Monday, 23 April 2012

The Grotto of St. Peter

In Mount Staurin across from the torrent of Parmenius you find the Grotto of St Peter facing the west.
The grotto is located on the slopes of Mount Staurin in the centre of the picture. The populated area in front of it was the Forum of Valens in Byzantine times. On the left side of the highway, behind Mount Staurin at the crossroad, mosaics from prominent buildings have been found indicating that this area was an important place in town.
Each year this grotto, also called the Church of St Peter, is visited by thousands of tourists and pilgrims. According to a CD from the governor's office in Hatay,[1] the grotto was proclaimed a "site of pilgrimage by Pope Paul VI" in 1983. Furthermore, it is claimed that this cave was used as a church by the first Christians and that it probably was here the word Christian was used for the first time.

One of the local stories goes that Peter when arriving coming to Antioch decided to found a church there and found the cave fitting for this purpose. It is held that the grotto was chosen because it was a suitable hiding place for the persecuted Christians.[2] Thus university lecturer Dr. Uysal Yenipınar writes:
St. Peter held his frst meeting and performed his first baptism in Antakya in the grotto church at the skirts of Mount Staurin. Those who assembled in this grotto at the border of the Jewish quarter received for the first time the name Christian in this grotto, meaning that they adhered to the teachings of Hıristas, Jesus Christ. St. Paul and St. Barnabas gave their first sermons to the Christian congregation in this grotto.[3]

The same story is found in the book XIX. Yüzyılda Bir Osmanlı Şehri Antakya[4] and the story is repeated to every tourist who cares listening to a guide.
The homepage of the Catholic Church in Antakya (Antioch), however, is more cautious:
Clearly this was a site of pagan worship which the Christians, rather than destroying, later transformed into a site of their own religion, and assigned it the name of an Apostle.
Naturally, this religious transformation must date from the time when this became possible, namely when the Emperor Theodosius the Great [AD 379-395], in the Edict of Thessalonica, proclaimed Christianity the state religion. ...
It would be fair to conclude that the mountain was a sacred place for the city, dedicated to some pagan god.
There were two aqueducts fed from the streams that ran down to the thermal pools which were below and to the right of the small incline which leads to the Cave.
It is also probable that it was in the time of Theodosius the Great that this pagan site was transformed into a place of Christian worship. History tells us in fact that from 388 AD onward any places of pagan worship which were not destroyed were turned into places of Christian worship as if they were ‘baptised’.[5]

This is in line with what Glanville Downey observed in his scholarly book on Antioch: "A grotto on Mount Silpius has traditionally been called the grotto of St. Peter, where he is supposed to have preached and baptized, but there is no satisfactory proof of this association."[6]

            In fact, even in the well documented fourth century we hear nothing of some grotto dedicated to the apostle Peter. Although the quest for "holy relics" had become a fashion, nobody seems to have believed that the city possessed one of the most important sites in Christendom.

And why, anyway, should the local Christians at the time of the apostles assemble in a cave? "To hide from persecutors!" the story goes.

It should be remembered, though, that early Christians fled from Jerusalem to Antioch to avoid persecution when a Christian named Stephen had been lynched there. As the Bible book of Acts relates:
Then those who had gone away at the time of the trouble about Stephen, went as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus, preaching to the Jews only. But some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, when they came to Antioch, gave the good news about the Lord Jesus to the Greeks. And the power of the Lord was with them, and a great number had faith and were turned to the Lord. And news of them came to the ears of the church at Jerusalem: and they sent Barnabas as far as Antioch."[7]
            In fact, there is no report of any persecution of Christians in Antioch until the end of the first century.[8] However, even if there had been persecution of Christians at the time of the visit of Peter, the grotto would have been a very bad place to hide. During the first century, and many centuries to come, the grotto was located in the centre of Antioch, not far from the theatre and the Colonnaded Street.

On this map drawn by the Italian scholar Giovanni Uggeri,[9] I have marked the Grotto of St. Peter with red, the East Gate with blue and the Cherubim Gate with green.

To try to have secret worship in a cave in the centre of Antioch would be like having clandestine meetings on Times Square in New York. Why use a place so conspicuous when you could use one of the thousands of houses in downtown Antioch where you could have you meetings without any interference!

            First time we hear of a Church of St. Peter in Antioch is at the time of the Emperor Constantine who was also called the Great (306-337). This, however, was evidently not the grotto. At the time of the Crusader Principality (1199 – 1268) there was a Cathedral of St Peter. The grotto is not mentioned and later visitors say that the locals call the grotto the Church of St John.

            Whatever the case, it is not at all unsafe to conclude that the apostle Peter had nothing to do with the grotto bearing his name, although he may have known about its existence.


[1] Hatay, the Cradle of Civilizations, (Hatay: Hatay Provincial Administration General Secretariat, [no year]).
[2] Sic.
[3] Uysal Yenipınar, Antiocheia – Orientis Apicem Pulcrum – Mitolojik ôyküler – Hatay (Izmir: Etki Yayınları, 2010), 246.
[4] Adem Kara, XIX. Yüzyılda Bir Osmanlı şehri Antakya (Istanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık, 2005), 59.
[5] Chiesa Cattolica Antiochia, "Grotto of St. Peter in Antioch," accessed 20.03.2012,
[6] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 284, note 47.
[7] Acts chapter 11 verses 19-22. (The Bible in Basic English)
[8] E. S. Bouchier, A Short History of Antioch (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1921), 80, 81.
[9] Christopher Ecclestone, "The Uggeri Map," Antiochepedia, accessed April 23, 2012,


Sunday, 22 April 2012

Does honour killing have a religious background?

It is a common Western misunderstanding that honour killing or honour murder is a Muslim phenomenon. This delusion very likely has its roots the massive immigration of Muslims to Western Europe during the last fifty years. In the Middle East the murder of women because of "honour" as all too widespread and unfortunately this atrocious habit was taken along to the West with the immigration of the Middle Easterners.

The philosophy behind honour killings – or should we call it shame killing – is that a feudalistic community operates with two separate concepts of honour: the honour of women and the honour of men.

The honour of women, in Turkish called namus (decency, chastity) and in Arabic عرض , is preserved by a conduct that does not cast doubt on their chastity. If this happens, they lose their namus and her husband or father loses his honour, in Turkish called şeref which is the same as the Arabic شرف . In this case the man who is regarded as the one responsible for the honour of the family has to prove his honourableness and that of his family by washing away the shame brought upon them. This is normally done by shedding the blood of the woman who is regarded as a source of shame.

In Islam there has been some discussion about what to do with women who commit adultery. In the Quran we find the following commands:

"As for those of you women who are guilty of lewdness (الفاحشة ), call to witness four of  you against them. And if they testify then confine them to the houses until death take them ( الموت يتوفّاهنّ ) or Allah appoints for them a way." Sura 4; 15.

It seems that this text does not warrant a death penalty passed by any family council in the absence of the perpetrator. Evidently official legal action with at least four witnesses was required.[i]  provides us with this information:
Chapter 24 of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, explicitly instructs believers to whip those found guilty of adultery. A leading Muslim scholar, Maulana Muhammad Ali noted that 'stoning to death was never contemplated by Islam as a punishment for adultery.' Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Dr. Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, said that the 'official text of the Qur'an only sanctions a punishment of so many lashes for such an offence not stoning to death...[the] punishment of stoning was introduced later by Omar, the second Calif for reasons best known to him." 6 Many Muslim scholars and judges agree that the Qur'an does not refer to executions by stoning.'[ii]
                 It therefore seems that honour killing is not a religious but a sociological phenomenon peculiar to feudalistic communities. Consequently it is not surprising that this menace is also found among professing Christians who are living in or have their roots in patriarchal or feudalistic communities.
            The following is a quotation from an article on the web site Stop honour killings!:
So-called honour killings are also part of Italy's legal history, where the idea was an admitted defense until 1981.

Prior to its reversal, an article existed in the Italian Criminal Code that provided a reduced penalty of imprisonment of only three to seven years for a man who killed his wife, sister or daughter to vindicate his or his family's honour.

Such crimes were once a fairly widely accepted feature of highly traditional communities in southern Italy - and even sparked an Oscar-winning 1961 comedy called Divorce, Italian Style, starring Marcello Mastroianni.

The Mafia, clinging to the past, has much more recently killed women who 'strayed' sexually or had children without being married.[iii]
            The latest example on honour killing done by confessing Christians is a case from Turkey. Here is the story as told by UPI:
ISTANBUL, Turkey, April 17 (UPI) -- A criminal court in Turkey handed a sentence of life in prison Tuesday to a man convicted in the execution-style slaying of his sister and brother-in-law.

The young couple were found shot to death in their car 10 days after they married against the wishes of the bride's family, Today's Zaman reported.

Sonay Ogmen, 26, and Zekeriya Vural, 29, each died from a single bullet to the forehead.

Police determined the couple had been killed by someone they knew sitting in the back seat of their car.

"I shot both of them," the bride's brother, Gonay Ogmen, told police after he was arrested. "We didn't want that groom."

The groom's uncle, Cemal Vural, said the bride's family opposed the marriage because she was Christian and Zekeriya Vural was Muslim.[iv]

[i] Marmaduke Pickthall, trans., The Glorious Qur'ân, Istanbul: Çağrı Yayınları, 1999, 80.

[ii] "Punishment for non-marital sex in Islam," Religious Tolerance, accessed April 20, 2012,

[iii] Joanna, "Mafia still think they 'own' women," Stop honour killings! accessed April. 22, 2012,

 [iv] "Turkish newlyweds slain over religious difference," UPI, accessed April 22, 2012,

Monday, 2 April 2012

Theatre in Antakya

In ancient Antioch the theatre was a very popular place of entertainment. It seems that some Seleucid kings also tried to introduce gladiatorial games, but this sort of entertainment did not appeal to the Antiochenes. Their taste was more "refined."

We do not know what sort of play was the most popular. No doubt the Greek tragedies were played, but we can be equally sure that the comic theatre was even more popular. Especially the so-called New Comedy of the Hellenistic period must have been appreciated.

The theatre was located close to the city centre, most probably in Epiphanea, the quarter added to Antioch by Antiochus Epiphanes. According to Leblanc and Poccardi it was located close to the tetrapylon on the Colonnaded Street (up behind the present Hotel Savon in the quarter of Dörtayak, "Four Legs").[1]

In Daphne (Harbiye) there was another theatre. This theatre was evidently located some hundred metres east of the present city centre of Harbiye, a kilometre or so before you arrive at the waterfalls. Today there is a water tower at the spot.

Today there is no proper theatre in Antakya. When theatre is played by local companies or guests, they are usually shown in Hatay Kültür Merkezi (Hatay Cultural Centre) or in Meclis, the old parliament building on the western bank of the Orontes at the Bridge.

This week actors from Adana showed The Lesson of Eugene Ionesco in Hatay Kültür Merkezi. This piece, regarded as one of the important works of the Theatre of the Absurd, is not new in Turkey. In the eighties we saw it on the national scene in Ankara. This time, however, the play was even more absurd, partly because of the ingenuity of the troupe partly because of its physical context.

The plot of the play is as follows:

The play takes place in the office and dining room of a small French flat. The Professor, a man of about 50 to 60, is expecting a new Pupil (aged 18). The Professor's Maid, a stout, red-faced woman of about 40 to 50, worries about the Professor's health. As the absurd and nonsensical lesson progresses, the Professor grows more and more angry with (what he perceives as) the Pupil's ignorance, and the Pupil becomes more and more quiet and meek. Even her health begins to deteriorate, and what starts as a toothache develops into her entire body aching. At the climax of the play, the Pupil is stabbed and murdered by the Professor, after a long bout of non sequiturs (which are frequently used in Ionesco's plays). The play ends with the Maid greeting a new Pupil, taking the play full circle, back to the beginning."[2]

The plot, sufficiently absurd as it is, was improved by a rather surprising innovation: The professor was a woman, a very teacher-like lady in a tight-fitting dress, high-heeled shoe, with an old-fashioned hairstyle, and looking as if about fifty years old. At first this sight was slightly shocking as I expected to see some distinguished gentleman. But honestly, we had to capitulate. What this lady could do was amazing. She was climbing a table and jumping down in her pedagogic enthusiasm, throwing armchairs around in fits of fury and even carrying her grown-up student around on her shoulders in fits of anger, all of it in her high-heeled shoes and without ruining her hairstyle. We were taken aback.

Unfortunately people in Antakya are not as interested in the theatre as were their forebears. The auditorium was not empty, but not filled either. Nearly all the audience were under thirty. I do not remember seeing anybody from the 'comfortable classes' of Antakya. There was a whole school class – or so they looked. I wonder what they thought of the sort of educational theory and practice they saw on the scene. Perhaps they started to appreciate their own teachers, who at least do not kill them because of their oafishness.

One part of the play was especially interesting. At a certain point the teacher asked the student to multiply two colossal numbers, and, for a change, the student gave the right answer. When the teacher dumbfounded asked how the student managed to work out this calculation, she answered that, as multiplication is a difficult art, she had learned by heart all the possible results of the total number of possible calculations.

This is where I found the situation of the play absurd. In good old days when I studied Arabic at the University of Ankara everything was learned by heart. The professor asked us to write down the Arabic text and its translation whereupon the students went home and learned it by rote. If you wanted a more linguistic approach, you were welcome to figure it out yourself.

I do not know which school the kids in the theatre came from, but I hope they got the point.

[1] Jacque Leblanc & Grégoire Poccardi, “Traces urbains et ruraux antiques a Antioche,” Syria T.76, Institut français du Proche-Orient (1999), 91-126.

[2] "The Lesson," Wikipedia, accessed April 1, 2012,