The ancient city of Seleucia Pieria, 16 miles to the southwest of Antioch, was the first new city built by Seleucis I Nicator in 300BC. He made it his capital and even got to enjoy it for a few years before his assassination in 281BC, after which Antiochus I moved the capital to Antioch, named after himself.
Seleucia was bounced back and forth between the Ptolemies and their rivals the Seleucids for decades, with Antiochus III dragging it back from the Egyptians in 219BC and Ptolemy VI recapturing it again in 146BC. Pompeii the Great finally made it an autonomous district of the Romans’ Asian Provinces in 66BC, and it was against this turbulent and colourful backdrop that Paul and Barnabus set off with John Mark to Cyprus in Acts 13:4.
Paul of course hailed from nearby Tarsus, a picturesque little town I passed through on my way to Antioch to see the walls which the knights of the First Crusade lay siege to in 1097/98. When Paul and his mates returned from their first mission to Attalia they disembarked at Seleucia before journeying on to Antioch. The harbour here was constantly maintained throughout the Roman period because of its importance for the imperial fleet.
The remains of the old city are scattered over a vast area and I must have lost a few pounds clambering over walls and up and down parched hillsides in the summer heat. Because most of the site is unexcavated, I almost literally fell into the Vespasian Tunnel whilst looking for a Doric temple in the upper city.
In Turkey you don’t come across many fenced-off areas and neat little signs telling you to keep well away and health and safety regulations are in their infancy. I once stood on the balcony of the Galata Tower in Istanbul and watched in horrified fascination as a workman ambled leisurely around the steep roof of a seven-storey wooden apartment block opposite, with a sheer drop to the busy street below, replacing loose tiles with no safety precautions whatsoever.
Anyway, the Vespasian Tunnel was built to drain off water from the surrounding mountains that might otherwise have flooded the city. It’s cut straight through a mountain and is a tremendous feat of Roman engineering prowess. They may have left philosophy and other unmanly and unprofitable pursuits to the effeminate Greeks, but you can’t fault their can-do attitude when it came to building things. It was constructed sometime in the 70s AD by either Vespasian or Titus, and in fact there’s a Latin inscription at one end that reads ‘Divine Vespasian Divine Titus’.
If you ever make it out to Antioch, incidentally, I can highly recommend the Haytali Dondurma they specialise in there. This mouth-watering dessert which is a speciality of Antakya consists of two or three dollops of ice cream, crushed ice or rice pudding drenched in rosewater that has been sweetened with syrup. It’s served in a special metal bowl and eaten with a special spoon, both made locally. I had it after an Antakya Kebab, also a speciality here but I wasn’t too impressed. Maybe they didn’t do it properly.