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.