Devastation in Antakya

Earthquakes damage famed biblical city

Entrance to the fourth-century cave church at Mt. Staurinus on the outskirts of Antakya, Turkey, where the apostle Peter may have first preached in ancient Antioch. Photo by Volkan Hatem – Volkan Hatem, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

In February 2023, southern Turkey and northern Syria were hit by a series of powerful earthquakes that laid waste to much of the region. The loss to life, livelihoods, and property has been nearly incalculable: The earthquakes killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, and leveled entire cities and towns.

The city of Antakya, built on the ruins of Antioch, one of the greatest cities of the Roman world and an early home to nascent Christianity, suffered irreparable damage to its deep history and rich religious traditions. Founded in the late fourth century BCE as a commercial and strategic center on the Orontes River, Antioch was the capital of the powerful Seleucid Empire, which controlled much of the Hellenistic Near East, including Judea, until its conquest by the Romans in 64 BCE. The city’s cosmopolitan, multicultural character, which included a large and vibrant Jewish community, made it fertile ground for early Christian missions. Indeed, both Paul’s and Peter’s visits to the city are well documented in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 15:30; Galatians 2:11–16). As an early patriarchate, Antioch was a major center of Christian life and learning (see Antioch’s Silent Guardians), until wars, epidemics, and earthquakes brought about its gradual decline in the sixth and seventh centuries.

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Although much of the ancient city remains deeply buried beneath modern Antakya and two millennia of alluvial deposits from the Orontes, many of Antakya’s historic landmarks preserve the religious and cultural traditions of the city’s ancient past. Located in the heart of Antakya’s old city, the seventh-century Habib Najjar Mosque, for example, was built on the remains of a Byzantine church, which itself stood on the ruins of a Roman temple. Thought to be the oldest mosque in Turkey, it is now a pile of rubble, its soaring dome collapsed inside what remains of its beautiful painted interior. Similarly, St. Paul’s Church, which had been the site of the city’s Greek Orthodox community since the 14th century, was left in ruins. Though the city’s modern synagogue was spared, what little remained of the city’s ancient and once-thriving Jewish population has since relocated to elsewhere in Turkey.

Remarkably, some of Antakya’s older and more notable heritage sites survived the earthquakes relatively unscathed. The fourth-century cave church on nearby Mt. Staurinus, which commemorates the place where Peter is believed to have first preached, suffered only minor damage. And the collections of the Hatay Archaeology Museum, including its extensive collection of beautiful Roman mosaics excavated from wealthy country estates outside the ancient city, survived largely intact.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Antioch Dig Reveals Turkey’s Largest Ancient Mosaic

Antakya Hotel to Preserve the Wonders of Ancient Antioch

Restoring the Ancient Cave Church of St. Peter

Ancient Antioch: Mapping Political and Trade Networks with Google Earth

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Antioch’s Silent Guardians

Going, Going, Gone: Devastation in Antakya

Polyglot Antioch: Will archaeologists ever find the city described in the literary sources?

The Rise of the Maccabees

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