Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Blue and the Green today


I do not know what happened from the time Roman horse racing went out of fashion until football was invented. The modern racing track at least is a very pale counterpart of its old predecessor. And so are its regular customers. In Byzantine times they were a wild bunch, but some of the modern Turkish hooligans do their best to imitate them.

In Antakya the partisans of the football teams Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe are well represented. In a small village outside Antakya we have even seen the big banner of Trabzon Spor (a football team from the black sea coast) hanging from one of the houses. But the modern Antiochian partisans are a lot more moderate than those of old.

Not so in Istanbul. There they do their best to imitate the supporters of the Blue team and the Green of old Byzantium. A friend of mine was nearly stabbed because he wore a scarf of wrong colours. One of the favoured weapons of the hooligans is the “döner bıçağı”, the shawarma knife, as big as a sword.

Another friend of mine, the Danish football-player Jess Høgh who used to play for Fenerbahçe, once told me that a small handful of Trabzon Spor supporters committed suicide because their team lost to his team. The Fenerbahçe team had to be escorted to the Trabzon Airport by the military.

Once there was a match between a Turkish club and a team from England. The riots in the streets were formidable. One of the hooligans was arrested and taken to court. The press and representatives of the consulate were there. He naturally denied everything, but was found guilty as one of the local newspapers had his lifelike picture on the front page showing him threatening a policeman. He was sentenced, but blamed it all on the interpreter.

In Antakya however football hooliganism is a laid-back affair.

Fortunately so!

Friday, 25 June 2010

The hippodrome

Those who have seen the movie Ben Hur may be able to understand that horse racing in the Roman Empire was a dangerous sport. Many though do not know that the hippodrome where Charlton Heston showed his talents for violent chariot driving was supposed to be the hippodrome of Antioch.

The race course was located on a big island in the river Orontes close to where the palace was built later on. Today there is no island anymore, but the ruins of the hippodrome are still to be seen in the area called Küçükdalyan north of the municipality building at a street (or road) called Cumhuriyet Mahallesi Yolu. This hippodrome was one of the largest in the Roman Empire so it is no wonder that it was remembered by the writer of Ben Hur.

It seems that certain sports attract hooligans. This also applied to horse racing in Roman and Byzantine times. In Constantinople and Antioch the spectators either supported the Blue team or the Green according to the colours they wore. It was not unlike the hooligans who support the football teams Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe in modern Istanbul – and their behaviour was not very different either. Back then the colours also spelled political stands as the Blue team was mostly supported by the Greek or conservative element and the Green team by the local Arameans. Later it got a religious flavour as the Orthodox and the Jews started to support the Blue team and the Monophysists the Green. But this is another story.

Upheavals and riots often started at the hippodrome and spread to the rest of Antioch where the frenzy of the rabid hooligans had a contagious effect on the rest of the Antiochians with murder, rape and arson as a result. No wonder that people in power wanted to control what happened at the race course. And when this at times turned out to be impossible, they simply closed the games down.

Ruins of the hippodrome in Antioch


Thursday, 17 June 2010


More that fifteen hundred years before F. A. Neale wrote his book about Antioch Libanius was born into one of the wealthy families of the city. He was a pagan and when he grew up he became a teacher of rhetoric. Some of his students became even more famous than their teacher. One of them was the preacher John Chrysostom.

In his Oration XI Libanius gives a speech in praise of his hometown. This is how he described nature around Antioch:

This, now, I can say concerning my native city, that it is the fairest adornment of the land that is fairest under heaven. ...

With us, however, all things vie with one another, the land, the streams, the temperate blending of the climate. As for the land, it is level like the sea, deep and rich and soft, yielding easily to the plough, wonderfully surpassing the expectations of its farmers, at once good for sowing and good for growing, and splendidly suited to both kinds of crops, providing tall trees in all their beauty and sheaves of grain taller than trees are in other lands, and crops in abundance, with more than an abundance of beauty. ...

The rivers which run through the country, who could number them, some large, some small, some flourishing at seasons, others created by the winter, all equally useful, some flowing from the mountains, some raising in the plains, some flowing one into another, others into the lake and others still journeying to the sea? ...

And while winter provides rain to satiety for the earth, taking away the cold, the heat makes the wheat spring up and fosters it with summer breezes which save both our bodies and crops from damage from burning heat. Thus for us alone is it possible to enjoy whichever of the seasons is present and to receive the coming one with pleasure, since in all of them there is a certain temperateness and gracefulness. ...

(Translation by Glanville Downey)
A lot of things have changed in Antioch since Libanius wrote his oration. Modern Antakya cannot measure up it its own past. Most of the old and beautiful houses are neglected and left to decay while new and ugly concrete buildings are erected. And nature that Libanius praised so highly is all too often littered with garbage and empty plastic bags.

But if you look behind it, the beauty is still there.

Monday, 14 June 2010




Antioch is not situated in a desert. It never was. In fact, during the winter a lot of rain falls in this area. And the rain does not come down in buckets, it comes in bathtubs. On the slopes of Mount Silpius over our heads waterfalls appear and some streets downtown are flooded. In good old days the torrent of Parmenius overflowed the centre of the city just beside the river-bed. Attempts were made to dam up the Donkey-Drowner, as Parmenius was called, but first with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian something effective was done about the nuisance. He built a big wall between Mount Staurin and Mount Cassius (Orocassias) to arrest the unruly river when it lost its temper. The ruins of the Iron Gate are still to be seen. (Procopius: Buildings – Book 2, Chapter 10:15, 16)

In summertime however the weather is dry. A couple of thousand years ago the Roman emperors saw to it that water was brought to Antioch by means of aqueducts. One of them was built by Julius Caesar, others by Trajan and Hadrian. Most of these aqueducts have disappeared, but a section of one of them is located in the village of Döver on the mountainside beyond the waterfall of Harbiye (in Arabic called Beit ul-Mai – the Water-House). Halfway between Harbiye and Antakya is another aqueduct called Kantra and inside Antakya over the street where the torrent of Phyrminus used to run stands a monumental ruin called Memekli Köprü.

Today Antakya is smaller than it was fifteen hundred years ago. Floods still occur. Sometimes people drown. Antakya naturally has a water supply, but it is not stable. Therefore nearly all buildings have a water tank on the roof and a hydrophore in the basement. If not, you risk leaving the taps open when you go out and the seeing your flat flooded when you return.

For some reason there is always water in the pipes under the streets – if the water gushing forth to the surface is not spring water from some unknown source.

Memekli Köprü

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Storytelling in Antioch

In his book Evenings in Antioch Neale relates how people in in Antakya 150 years ago used to come together in the evenings amusing themselves with songs and stories.

Things have changed. Now we have the television with its abundance of Turkish series. They are mostly extremely predictable and boresome, but they are popular with our Arabic neighbours.

Recently we experienced what good old days may have been like. We had a visit of Mithat Bey and his wife and during the visit Mithat Bey wanted to make a point. So he told us a story:

Prophet Moses - may the peace of God be upon him - once made a poor man rich. But as people came by they wanted to have a share of his fortune. As a result his riches soon started to evaporate. Finally they told him to go off to get them some food. So he did, but poisoned their shares. When he came back with the food they killed him first and ate the food afterwards. And so they all died.

A long and interesting story indeed and Mithat Bey assured us that it was not just a story. It really happened!

In some aspects Antioch has not changed.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

F. A. Neale on Antakya

About one and a half century ago the Englisman F. A. Neale stayed in Antakya for a period of time. This was what he wrote in his book Evenings at Antioch:

Antioch – The Queen of the East

Thoughts from modern Antakya

Nineteen hundred years ago Antakya in Turkey was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire only surpassed by Rome in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt. Antioch, as it was called, had fora, it had impressive public buildings and temples and it had at least one hippodrome (depicted in the movie Ben Hur) and many public baths. Aqueducts supplied the city with water from the mountains around Daphne (now Harbiye) down south and on a big island in the middle of the river Orontes a palace was built for the Roman Emperor when he was visiting the city.

Nearly all of this has gone, destroyed by wars, fires, earthquakes, floods and general neglect. Modern Antakya has about 200.000 thousand inhabitants. There is a new city on the north-western side of the Orontes. On the eastern side in the old town the beautiful old buildings are left to decay. The street that used to be called the Colonnaded Street is still there. Two thousand years ago it was 27 metres wide with colonnades and shops on each side. Now it is about nine metres wide.

Antioch has also left an impression on peoples on peoples mind for other reasons. Two thousand years ago it was one of the important cities of the first Christians and later the theology of the so-called School of Antioch became famous. There are still Christians in Antioch living at peace with their Muslim and Jewish neighbours. Antakya is a model for the rest of the world of how people of various denominations can live together without strife. You have Sunni Muslims, Alewites, Baha’is, Catholics, Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Gregorian Armenians, Protestants, Jews and several other denominations. Still religious intolerance is seldom heard of.

Antakya has different sorts of problems, but it is still a place worth visiting and an interesting place to stay.