Ten Basic Facts About Antioch
Adel Beshara
1. Antioch, in the occupied Syrian province of Iskandarun (Alexandretta), was founded about 300 B. C. by Seleucus I. Nicator who named it either after his father or his son, both of whom bore the name Antiochus. It was situated about three hundred miles north of Jerusalem where the chain of Lebanon, running northward, and the chain of Taurus, running southward, are brought to an abrupt meeting. Here the Orontes breaks through the mountains, and Antioch was placed at a bend of the river, about twenty miles from the Mediterranean on the west. The River Orontes, the fertilizing stream to which was due the rich alluvial plain, the principal element in Antioch's prosperity, originated in two sources, in Lebanon and Antilibanus respectively. After passing Apamea in its northern course it was, a few miles above Antioch, diverted sharply to the W.S.-W. by the spurs of Mount Amanus, an offshoot of the Taurus range of Cilicia.

2. In its heydays, Antioch was a centre of economic and cultural activity and a major trade link between East and West. Its wide streets accommodated caravans carrying goods from the East. There were theaters, temples, and a library, and public squares adorned with statues of heroes and deities that provided meeting spaces for the city's inhabitants, who spent much of their time outdoors. So strategically important was Antioch that Roman emperors favoured the city from the first, seeing it as a more suitable capital for the eastern part of the empire than Alexandria could be, because of the isolated position of Egypt. To a certain extent they tried to make it an eastern Rome. Peoplewould refer to it as "Antioch the Great," "the Queen of the East," and "the Beautiful."

3. During the early centuries of the Christian era the city had grown until it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, being surpassed only by Rome and Alexandria. Estimates of its population are based largely upon a statement made by Chrysostom in his Homily on St. Ignatius, 4: "It is a hard task to govern only a hundred, or even fifty, men; but to take in hand so great a city, and a citizenry (demos) reaching the number of 200,000-of how great a virtue and wisdom do you consider that a demonstration?" Among ancient cities Antioch was distinctive in being the only one known to us to possess a regular system of street lighting.

4. With the exception of Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria played a larger part in the life and fortunes of the early Church than any other single city of the Graeco-Roman Empire. Indeed, as the home of the first Gentile Christian Church and as the base of operations from which the Apostle Paul went out on each of his three missionary journeys, this city could claim in a more real sense even than Jerusalem to be the mother of the Churches of Asia Minor and Europe. Not only was Antioch the birthplace of foreign missions (Acts 13:2), it was memorable in at least two other respects. Here the disciples of Jesus were first given the name "Christians" (Acts 11:26), and it was among the Antiochians that the question first emerged regarding the necessity for Gentile converts to submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision (Acts 15).

5.One prominent characteristic of the citizens of Antioch appears to have been their aptitude for ridicule and scurrilous wit, and the invention of nicknames. It is related that when the Emperor Julian the Apostate visited the city, he angered them by injudicious interference with their market, and they avenged themselves by shouting abuse after him in the streets. Unlike the style of most men of his day Julian wore a long beard in emulation of his revered philosophers, and the crowds made this the special object of their ridicule. They termed him "the Goat" and advised him to "cut it off and weave it into ropes." They also nicknamed him "the Butcher" because he was continually sacrificing oxen at the altars of his deities.

6. Every resident of Antioch could not help seeing a colossal bust called the Charonion, about sixteen feet in height, carved in the living limestone cliff northeast of the city. Apparently, a destructive plague broke out and a seer, Leisus by name, ordered a projecting cliff visible to the entire city to be carved with a face of Charon, the ferryman over the River Styx. Perhaps the plague came to an end before the workmen could finish the bust; at any rate, the left shoulder was never chiselled out. The head is covered with a folded veil which at its lower end on the right shoulder curves out in a way that reminds one of the caps of Persians and Amazons in Greek vase-painting. According to some, the veiled bust may have been intended to represent the Syrian goddess of Hierapolis.

7. The most important early illustrated manuscript of the Gospels in a language other than Greek is the famous Syriac codex in the Laurentian Library, Florence, written in A. D. 586 by a monk named Rabbula at the monastery of Zagba in northern Mesopotamia." The text of the Gospels which it contains is the Peshitta Syriac, resting probably on the Byzantine Greek text originated in Antioch in the early part of the fourth century. The reason notice is taken here of this manuscript is that its illustrations are excellent examples of the type of art which the Church at Antioch developed.

8. Antioch is home to one of the best preserved of the mosaics, the so-called Mosaic of the Phoenix, dating from the beginning of the fifth century. Of enormous size-over forty by thirty-three feet-the impression which the regular floral pattern within a border of pairs of rams makes upon the observer is that of a carefully wrought tapestry. Some-thing of its immensity can be appreciated when one realizes that in its original state the pattern contained more than 7500 roses. In the center of the mosaic there stands a phoenix on the top of a mountain of rocks, the over-all height being six and a half feet. About the head of the bird is a mauve gray halo, and streaming out through the halo are five rays of light, one proceeding vertically. The phoenix is represented in profile, rearing its body and head up as though it were about to take off in flight. The neck is long, but not excessively so, bent in a double curve more energetic than graceful. The brilliant eye, encircled with black, at the center of the halo, attracts the spectator's attention. The predominate colors of the rocks are green, bister, and maroon; the colors of the bird, green with brown and gray in the shadows, yellow and even white in the highlights. The plan and execution of the phoenix, small in size compared with the immense tapestry of flowers, produces an impression of astonishing beauty and majesty well calculated to remind one of a glorious resurrection-for to the ancients this bird was the customary symbol of the persistence of life after death. According to a widespread myth, this fabulous bird of great beauty, after living five or six hundred years in the Arabian wilderness, the only one of its kind, would build for itself a funeral pile of spices and aromatic gums where it would immolate itself. But from its own ashes it would again emerge in the freshness of youth. Many are the ancient authors who refer to this marvelous bird. Hesiod, Herodotus, Manilius, Pliny, Tacitus, Ovid, Aelian, and Celsus may be mentioned among pagan Graeco-Roman authors.

9. Located just outside Antioch is The Cave Church of St. Peter (also the Grotto of St. Peter, an ancient cave church with a stone facade. This cave is widely believed to have been dug by the Apostle Peter himself as a place for the early Christian community of Antioch to meet, and thus to be the very first Christian church. The interior of the grotto church is austere and simple. The only permanent furnishings are a small altar, a single statue, and a stone throne. On the walls are the barely discernible remains of frescoes, and on the floor can be seen some traces of mosaics. In the back of the church is a tunnel that leads into the mountain interior, popularly believed to be a means of escape in times of persecution.

10. Antioch became for over a century and a half the home of an able and warlike line of princes, an ecclesiastical metropolis, and occupied the position as  an outpost of European civilization against the hordes of the Far East. Once a great metropolis of a half million people, it declined to insignificance during the Middle Ages because of repeated earthquakes, the slaughter of its inhabitants by a Mameluk army in 1268, and a change in trade routes, following the Mongol conquests, which then no longer passed through Antioch from the far east.