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The History of Antioch, from the ancient Amorites to today’s Republic of Turkey
The very first settlement around what is now Antioch was Alalakh, founded by the Amorites in the late 3rd millennium BC. on the shores of the nearby Amik lake, now dried up. Its written history begins in the 18th century, when it was part of the Amorite Kingdom of Yamhad, which was centered in Aleppo.
In the second half of the 17th century BC. the city was destroyed by the Hittite king Ḫattušili I, but already in 1490 BC. it regained strength thanks to the kingdom of Idrimi, which formed here its own vassal state of the Mitanni, at that time lords of these lands. In the middle of the 14th century BC. the city passed under the Hittites and, starting from 1300 BC. Alalakh became almost completely abandoning history forever in favor of a new settlement destined to arise 1000 years later not far from its predecessor: Antioch.
The birth of Antioch and the Seleucids
The territories around the city of Antioch were already frequented due to the presence of a temple dedicated to Anat, the Canaanite goddess of war and hunting, however its official foundation took place in 301 BC. by the hand of Seleucus I, ex-general of Alexander the Great, as well as founder of the Seleucid dynasty and was so called to pay homage to his father and his son, who were both called Antiochus.
From its inception it was shaped to be a sort of “new Alexandria of Egypt” and was inhabited by a mix of Athenians, Macedonians and local inhabitants, many of whom were Jews. Thanks to the innumerable buildings built at the time, it soon became considered as the “Western capital” of the Seleucid Kingdom, later transforming itself into an absolute capital from from 240 BC. This historical period is particularly important for this dynasty due to the birth of several new potentates in Central Asia, such as that of the Parthians and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Pergamum in the West.
While known for its beauty and magnificence, it was extremely limited by the fact that it was born on a highly seismic area and by the many political turbulences it was forced to face. In fact, well aware of living in a precious place, the inhabitants always proved to be incredibly proud of their independence and wealth, so much so that they often and willingly refused the passive acceptance of the Seleucid decrees, arriving in 64 BC. even to sign a petition to pass under Rome, under which it remained a civitas libera.
Under the Romans it became one of the largest and most beautiful cities in the world and this is largely due to its strategic position; in fact, at the time it was contending for the scepter of “largest and most beautiful city in the East” with Alexandria of Egypt and Seleucia but, unlike the latter, laid its foundations in a decidedly less isolated territory and far from Rome. It is no coincidence that there were many great emperors who filled it with marvels, the best known of which is certainly the racecourse built by Octavian Augustus.
The Patriarchate of Antioch
Due to its importance and its large presence of Jews, in a very short time it became one of the major centers of Christianity in the world, so much so that, according to tradition, the Patriarchate of Antioch was even founded by Saint Peter, whose efforts were assisted by Paolo di Tarso and San Barnaba, who were also known evangelizers of the city. Among other things, in this regard, it is interesting to note that the Christians took this name precisely once their faith was affirmed in Antioch; until then, in fact, they were seen as a branch of the Jewish world, it was only with the interventions of Barnabas and Paul of Tarsus that this faith really spread to those who did not have Jewish ancestry.
The Patriarchate of Antioch is still considered today one of the most important in the world, as well as the birthplace of the Antiochian rite; the latter is still applied by various Churches around the world, including: the Syriac Orthodox Church (direct descendant of that founded by Peter), the Jacobite Syriac Christian Church and the Maronite Church.
Byzantines, Arabs and Seljuks
With the division of the Roman Empire desired by Theodosius I, Antioch passed under the Byzantine Empire, and in that period it established itself definitively as one of the major centers of Christian power. During the clash between the Byzantines and the Sasanids it was conquered for a short time by the Persians and then, starting from 637, by the Arabs.
This capture, which took place at the hands of the legendary Khalid ibn al Walid, will allow the new power to subject all of Syria in a stable and definitive way, placing Antioch as the largest city on their northern borders. The Byzantines will only be able to recover the city in 969, but it was a conquest that lasted just over 100 years, as, already in 1084, it became part of the Seljuk Empire.
From the Crusaders to the Ottomans
From 1098 to 1268 it was the capital of the Crusader Principality of Antioch and it was precisely in this period that it experienced the greatest number of political and war upheavals, with continuous intrigues, battles and alliances which saw as main protagonists all the peoples who dominated those areas, including Turks and Mongols. In 1268 it was conquered by Baybars, the 4th Mamluk ruler, who definitively put an end to the Crusader presence in the Middle East.
After about 300 years of wars, the city was completely exhausted and, not surprisingly, when the Ottomans took possession of it in 1516 following their victory over the Mamluks, they did not make it an autonomous province (eyalet), but a sub-province ( sanjak) serving Aleppo. Starting from the 17th century it will be increasingly inhabited by the Alawites (Nusayri in Turkish), who decided to move en masse to the areas of today’s province of Hatay, which represents the place where they are most present in absolute terms together with the province of Latakia in Syria .
With the defeat of the Ottomans during the First World War, Antioch will come under French rule and, specifically, under the Sanjak of Alexandretta/Iskenderun. The latter was a political reality strongly desired by the Turks during the Treaty of Ankara of 1921, as they did not in any way want the identity of the many Turks in the city to be overwhelmed by the Arab or French one.
Also by virtue of this status, more and more pro-Turkish organizations were created in the city, so much so that in 1938 they gave life to the Republic of Hatay, an autonomous state, but linked to France and Turkey, which in 1939 became part of this ‘last becoming today’s province of Hatay. Today Antioch has recovered its ancient splendor becoming the most populated city in the whole province as well as its maximum administrative center.
Antakya is one of the cities most affected by the 2023 earthquake and I warmly invite anyone who has the opportunity to allocate at least €1 to facilitate the rebirth of this beautiful city and its inhabitants; under the video and the podcast you will find links to various humanitarian associations operating in the area.
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