Antakya

Overview

Introduction

The ancient Syrian capital of Antakya, 325 mi/525 km southeast of Ankara, was once the third-largest city in the Roman empire, after Rome and Constantinople. It was also home to one of the world's first Christian communities. (In the Bible, the first use of the word "Christians" refers to residents of Antakya.)

Much of the ancient heritage of old Antioch (as it was then known) was destroyed by wars and earthquakes. What remains is an atmosphere that feels more Arabic than Turkish—you'll see lots of old men in patterned kaffiyehs and leather workers in the market stitching camel saddles. You'll also notice French influence in the layout of the town (the French held Antioch in the 1920s), which has wide boulevards and traffic circles.

A special treat for biblical scholars and history buffs is St. Peter's Church, a cave where Peter is said to have preached and which may have been one of the first places where early Christians met to pray. (Masses are still held there every other Sunday.) We also recommend the Antakya Archaeological Museum, which houses one of the finest collections of Roman mosaics in the world—don't miss the mosaic of Oceanus.

Excursions can be made to the crusades-era castle built atop the foundations of a Hellenistic fortress in the nearby town of Bagras. Another small excursion is to Yakacik, a restored 16th-century town with a nice mosque, a covered market and the Cinkulesi (castle). The nearby forests of Harbiye offer good picnicking spots. Tougher to reach is Vaifli, the last ethnic Armenian village in Turkey.

Also worth a day's outing is a visit to the Roman Harbor of Seleucia ad Peira, where St. Paul set forth on his first journey to Cyprus. There are interesting ruins, including the Titus Vespasiyanus Tunnel, a remarkable example of Roman engineering.

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