Saturday, 4 December 2010

The buffoons of Antioch

The French philosopher Ernest Renan (d. 1892) has described the ancient Antiochenes the following way:

"Besides the Greek population, indeed, which was nowhere in the East (with the exception of Alexandria) so numerous as here, Antioch numbered among its population a considerable number of native Syrians, speaking Syriac. These natives composed a low class, inhabiting the suburbs of the great city and the populous villages which formed a vast suburb all around it— Charandama, Ghisira, Gandigura, and Apate (chiefly Syriac names). Marriages between the Syrians and the Greeks were common. Seleucus having formerly made naturalization a legal obligation binding on every stranger establishing himself in the city, Antioch, at the end of three centuries and a half of its existence, became one of the places in the world where race was most intermingled with race. The degradation of the people was terrible. … It was an inconceivable medley of merry-andrews, quacks, buffons, magicians, miracle-mongers, sorcerers, priests, impostors; a city of races, games, dances processions, fêtes, debauches, of unbridled luxury, of all the follies of the East, of the most unhealthy superstitions, and of the fanaticism of the orgy.” (Ernest Renan, The Apostles, (New York 1867), 198 199.)

People in modern Antakya are not like the old Antiochenes, but there are certain similarities.

"Unhealthy superstition" can be found, and so can 'merry-andrews, quacks and buffoons.'

A couple of days ago we were sitting in the workshop of one of our friends. The place has the size of a big dining table. He was busy behind his workbench and his assistant, who was sitting there as well, was doing nothing. Our friend is originally an Orthodox, but he is also involved with the Catholic Church. His assistant is a Protestant whose discourse has been indirectly influenced by people in the Bible Belt.

While we were sitting there a man rushed in with a deranged expression in his eyes and a gun in his hand yelling and screaming: "I'll kill you, I'll kill you." He was mainly pointing his gun at the Protestant, but in between - so as to make a point - he was aiming at the rest of us as well. We are not young and we have met crazy people before, so we relaxed and pretended that everything was normal.

This evidently made him feel that we did not take him seriously enough. Consequently he produced a bullet from somewhere, loaded the gun and repeated the séance. Suddenly he rushed out of the room just to return brandishing his pistol while pouring out torrents of threats. But when he saw that we were unimpressed, he put the gun on the workbench and said: "All stand! We are going to pray."

The two of us and our friend did not move. The Protestant rose. We did not find out whether he rose because he was under the influence of the show with firearms he had just witnessed or it was due to his peculiar type of religiosity. But he rose while we and our friend kept sitting.

This annoyed the perpetrator and he started to insist although he did not resort to armed persuasion. Finally he gave up. Instead he started his prayer while he and the Protestant were standing with their hands opened heavenward.

Until this point the two of us had no idea about the religious persuasion of our new acquaintance. It turned out that he belonged to the Orthodox faith. First he was rattling off a prayer in Turkish, next in Arabic all the time making the sign of the cross the Orthodox way.

After having shot his bolt - if this expression is admissible in this context - he sat down taking the place of the Protestant who kept standing as there was nowhere else to sit. Subsequently we had a fairly civilised conversation. All the rest was supposed to be a joke - perhaps apart from the prayer.

In the Western World opinionated Europeans and Americans believe that when someone from the Middle East behaves irrationally he has to be a Muslim. Our experience proves this assumption wrong.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Aleppo and Damascus seen from Antakya

In good old days Antioch was the capital of the Roman province called Syria. This meant that she was more important than both Damascus and Aleppo. But with the conquest of Syria in the seventh century things started to change. Aleppo became an independent emirate and Damascus became the capital of the Umayyad Empire. The Umayyad rule eventually fell to the Abbasids in Baghdad, but Damascus continued to be more important than Antioch – or Antakya as it was now called.

Antakya has regained some of its importance under the Turkish Republic, but a visit to the three cities clearly shows the visitor that Antakya is far behind her two sisters. Antakya is a small town of 200.000 souls while both Aleppo and Damascus are metropolises with millions of inhabitants.

It is easy for people of Antakya to visit Syria. They do not even need a visa to cross over into Syria. But if you are not a Turk or an Arab things are more complicated. The Turkish side is easy, but at the Syrian side the undaunted traveller is met with a curious combination of Ottoman bureaucracy and French legalism of the former century. Forms have to be filled and stamped and all details about the traveller are registered on old computers by policemen holding the passport of the guest in his one hand while pecking the keyboard with one single finger of his other hand. You feel lucky when you manage to get through.

Syria has also introduced another oddity: You have to pay to get out of the country. You have already paid for your visa, but when you leave the country you have to pay something like 10-15 dollars to get safely back to Turkey. It is fine to go by bus when going to Syria, but on the way back buses may stay for hours in customs while private cars and taxis get through easily. And taxis from (and to) Aleppo are cheap. You pay about ten dollars per person for one way.

Aleppo and Damascus have many things in common with Antakya. Architecture of the old Syrian houses are similar although these houses in Aleppo and Damascus are bigger and more well-preserved that those of Antakya. It even applies to the simple unpretentious houses in the old part of town. In Damascus the inhabitants of the old quarters see to it that their houses do not fall apart. In Antakya the owners simply leave the house and let it fall into disrepair, perhaps hoping that it will topple over so that a concrete monstrosity can be built instead.

As also seen in Antakya some of the old buildings are used as restaurants. They are built in several storeys with a big yard in the middle. The restaurants usual have a removable “roof” of plastic or canvas over the courtyard so that guests are not harassed by dew or rain.

The religious tolerance so peculiar to Antakya is also seen in Aleppo and Damascus. In Damascus there are many Christians. You see churches and hear church bells blending with the Muslim call to prayer. Aleppo has many Nusayri Alewites, Armenian Christians, Catholics and members of the Orthodox and Syrian Churches together with the majority of Sunni Muslims. You see women completely covered in black and women in clothes so tight that you believe that it is sprayed on. Although the Muslims are in majority no attempt is made to change the dress code of others or to prevent the ringing of church bells. One may wonder where some countries in Western and Eastern Europe have dug up their bigotry.

In Aleppo the old Hotel Baron still exists. It has had so famous guests as Lawrence of Arabia, Agatha Christie (she wrote The Murder on the Orient Express there), Gertrude Bell and even the “father” of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And by the way, King Faisal declared the independence of Syria from one of the balconies – presumably the one from where some of the guests were shooting ducks at another occasion. At that time the hotel was outside the city. This has changed. The noise of traffic is as unbearable as it is in all other big cities of the Middle East.

Besides the two Syrian mega-cities Antakya in Turkey is a very small place – less interesting, but a lot more relaxing to live in.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


People in Antioch loved entertainment. The preacher John Chrysostom found it a little too much. In Homily III he said: "The day before yesterday we set on foot our sermon concerning the Devil, out of our love for you. But others, the day before yesterday while these matters were being set on foot here, took their places in the theatre, and were looking on at the Devil’s show. They were taking part in lascivious songs; ye were having a share in spiritual music. They were eating of the Devil’s garbage: ye were feeding on spiritual unguents." (1)

But the Antiochenes' love of music did not die with Chrysostom. When the Crusaders arrived they no doubt started to like the local rhythms and cadences when they got used to them. Some of the musicians they had had along and some of those who visited the Crusader Principality of Antioch together with "the Queen of the Troubadours" Catherina of Aquitaine could use the Eastern sound in their music. Much of French music of the thirteenth century has a Middle Eastern ring. It naturally has to be admitted that the Arabic influence from Spain was strong as well.

Music was also popular in Antakya when F. A. Neale stayed here for seven months in 1847. At that time it was a small Jewish band who was in charge of the entertainment.

They may have been appreciated by the locals, but so not much by the handful of Europeans who were living in Antakya at the time of Neale's stay. At that time an Italian priest and an Italian physician were living in Antakya. Neale relates: "The priest is a musician, and consequently detests Arabic songs, &c., and styles those present a set of 'brutti buffoni.' The doctor, on the other hand, was never guilty of whistling a single bar of any music correctly; and, being moreover a bit of a sycophant, he presents to be enchanted with what is going on, and actually has the audacity to try and beat time with his foot."(2)

Neale may not be completely fair in his assessment. It seems that he himself did not appreciate the efforts of the Jewish band. Arabic - and Turkish - music may be an annoying experience for those who do not try to understand what they hear. But if you give it a chance it is extremely fascinating.

Today there is no Jewish band, but the same sort of music is played at some of the restaurants in Antakya. The restaurant Mado besides the old parliament building has had a very good band playing classical Turkish fasıl music.(3)

In the restaurant Sveyka (from the Arabic : سويقة "small market", or a subsection of a market) on Kurtuluş Caddesi a handful of gypsy musicians are playing fasıl and Arabic popular music at certain evenings. You can make them play your favoured pieces by sticking money under the strings of the violin above the hand of the player. Their interpretation of fasıl and Türk Sanat Müziği is not marvellous, but their Arabic songs are well performed. Still it has to be admitted that it is difficult to live up to the performance of the late master of Türk Sanat Müziği Zeki Müren.

PS: I forgot to mention that the priest in Neale's story was killed a couple years later. Two workers from a local soap factory appeared at his home, slit his throat and put him on the altar of the chapel with a carpet or blanket over. The instigator was fined and sent to Iraq. The priest was buried on a plot of land in front of what is called the Grotto of St. Peter.

1. John Chrysostom, (NPNF1-09) St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statutes (URL: Author(s): Schaff, Philip (1819-1893), Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, p. 234.

2. Neal, F.A., Evenings at Antioch, London 1854, p. 31

3. A popular variation of Türk Sanat Müziği [Turkish Art Music] mostly played in Istanbul tavernas.

Monday, 18 October 2010


When you visit the Iron Gate you cannot help wondering why there is so much garbage collected on the upstream side of the wall.

One of the locals told us that some years ago the torrent Parmenius where the Iron Gate serves as a dam or barrage swept the contents of an upstream refuse dump along. You may well say that this refuse dumb settled down in front of the Iron Gate.

This explanation is quite acceptable, but one still wonders why nobody has taken the initiative to have all this junk removed. After all, the Iron Gate is one of the places foreign tourists may visit, and what they see will leave them with a strange impression of Antakya.

The attitude towards junk and garbage may be an old one. In Ottoman times the State was not regarded as a juristic person. Any place not owned by anybody was a potential waste dump. This is not how things are today, but people have had their eyes trained so that they do not see the rubbish around them.

The Iron Gate is not the only example. A few hundred metres south of the torrent Phyrminus (or Akakir) there is another gorge between two crags. When it is raining a torrent comes down through this gorge. An old bridge is connecting the two sides. (This bridge may have been on the road between Daphne and the St. George Gate.)  Also the site of this bridge is used as a garbage dump. Even tractors with trailers unload their junk their – as if historical places and garbage dumps were one and the same thing.

The problem may start in school. The teacher may be effective in teaching children to pass exams, but not to take care of nature or their historical inheritance. The two pictures below illustrate what a beautiful green area looks like after the visit of a group of boys fresh from school.

Click to enlarge


Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Iron Gate

It is said that the Iron Gate was built by Justinian, but he may just have improved it. It is situated at the gorge between Mount Cassius and Mount Staurin. Procopius, a Byzantine scholar from the sixth century, gives us the following description:

“It is proper to describe also what he did with the torrent which comes down from these mountains. Two precipitous mountains rise above the city, approaching each other quite closely. Of these they call the one Orocassias [Mount Cassius] and the other is called Staurin. Where they come to an end they are joined by a glen and ravine which lies between them, which produces a torrent, when it rains, called Onopnictes.[1] This, coming down from a height, swept over the circuit-wall and on occasion rose to a great volume, spreading into the streets of the city and doing ruinous damage to those who lived in that district. But even for this the Emperor Justinian found the remedy, in the following way: Before that part of the circuit-wall which happens to lie nearest to the ravine out of which the torrent was borne against the fortifications, he built an immense wall or dam, which reached roughly from the hollow bed of the ravine to each of the two mountains, so that the stream should no longer be able to sweep on when it was at full flood, but should collect for a considerable distance back and form a lake there. And by constructing sluice-gates in this wall he contrived that the torrent, flowing through these, should lose its force gradually, checked by this artificial barrier, and no longer violently assault the circuit-wall with its full stream, and so overflow it and damage the city, but should gently and evenly glide on in the manner I have described and, with this means of outflow, should proceed through the channel wherever the inhabitants of former times would have wished to conduct it if it had been so manageable.” [2]

The Iron Wall – or what is left of it – is still to be seen up behind Mount Staurin where the spurious Church of St. Peter is located. This grotto attracts a lot more attention that the real thing some hundred metres behind it. You hardly meet any tourist if you visit the Iron Gate.

Mankind is more interested in fakes than facts.

[1] “Donkey-Drowner”, the nickname of the torrent Parmenius. During the winter this torrent swelled as it came rushing down between the two mountains and swept away anything in front of it.

[2] Procopius, Buildings – Book 2, Ch. 10:15-18. Evidently there already was some device for that purpose at the place. But most of the masonry is from the time of Justinian. – Glanville Downey: A History of Antioch in Syria, Princeton 1961, p. 551

Monday, 30 August 2010


In his book Christian Antioch – A Study of Early Christian Thought in the East (Cambridge University Press 1982) D . S. Wallace-Hadrill explains how the Christians during the first couple of centuries after the death of the apostles of Christ came under the influence of pagan Greek philosophy.

Some of the Christians in the second century were philosophers before their conversion, others were people who followed the intellectual fashion of the day or apologists who believed they could convert the pagans by using their discourse.

Interestingly the approach of the Christian writers of Antioch was very pragmatic and objective. They interpreted the Bible according to the grammar of the text and what they knew about the historical background of the narrative. If one should pick a Greek philosopher whose method was closest to that of the Antiochenes, it would be Aristotle. But there was hardly any direct connection. The interest in the works of Aristotle in the Eastern Church started long time after Antioch lost its theological importance.

The philosophical discourse at that time was strongly influenced by the idealism of Plato. It was a sort of paradigm that made people accept unstated assertions without being aware it. As Wallace-Hadrill writes (page 97): “In the cultural millieu that was predominantly Platonist, a Christian could of course be open to Platonist influence without being aware of it, and it could find a place in his unexpressed assumptions.”

One may for example wonder how Christians – especially in Antioch – started to believe in the immortality of the human soul. In the Hebrew Bible, that was regarded as an authority by Antiochenes as the bishop Theophilus, the word נפשׁ (nefesh) translated psyche (ψυχη: soul) in Greek meant the material living person. This is also how the word is used in the New Testament (as in Pauls first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 where he contrasts the psychical with the spiritual using ‘psychical’ synonymous with ‘material’).

Wallace-Hadrill continues (pages 99 & 100): “The fragments that remain of the proceedings at the trial of of Paul of Samosata in 268 [in Antioch] are sufficient to show that the Antiochene judges maintained a generally Platonist view of the relation of soul to body. The ontological separation of soul and body is expressed in fragment 16, in which man is described as being composed of flesh and of ‘somebody’ within – the ‘interior man’ of fragment 30. The soul-complex is the real person in a fleshly covering.”

This totally Platonist understanding of the nature of man would have surprised both the writers of the Old Testament and the Christians of the first century. But it illustrates how easily we are influenced by the ideological air we breathe.

Today the ideological paradigm of the Western World is not Platonism but rather humanism and individualism. And often people who call themselves Christians advance humanistic ideas honestly believing that they represent New Testament teachings.

Here in Antakya the same thing is observed among modern people calling themselves Muslims. They try to explain, justify and even rationalise their beliefs by means of western philosophy and science.

The important thing is that your ideas are in fashion

Sunday, 22 August 2010


As mentioned in the blog of my friend Christopher Ecclestone entitled The Dig at the Daphne Bridge (May 22, 2010) the old Daphne Bridge over the torrent Phyrminus in Antakya has been unearthed in connection with canalisation repair. At that site last night I had an interesting experience that reveals how the human mind works.

We were on our way home after an Arabic coffee (served in Turkish tea glasses and called suvari) at the nearly historical coffee house Affân. When we passed the place of the old bridge one of our friends asked me: “They say that this is a tunnel used by smugglers that takes you to the other side of the Syrian border. Is that true?“

It should be mentioned that the distance to the Syrian border is about 50 kilometres. There are mountains part of the way. Those who within the last couple of months invented the myth of a smuggler tunnel never bothered to explain to themselves how it would be possible secretly to make a tunnel all the way to Syria when the government spends millions of lira to have a tunnel made through 5 kilometres of mountain other places in this country.

This brings us to how our mind works. When we know everything about a matter we are able to draw conclusions about singular aspects of this matter with the same certainty as you have about the whole. Example: 1. All humans are mortal. 2. The president is a human. > The president is mortal. This is called deductive reasoning.

Most often we do not know all the details about a certain question, but we know sufficient to have an opinion. 1. Some banks do crack. 2. This bank has never had any financial problem and as far as I can tell it is economically sound. > It is unlikely to crack. I can safely deposit my money there. This is called inductive reasoning. As we are not omniscient this is the reasoning we base most of our informed decisions on. It is also our basis for scientific theories and for religious faith - if we happen to base our faith on reason at all.

The third “discipline” is abductive reasoning* described by the logician Charles Sander Pierce as guessing. You could call it jumping to conclusions. In your daily life you are suddenly faced with something new and surprising, something for which you have no rational explanation. You do not have any premises to base your deduction or induction on. So you simply try to find an explanation on the basis of what the new experience looks like in comparison with what you have seen or heard before.

When you take a look at the old bridge across the Phyrminus as shown on the picture in the blog cited above it looks like the entrance to a tunnel because you do not see the other side of the bridge. In fact, had it been a tunnel its direction would lead you away from Syria, but the myth-makers did not think of that. On the other hand: Who are using tunnels? Smugglers are. Where do smugglers from this neighbourhood go? They go to Syria. So this must be a smuggler tunnel to Syria although it is leading you in the wrong direction.

We are such stuff as myths are made of.


* Abduction

allows inferring a as an explanation of b. Because of this, abduction allows the precondition a to be inferred from the consequence b. Deduction and abduction thus differ in the direction in which a rule like "a entails b" is used for inference. As such abduction is formally equivalent to the logical fallacy affirming the consequent or Post hoc ergo propter hoc, because there are multiple possible explanations for b. For example, after glancing up and seeing the eight ball moving towards us we may abduce that it was struck by the cue ball. The cue ball's strike would account for the eight ball's movement. It serves as a theory that explains our observation. There are in fact infinitely many possible explanations for the eight ball's movement, and so our abduction does not leave us certain that the cue ball did in fact strike the eight ball, but our abduction is still useful and can serve to orient us in our surroundings. This process of abduction is an instance of the scientific method. There are infinite possible explanations for any of the physical processes we observe, but we are inclined to abduce a single explanation (or a few explanations) for them in the hopes that we can better orient ourselves in our surroundings. (

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Two thousand years ago it was claimed that the attitude of the Antiochians was rather laid back. I do not know if this is still the case, but certain aspect of daily life seem to indicate that this still applies.

Four weeks ago an excavator showed up in the street where we are staying and transformed ninety percent of the street into a field. I have visited several villages in the neighbourhood of Antakya, but never seen streets like that. The closest was the main street in Samandağı two years ago. It was like driving through a street in a town in central Africa. But our street is worse.

When I am saying that our street is like an open field I am not exaggerating, in fact, it is worse. The street is a steep hill and the “field” is filled with pebble and cobble so when you go downhill you are in constant danger of sliding and falling backwards hammering you neck into one of the bigger stones in the middle of the road.

After a weeks time the lower part of the street for some reason became filled with water. Now you had to wade through mud to get to the main street.

Up in the middle of the street a manhole cover to the sewerage had been removed. The hole left open was big enough for a small child to disappear into it. As this section of the street was without streetlight at night a motor cyclist could easily break his neck if his bike fell into the hole.

After a couple of weeks the excavator reappeared and dug a narrow ditch for electric cables up through the street. The dirt from the ditch was left in the middle of the street. Now the street was not like a field anymore. It was like climbing a mountainside when you wanted to go home. No cars could get up the street. When you had to receive parcels or packets people from the forwarding company had to carry them on their back up the mountainside.

Naturally the excavator filled up the manhole to the sewer system with dirt, so now the droppings from scores of toilets are running down the street.

They say that we are staying in the wealthy part of town. So I guess we are lucky.

Sunday, 8 August 2010



We are told that the inhabitants of Antioch used to be a irresponsible lot. They loved entertainment and did not take rules and standards too seriously. This resulted in a superficial tolerance between the various groups and denominations of the city. Whenever other issues such as economy, politics or even the teams on the race ground got involved, the shallow tolerance towards those different from your own group was easily replaced by violence.

People of modern Antakya are generally speaking as tolerant as those who were living here a couple of thousand years ago. And fortunately we do not have the riots that haunted the city in Byzantine times. People here are mostly easygoing and tolerant. The tendency of sudden outbursts of violence however can still be seen – but for other reasons than those of old.

Yesterday we met a young, pretty girl of nineteen yeas old. Across her forehead she had a big wound stitched together with eight stitches. When we asked her what had happened she told us that she had been battered by her big brother. He had wanted her sunglasses and she would not give them to him. The result was anger and violence so serious that had the assault happened in another city or country the doctor who dressed the wound would have notified the police immediately.

One may wonder what the psychological mechanisms behind this aggressive behaviour may be. There are several explanations. One of them is a belief, also shared by many individuals outside Antakya, that problems can be solved by violence. An observer from another culture may find it strange that anybody can have this approach, especially in a country still suffering under blood feuds. Violence breeds hate and hate breeds violence. Violence does not create respect, but disgust and the perpetrator appears pathetic.

Another phenomenon that should not be overlooked is the way many locals spoil their sons. It may be a hangover from times when the society here believed in feudalistic virtues: It was a shame society, not a guilt society. What mattered was not what you did, but your ability to defend you “honour”. The ideal was the “macho”, the male chauvinist.

When people in the West speak of male domination and the suppression of women in the Middle East they usually focus their indignation on the father, the head of the family. They forget that it is mostly not the father who raises his sons. He is at work during the day (here in Antakya he may even be working in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States only showing up once a year), and if he does not go to the coffeehouse in the evening or is out eating with his friends, he at least does not spend his evening on teaching ethics to his children. This is the mother’s job.

And the mother very often spoils her sons. This gives way to a mother fixation that is nearly unknown in the West. Sometimes she even gives her son the idea that he is Mister Marvellous, and at any rate better, handsomer and more intelligent than his sisters. Unfortunately they sometimes believe in this hoax as well. And when they don’t, he tries to defend his “honour” by resorting to violence.

If you want to find a culprit, look for his mother.


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


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The School of Antioch

From very early times there had been a difference of approach between the theologians of Alexandria in Egypt and that of those in Antioch. From the beginning Alexandria had represented a mixture of Egyptian and Hellenistic thinking. Allegoric interpretation of religious writings was popular. Thus the Jewish philosophers as Philo of Alexandria (d. A.D. 50) applied allegoric interpretations on the Hebrew Bible. On this background the theologians Clement (d. c. 215) and Origen who were living at the end of the second century and in the beginning of the third explained the Bible allegorically as had already been done on Homer’s poems by Greek philosophers. This does not mean that Origen denied that there was history behind the Biblical text. But this was not important to him – especially where he could not harmonise the text with what he felt was difficult to explain historically.[1]

In 232 Origen had to leave Alexandria and he settled in Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern Kayseri in Turkey) where he continued his exegetic theology along his Alexandrian line. His ideas about Jesus are said to have influenced Lucian of Antioch and the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea.

Also the idea called Monophysitism, the teaching that Christ has only one nature in which the human aspect has been absorbed by the divine, was a result of the Alexandrian way of thinking. It has been said that this theology virtually negated the humanity of Christ. The Egyptian mythology with Pharaoh as a divine being, the materialisation of the god Horus, may have had some influence on this claim.

The School of Antioch had a different approach. Here theology was based on grammatical and historical interpretation of the Biblical text. It was admitted that certain parts of the Bible should not be understood literal; still the exegesis should be dependent on the historical background of the text. Some of these theologians had knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek and were able to understand the history behind the Greek terms used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in the New Testament as well. One might say that their approach was rational and scholarly.

Historically the School of Antioch had three phases:

  • The early period starting about 270 with Lucian of Antioch.[2]
  • The middle period from about 350 to 433 with Antiochian theologians as Diodore of Tarsus (d. c. 390), Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. c. 428) and John Chrysostom.
  • The late period after 433.

The characteristics of the School of Antioch were as follows:

The approach to exegesis as applied by the theologians of Antioch was strictly historical. Allegory was only used occasionally and it was held that the biblical text was written in a way that was understood by people with a certain historical background. The events described in the text were real events. One might say that this way of interpretation was close to that of the Jews.[3]

Although not interpreted allegorically some of these events were taken to be types of later events in the Christian era. When the Bible for instance describes the sacrifices under the Mosaic Law these really took place, but were prophetic types pointing ahead to the sacrifice of Christ.

This attitude also influenced the way these theologians dealt with the text itself. They saw no problem in adding words to the biblical text they were editing if these words made it easier for the reader to understand what he read. They found the message important, not the wording.

The theologians of Antioch distinguished between the divine and the human aspects of Jesus. It was close to Arianism that claimed that Jesus on earth was a man. It was held by some that the divine Logos did not really become man but took up residence in the man Jesus. This may give some the idea that there were two Sons, but this difficulty was overcome by explaining that there was one Christ with two prosopa. The Greek word prosopon is mostly used for “face”, but it also has the meaning of “appearance” and “mask” as those used in the ancient Greek theatre.[4] The Antiochian theologians used the word not in its usual sense, but as the way in which something or somebody appears.

In Alexandria however the same word was used for “person”, but when the theologians in Antioch said that Christ had two prosopa that were united they did not mean to say that he was a combination of two persons but of two ways of manifestation. After the unification of the two prosopa, the human and the divine, the unison became one prosopon of its own.

Among some of the theologians of Antioch there was a strong aversion against the term Theotokos (God-bearer or Mother of God), a newly introduced title of the Virgin Mary. Mary was seen as the mother of Jesus while the divine prosopon was eternal and could not be born. Still the child Mary gave birth to was regarded as having been united with God. Thus Antioch clearly distinguished between two natures of Christ.


[1] D.S. Wallace-Hadrill: Christian Antioch - A study of early Christian thought in the East, Cambridge University Press 1982, pp.27, 28

[2] Daniel Andersen in his Patrologisk Kompendium prefers the year A.D. 312:

[3] Wallace-Hadrill, pp. 30, 31

[4] Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, Oxford University Press 2002, p. 280


Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Antakya seen from the top of Mount Silpius

While the summer months in Antakya are rather dry the winter can be very wet indeed. At times you have thunderstorms lasting more than 24 hours rolling back and forth between the Amanus mountains to the west and Mount Silpius to the east. And the water comes down not in buckets but in bathtubs. It has cataclysmic proportions and the river Orontes overflows and takes along what it can find.

Yesterday one of the locals told me that in Arabic they call Antioch “Antakya ash-shakkhâkha” or Pissing Antakya, because of the rain.

When the Crusaders arrived at the walls of Antioch in 1097 they were so unlucky as to start the siege of the city shortly before the rainy season began. For four or five months they sat in the mud outside the city under the torrential cloudbursts.

In old days when the city centre was close to the present Grotto of St. Peter Antioch was often flooded by rain water coming down with the torrent Parmenius. This stream used to be called ονοπνικτες [Onopnictes], the Donkey-Drowner. Today it has been tamed by a canal in concrete.

But attempts to subdue the Donkey-Drowner are not new. Fifteen hundred years ago the Byzantine Emperor built a dam up between the two mountains of Staurin and Silpius so as to control the outflow during rainstorms. It is called the Iron Gate.


Parmenius today

Monday, 12 July 2010

Simeon Stylites the Older

In the fourth century monasticism was gaining popularity in Antioch. But it did not stay with that. Many started to find more austere ways to express their religiosity.[1] In Antioch most of this sort of people took shelter in some cave on the slopes of mount Silpius or elsewhere and spent their time contemplating their salvation. But in the beginning of the fifth century a new fashion was introduced.

A young man called Simeon (ca. 390 – 459) decided that he would spend his life on the top of a pillar believing that this would bring him closer to God. We are told that he at first had followed the habits of other anchorites, but as he was disturbed in his contemplations by many visitors he took refuge on the top of a pillar in the mountainous region between Antioch and Aleppo.

His first pillar was not very tall but as time went by the pillars grew taller and taller and Simeon’s fame grew accordingly. Visitors could still consult him by means of a ladder. So now he had visitors from everywhere and his influence on politics and decision-making in Antioch grew as well. We are told that he was able to influence politics there and even the Byzantine Emperor took him rather seriously.

But perhaps the fashion of sitting on a pillar was older than Simeon and not invented by him. A book called De Dea Syria (The Syrian Goddess) that has been ascribed to the pagan philosopher Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – c. 180) describes a practice in a pagan temple in Hierapolis (Manbij in North Syria), not far from where Simeon climbed his pillar. This temple had been dedicated to the Mother Goddess and was a centre of sex rites.

According to Lucian the temple had a couple of “phalli”[2] or columns about 20 metres tall. On these there were “mannikins made of wood, with enormous pudenda [genital organs]”.[3] Lucian further describes how a man twice every year climbs the pillar the same way as people in Egypt climb palm trees and once up there he “abides on the summit of the phallus for the space of seven days.” Then visitors come to the place and names are shouted up to the man on the pillar so that he can pray in their behalf.[4]

Evidently the marriage between fashion and sex is an old one and even anchorites are slaves of fashion.

[1] Monasticism and asceticism are foreign to Christianity as it is described in the New Testament. The tendency may have originated with the Manicheans, a dualistic religious philosophy common at that time. – Wallace-Hadrill, Christian Antioch, Cambridge 1982, p. 25

[2] Plural of phallus, the erected male organ.

[3] Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, Forgotten Books 2007, p. 36. These small men with huge erected organs are still found in Turkish fields and often depicted on post cards.

[4] Lucian, pp. 43, 44

Saturday, 10 July 2010


In Byzantine times there was a close connection between Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Antioch. Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, but Antioch was the base for the campaigns against the Persians. Some of the Byzantine Emperors even stayed in Antioch for periods of time.

There was also cultural exchange. Constantine the Great (d. 337 AD) who made Byzantium his capital and gave it the name Constantinopolis had pieces of art taken from Antioch to have them put up in the in the hippodrome in capital. In exchange Constantine saw to it that a new church was built in Antioch. It was shaped like an octagon and had a golden dome – not unlike the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem.

Later the Emperor Valens (d. 378) who constructed the present aqueduct in Istanbul, had a new forum made in Antioch. It was situated in the neighbourhood of the present Grotto of St. Peter.

The Emperor Justinian (d. 565) who had the monumental church of Hagia Sophia built in Constantinople, had a dam erected on the river Parmenius in Antioch. It is still there between Mount Staurin and Mount Cassius up behind the Grotto of St. Peter. It is called the Iron Gate.

When the Crusaders continued to Antioch after being entertained by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (d. 1118) they had to walk or ride on horseback if they belonged to the nobility. The journey took them more or less half a year. Today it takes you less than one hour and a half if you take a plane from the airport outside Antakya to the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul.

The difference between the two cities is colossal. Antakya is a small and quiet town with 200.000 inhabitants. Istanbul has about 15 million. And you feel it. When you are in Istanbul you realise that Byzantium is alive and kicking. You have museums and galleries. You have music festivals with jazz, blues, rick and classical music. And you even have a Bach festival. Really, you have all what you may be looking for.

İstıklâl Caddesi (the old Grand Rue de Pera) between the Taksim Square and Tünel is so crowded in the evening that you can hardly walk. Along the side streets you find cafes, taverns, restaurants and bars.

In old days there were riots due to differences in religion and politics and riots between the fractions on the hippodrome. Today the clashes are between the police and Kurdish partisans from southeast Turkey, between the police and union members and between the police and people whose issue you do not know anything about.

Istanbul is a fascinating but noisy place. After a weeks time you start to long for your eventless life back in Antakya.

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.