Just five years ago, the eastern Mediterranean was littered with sleepy provincial towns and archaeological ruins that obscured a glorious past. But in the last few years, in its genocidal march through what was once the commercial, cultural and political heart of antiquity, ISIS has laid waste to huge swaths of territory, killing and maiming human life even as it destroys humanity’s common patrimony.
The center of the East (as understood by the Romans) was Antioch, today a provincial city of 150,000 people in the southern Turkish province of Hatay. In antiquity, however, Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria and, at its height in the first century A.D., home to more than 500,000 people.
Inhabited by Greeks and Jews, Macedonians and Syrians, Phoenicians and Nabataeans, Roman Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Greco-Roman era. Those who lived in Syria’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus.
A sophisticated city, Roman Antioch proved to be fertile ground for new ideas, philosophies and faiths, such as the teachings of Jesus. Many of these new ideas faded, but Christianity took root and flourished.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, believers fleeing the persecution of the Jewish authorities brought the Gospel to Antioch. These disciples worked among Jews and Gentiles and built up a community of believers. Barnabas and Paul nurtured it further and, around A.D. 44, Peter settled there, directing the life of the church for seven years before leaving for Rome. In time, this community achieved an identity. Again, according to Acts, “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”
And it boomed. For the next 500 years, the Antiochene church fostered anchorites (Maron, Simeon Stylites), bishop martyrs (Babylas, Ignatius), poets (Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist), scholars (Flavian, Theodoret of Cyr, Theophilus) and theologians (John Chrysostom, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia). And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.
The bishops of Antioch also assumed leadership among the bishops of the East, who increasingly referred to the Antiochene prelates as “patriarchs,” a title of honor once reserved in the Old Testament for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob and King David. Increasingly, Antioch’s patriarchs governed a mighty church that stretched beyond the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire into India.
But the unity of the church of Antioch crumbled as cultural, linguistic and theological nuances took on political associations. Antioch had begun to decline long before its conquest by Muslim Arabs in 638. Earthquakes in the fifth and sixth centuries devastated the city, killing many and driving others away. After the Arabs took the city, the region’s Syriac-speaking Christian community prospered. After more than three centuries of stability under the Arabs, however, war occupation and natural disaster nearly finished the city of Antioch. By 1517, when the Ottoman Turks captured Antioch, its walls sheltered fewer than 300 inhabited houses, almost all Muslim Turks.
Christian merchants had long since left.
In 1034, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch settled in a monastery in southeastern Asia Minor. In the late 14th century, the Melkite patriarch of Antioch settled in Damascus. Both patriarchates, though no longer centered in Antioch, remained of Antioch. Today, both retain the name of the ancient city as the name of their respective sees; yet, they live in the same quarter in the besieged Syrian capital of Damascus.
To learn more about this church, centered in what remains of Syria, click here.