27 May 2010

The Glory Days of Antioch

Like the traveller on the famous Yakto mosaic (left; named after the place where the mosaic was found, once the sexiest suburb of ancient Antioch, at Daphne), I too am on my way to Antioch,* that fair crown of the East. This is the city that vied with Alexandria to be the most magnificent city of Empire after Rome itself:
If the gods ever really leave heaven and come to earth, I believe they must come together and hold their councils here, since they could not spend their time in a more beautiful place.
This large mosaic -- also known as the Megalopsychia Hunt mosaic (after the central figure of a woman personifying "Greatness of Soul") -- is surrounded by a border of images which forms something like a tourist's guide to Ancient Antioch. As one picture follows another, the viewer seems to be taking a stroll along the Orontes River, on the road through Daphne and roundabout Antioch. Our traveller on horse-back is about to reach the Island in the midst of the city (formed by the division of the river at this point) which housed the Imperial Palace and, in this period, the Golden Octagon church and will enter through a gate thought to represent the Porta Tauriana.

As Libanius, the eloquent orator of Antioch (314-ca. 394) -- and one of the last great pagan teachers in a world becoming increasingly Christian -- tells us
This palace occupies so much of the island that it constitutes a fourth part of the whole. It reaches to the middle of the island ... and extends to the outer branch of the river, so that where the wall has columns instead of battlements, there is a view worthy of the emperor, with the river flowing below and the suburbs feasting the eyes on all sides.
The Golden Octagon was begun in 325 AD (in the reign of Constantine I: 306-337AD) and dedicated on 6 January 341 AD, an event celebrated in the presence of his son, Constantius II. The building's life was short by the standards of Antioch. The Octagon collapsed in the earthquake of 29 May 526 AD, was rebuilt (while the rest of the Island was abandoned), and then toppled again in the earthquake of 588 AD and never rebuilt.

Are these some of the famous ruins that I'll be seeing in a just a few days?

Not a bit of it.

Nothing whatsoever remains of all these buildings in what was once a city known to all the world, and without a rival, so rich is it.... Our knowledge of the palace and the colonnaded streets on the island is based almost entirely on literary evidence (especially that of Libanius) -- only occasionally supplemented by reproductions of ancient Roman maps (left) or, as in our lucky case, by the Yakto mosaic picturing the sights on the way from Daphne to Antioch -- and possibly a snapshot of the Island's entrance as well.

But that doesn't mean that I can't see Antioch in its glory days!

Visualizing Antioch

Using computer graphics, Dr Kayhan Kaplan of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Mustafa Kemal University in Hatay (aka Antakya/Antioch), has just recreated the city as it might have looked in its glory days -- and I send my warmest thanks to the eagle-eyed blogger, Christopher Ecclestone, at Antiochepedia for this breaking news.

You can view the city from four different angles on Dr Kaplan's website, including close-ups of the Imperial Palace. Click right here to revel in this accomplishment: http://www.ancientantioch.com/index.html

Needless to say, archaeologists and historians are going to argue about his recreations for a good many years. In fact, Antiochepedia has already thrown down the gauntlet on nine points of topography (e.g., were the river branches narrower? should the island's southern tip be more pointed? that kind of stuff). For the rest of us, it is simply stunning and gives us a real "feel" of ancient Antioch.

I agree entirely with Antiochepedia: "In the good old days, Dr Kaplan might have been cheered along the Colonnaded Street for this job!"

Zenobia: the Megalopsychia (Greatness of Soul) of Syria

I, for one, will simply enjoy the trip to Antioch, contemplate its once-upon-a-time glory, and finally see the most famous Roman mosaics in the world. In Books II and III of the Chronicle of Zenobia, both Prince Odenathus and Queen Zenobia were in Antioch, living and ruling from the Island's Imperial Palace -- albeit at different times. It will be thrilling to compare my imagined landscape with the ups and downs of what is left on the ground. Some things -- like the mountains and the Syrian Gates -- don't change.

I'll be travelling for the next six weeks in eastern and south-eastern Turkey so blogging will be erratic (or non-existent). When I return from my Turkey Trip, I'll start to prepare those two books for publication.

I promise.

Update 6 June 2010 (posted from Van in eastern Turkey):

A timely conference on the topography of Antioch from its foundation by Séleucos I Nikator in 300 BCE through Roman and Byzantine times into the Middle Ages -- the Arab conquest and Crusader states -- right up to present times [my thanks to Research News in Late Antiquity for news of this event]:

Pour un "Lexicon Topographicum Antiochenum", Les sources écrites de l'histoire du paysage urbain d'Antioche sur l'Oronte, Université Paris-8 (Saint-Denis), 20-21 septembre 2010

A l'époque romaine, la ville demeura la capitale de la province de Syrie et la plus importante des cités du Levant. A la fin du IIIe et dans le courant du IVe siècle, elle fut à plusieurs reprises résidence impériale. Même en l'absence de l'empereur, elle demeurait le siège du Comte d'Orient....

*In Roman times and olden days, Antioch was in Syria; since 1939 it is part of Turkey. Few traces of the Roman city are visible today aside from the massive fortification walls that snake up the mountains to the east of the modern city and several aqueducts. From Wikipedia: The majority of the Roman city lies buried beneath deep sediments from the Orontes River, or has been obscured by recent construction. In recent years, what remains of the Roman and late antique city have suffered severe damage as a result of construction related to the expansion of Antakya [the modern city built over the ruins]. In the 1960s, the last surviving Roman bridge was demolished to make way for a modern two-lane bridge. The northern edge of Antakya has been growing rapidly over recent years, and this construction has begun to expose large portions of the ancient city, which are frequently bulldozed and rarely protected by the local museum.


Upper left: Border of Yakto mosaic: from Antiochepedia, 20 March 2008

Lower left: Peutinger map, medieval copy of an ancient Roman map: from Livius.org


  1. Ah, sweet adventure. I wonder if the rapids depicted in front of the palace are still flowing with such force. O, for a kayak to shoot those turbulent waters. Good luck, intrepid traveller.

  2. Happy travels! "And can all thoughts, but of Orontes, quit." (-Sheffield) Unschooled in classicism, Orontes always reminds me of orante: ah the mistaken connections the non-classicist can make!
    I am writing because I do hope that more will be written on Zenobia's greatness of soul. True greatness, one imagines, is so much harder to come by when empress. Though her namesake and saint, if I understand, was also near to where you will be travelling.


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