Friday, 30 July 2010

The visit of Jean de la Roque


After the conquest of Syria and Egypt by the Ottomans early in the sixteenth century the Pax Ottomania facilitated visits by Europeans. In 1629 a French priest named Philippe paid Antakya a visit. He was followed in 1667 by a certain von Troilo, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, and in 1688 came the French journalist and orientalist Jean de la Roque.

In his book Voyage de Syrie et du Mont-Liban (Amsterdam 1723) De la Roque gives a very thorough description of Antakya as he saw it towards the end of the seventeenth century.

His first impression was ‘as if the city was located in a big forest, or as if it was a forest in a city’. Within the walls there were “plane trees, poplars, elm trees,[1] sycamore trees & other big trees”.[2]

After this De la Roque mentions the names that were used on Antioch by ancient writes: The capital of the Orient, The capital of Syria, The Great, and also The Perle, The Eye or the Head of the Orient. But he adds: “This former grandeur only serves to astonish and sadden the curious traveller who is somehow conversant and able to compare ancient Antioch with the city that bears her name today.”[3]

De la Roque goes on to describe the walls (“ten thousand paces long”). Inside the walls “one hardly sees anything but ruins and desolation.” De la Roque then describes the citadel on top of Mount Cassius which he believed was the “Palace of Seleucus”. He also reports having seen a temple and columns with Corinthian capitals up there.

Interestingly De la Roque claims that the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Peter were still to be seen at his visit: “The Christians of Antioch still see with pain what is left of the famous basilica now collapsed that had been dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles by the Emperor Constantine and described so beautifully by Eusebius. It was in this house of worship it is believed that they found the tip of the spear that pierced the side of the Saviour.”[4] Close to this ruin De la Roque claims to have seen the ruins of the temple of Tyche (Fortune) that was later turned into a church for the martyr bishop Ignatius.[5] He does not metion the so-called Grotto of St. Peter.

De la Roque refers to an imperial edict issued about a hundred years before his arrival. According to this the government in Istanbul decreed that the citadel of Antakya should be repaired and that more houses were built in the city. “This would attract more inhabitants, Turks, Greeks, Armenians & Jews without whom this city today would have been nothing but a waste.”[6]

After the year 1306 the governor of Damascus under the Mamluk dynasty let about 300 Turcoman families settle along the Mediterranean coast between Beirut and Antakya. so from the start of the fourteenth century the population of Antakya had to a very large extent been consisting of Turcoman tribesmen with their herds and flocks.

If the claim of De la Roque is correct the homogeneity of the city had already started to change before his arrival as the forefathers of the present Jewish and Christian population of Antakya had settled there. A census taken 22 years after the visit of De la Roque counted a male population of 3.493 with 1.161 tradesmen.[7] The majority of these tradesmen no doubt were to be found among the newcomers.

[1] The French word is lotus

[2] Unfortunately one has to admit that this is not what Antakya looks like today.

[3] De la Roque, p. 201

[4] ibid. p. 203

[5] ibid. p. 204

[6] ibid, p. 205