Antioch on the Orontes

Early Explorers in the City of Mosaics

By Victoria Khroundina | March 27, 2014


Antioch on the Orontes at the Research Centre for Anatolian Civilisations (RCAC) – true to form Centre’s exhibitions – offers a fascinating glimpse into a unique part of Turkey’s history. The exhibition presents excavation photographs which tell the story of how archaeologists unearthed findings from the most brilliant period in the history of Roman Antioch (modern-day Antakya), one of the most important metropolises of the Roman Empire.

The show explores the first archaeological excavations carried out by Princeton University, between 1932 and 1939. As Antakya, then still nominally independent, only joined the Turkish Republic after a plebiscite in 1939, these mosaics would be shared between museums in France and the United States. 

Curated by Murat Akar of the Archaeology and Art History Department at Koç University, the focus here is on the excavation itself, rather than the photographs per se. The black-and-white images, enlarged and beautifully mounted, clearly document the discovery of these magnificent mosaics, held today in the Hatay Archaeology Museum. The main image, taken in 1935, shows a rare glimpse of the expedition’s photographer, Fadeel Nasser Saba, a Palestinian from Nazareth, using a large-format camera to photograph the opulent mosaics in the Constantine villa at Daphne (Harbiye), nine kilometres south of Antioch, while his assistants steady the camera.

Interesting titbits of information are peppered throughout the exhibition in the form of quotes from field staff, including the field director William A Campbell from Wellesley College and the art historian and chairman of the Antioch Excavation Committee, Charles Rufus Morey. The above image from 1936, shows the staff with visiting Antioch dignitaries. First row, left to right: Muhammed Yusuf, Haider Wazan, Rashid Bey Barrakat, Nassib Arzouzi, Richard Stillwell, Khalil Zarawend, Najm ed Din Bey Wajihi Basha, Mahmud Tukhani, Charles Rufus Morey, Zaki Arzouzi, Fadil Ghabousi, and Suleiman Hindie. Second row, left to right: Mustafa Yusuf, Jean Lassus, Adib Ishak, Apostolos Athanassiou, W.H. Noble, Barbari Mahmud Isa, Joseph Numani, William A. Campbell, Ibrahim Agha Tukhani, Suleiman Wazan, Samaan Totah, Ali Agha Tukhani.

‘Few people realise that ancient Antioch was larger than Rome within the Aurelian walls,’ Campbell said in 1934. He also noted the city’s natural beauty, fine climate, productive soil and strategic location. The above image from 1937 shows an aerial view of Antioch with the Orontes River (modern-day Asi Nehri) and the mountain range capped by Mount Silpios (Habib Neccar Dağı) in the background. The long main street running diagonally across the centre of the photograph follows the route of the ancient Roman road from Latakia (ancient Laodicea) to Aleppo (ancient Beroea). 

The excavations began on March 7, 1932, with the opening of the trench seen in the above photo. This revealed part of the system of pipes that distributed water throughout the ancient city. These conduits, constructed of cylindrical terracotta tiles laid end to end, brought water from the aqueduct to a residential area near the Byzantine stadium.

The above image from 1936 shows the excavation of the Theatre of Dionysus, buried beneath more than nine meters of soil washed down the slope of Mount Silpios. A chain of workers laboriously pass along baskets laden with earth as it is removed. After one side of this deep trench collapsed, the walls were battened and stepped to protect the workmen and staff.

The collapsed arch of the Market Gate in the city wall at Seleucia Pieria (Samandağ-Çevlik), located on the coast about 25 kilometres southwest of Antioch, can be seen in the above photo, taken in 1937. The fourth-century gate, located in the lower town, opened onto a colonnaded street leading to the marketplace of Seleucia.

‘These masterpieces of mosaic art were made for the rich villas on the hills of Daphne, where the wealthier class lives for the sake of the springs and the breezes, and the view down the valley towards the sea,’ said Morey in 1936. He had in mind the above mosaic of the dining room of the House of the Buffet Supper, among others. The central roundel, depicting Ganymede serving wine to Zeus, is surrounded by a delectable-looking multi-course dinner laid out on silver platters. The rectangular panel at the top is decorated with a large wine vessel, two peacocks and other birds.

Morey was also referring to excavations at Yakto (Camus Ayna), a small village north of Daphne, which brought to light, in 1933, an extensive complex built in the third century and modified in the fifth. The mosaic in this small room depicts a female bust framed by an octagonal perspective meander. The white marble torso of a youth rests in the doorway of the room (now in the Princeton University Museum of Art). 

The above image from 1934 shows another marble male torso found during an excavation in the House of the Phoenix, a late Roman villa in Daphne. This finely carved statue (now in the Baltimore Museum of Art) was used, along with blocks of stone, to close the opening of a unused well from an earlier structure. 

In 1936, Campbell said that one of the aims of the expeditions was to preserve the mosaic pavements accidentally discovered by natives. The above image shows a section of a mosaic floor uncovered by a landowner digging a drainage ditch in his mulberry orchard just inside the Roman wall at Seleucia Pieria in August 1938. The large curving mosaic depicted a procession of a variety of exotic animals, including elephants, zebras, giraffes and flamingos in a landscape of exotic plants. 

The above photograph from 1935 shows an enormous cruciform church at Kaoussie (Kapısuyu), paved with a vast carpet of geometric mosaics. An inscription discovered in one of the four aisles forming the original structure dates the foundation of the church to March 387 CE. 

The exhibition continues until April 20, 2014.

All photographs from Princeton University’s Department of Art and Archaeology.

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