traders who came from everywhere. It was well positioned in terms of travel routes. So, it is a good place to work from and in because you connect with so many groups," she adds.

A series of calamities in the sixth century--a great fire, earthquakes, a Persian invasion, and plague--greatly diminished the city. Roman rule continued until 636 when the city was taken by Muslim armies who conquered, in the name of the new religion, much of what is today the Middle East and northern Africa.

The city subsequently was held by Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mamluks, and Ottoman Turks. After World War I, Syria controlled Antioch under French mandate. The city spent 1938 as the capital of the independent province of Hatay, and in 1939, Antioch, or Antakya, became incorporated into Turkey.

Antioch's early glories had remained hidden under meters of silt from the Orontes River until 1932 when archaeologists sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Louvre, and Princeton University began excavating with the permission of Syria's director of antiquities.

"Antioch was a likely choice for an expedition because it was a major city in the ancient world, but up until the 1930s it had never been the subject of an archaeological dig," says John Dobbins, a professor of classical art and archaeology at the University of Virginia. "We knew a lot about it from literary sources, but because there had never been a dig, we had a city that flourished for nearly one thousand years about which we didn't know a lot of specifics."

The excavators hoped to unearth the famous colonnaded main boulevard and public buildings including the hippodrome, early Christian churches, and the palace that housed Roman emperors during their stays in the city, but most of the structures uncovered by the expedition were private dwellings. What they found were more than three hundred floor mosaics as well as statues, coins, jewelry, and metalwork. The mosaics depict animals, stories of the gods, and allusions to dramatic performances.

"The finding of so many spectacular mosaics remains one of the great glories of the excavation," Dobbins says. Two mosaics that will appear in the exhibition are The Drinking Contest of Dionysos and Herakles and one that shows a women's burial society. These groups were common; members met regularly to remember those who had died. Their gatherings included banquets, speeches, and poetry readings.

These mosaics, part of the permanent collection at Worcester, will be shown with other pieces from the excavation, many of which were dispersed from Antakya when the dig ended in 1939. Among the institutions contributing artifacts are the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the Louvre, all of which participated in the dig.

The objects will be displayed in five different sections: "City and the People," "House," "Water," "Entertainment," and "Religion: Pagan, Jewish, Christian." A sixth section, "Craft, Excavation, and Conservation," will explain the methodology of the archaeological dig and conservation of its artifacts.

When describing Antioch, Kondoleon says that "the city was lost in terms of public knowledge about it. It was lost in the literature -- no one has really written much about it." In creating the exhibition, "I wanted to restore it to its original glory to the extent that we could."

About the Author

Sara E. Wilson is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.

Funding Information

Anitioch: The Lost Ancient City will be at the Worcester Art Museum from October 8 to February 4, 2001. It appears at the Cleveland Museum of Art from March 18 to June 3, 2001, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art from August 30 to December 30, 2001. NEH provided $240,805 to plan and produce the exhibition.