A Tour of Ancient Antioch of Pisidia

Ruins of the Church of St. Paul in Pisidian Antioch / Wikimedia Commons



Antioch of Pisidia is one of these archaeological sites that enchant visitors with their glorious past. At the same time, Antiochia has a quiet and peaceful ambience, free of the hustle and bustle, characteristic of more famous ancient cities of Asia Minor, such as Ephesus. The extensive ruins of the ancient city are located at an altitude of over a thousand meters above sea level, near the modern town of Yalvaç. Travellers interested in the geography of the New Testament often visit Antioch as a place closely associated with the missionary activity of Saint Paul.

Antioch is situated in the mountainous country. A deep gorge stretches to the east of the ruins, allowing the passage of Anthius River, flowing into Lake Eğirdir. In the north, there is Karakuş mountain range, in the south-east – Kızıldağ mountain, and to the south-west – Kirişli range and the north shores of Lake Eğirdir.

The city was founded in the Hellenistic period by Antiochus I Soter from the Seleucid dynasty, or possibly even earlier, by his father, Seleucus. The name “Antioch” was often used by Antiochus I when founding new settlements and renaming the already existing towns. He founded as many as 16 new Antiochs in Asia Minor and the Middle East. The term “Pisidian” is frequently added to its name, to distinguish this particular city from other Antiochs. It is not entirely correct since Antioch is located on the border between the ancient Phrygia and Pisidia. Its location is better reflected by its Latin name – “Antioch ad Pisidiam” meaning Antioch [located] in the direction of Pisidia.

Historical Overview

Hellenistic Period

Silver coin of Antiochus I. The reverse shows Apollo seated on an omphalos. The Greek inscription reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ (of king Antiochus). / British Museum, London

The city was most probably founded by Antiochus I Soter as a military base. The first inhabitants of Antioch of Pisidia were the settlers brought from Magnesia on the Meander. Among the settlers of the population, there were many Jews. It is believed that the city was founded in the area of an earlier Greek settlement.

In the 70s of the 3rd century BCE, the Celtic tribe of Galatians arrived in Asia Minor. In 275 BCE, Antiochus I Soter defeated them in a battle, as he surprised the Galatians by using war elephants. The Galatians were then pushed to the areas where they later established their own state, known as Galatia, in the central region of Asia Minor.

Under the provisions of the treaty in Apamea, signed in 188 BCE between the Roman Republic and the Seleucid Empire, the areas Pisidia and Phrygia were incorporated into the Kingdom of Pergamon. Attalos III, the last ruler of this state, bequested the whole kingdom to Rome in 133 BCE. However, Pisidia, along with Antioch of Pisidia, was not incorporated directly into the Roman Empire, but passed under the control of the Kingdom of Cappadocia. At the end of the first century BCE, Antioch was subdued by the king of Galatia, Amyntas.

Roman Times

A Galatian coin depicting Amyntas of Galatia / British Museum, London

The Roman exercised full control over Antioch of Pisidia after the death of Amyntas in 25 BCE. The city was renamed as Colonia Caesarea Augusta. During the reign of Emperor Augustus, the Romans established eight colonies in Pisidia, but only Antioch was honoured with the title of Caesarea. Roman legions were stationed near the city, and their veterans were given land in the area. Later, the city was awarded the title Socia Romanorum that is Loyal Ally of Rome.

The most glorious period of Antioch’s history was time immediately after its incorporation into the Roman Empire. Ancient Greek buildings were demolished, and impressive public buildings were erected in their place. Antioch was an excellent example of symbiosis of Greek and Roman culture. Its constitution was adapted from the original Greek one and the city council (boule) still met. The officials were appointed by Rome, but had Greek titles. The official language of the inscriptions and documents was Latin, but Greek was frequently used in everyday affairs. The city retained the status of a colony for over 200 years.

In the year 6 BCE, Praetor Cornutus Aquila ordered the construction of the road known as Via Sebaste. It connected Antioch with Perge on the Mediterranean coast. Later, a branch of this road leading to Iconium (now Konya) and Lystra was added. About 46 BCE, St. Paul came to Antioch in the company of St. Barnabas. They arrived from the coast, using Via Sebaste. St. Paul’s visit in the city was most likely encouraged by Sergius Paulus, the governor of Cyprus, born in Antioch. The history of St. Paul’s stay in the city is known through the Acts of the Apostles. In Antioch, St. Paul he preached his first, and at the same time the longest recorded sermon. Although the name of the city is not mentioned in relation with the next journeys of St. Paul, but because of their routes, it can be inferred that the apostle visited Antioch twice more.

The end of the third century was in Pisidia the period of social unrest and riots. It reached the apogee during the siege of Cremna. In 276 BCE, this city was occupied by Lydius, an Isaurian robber. He used Cremna as a base for plundering expeditions in the region. His activity became the reason of Roman Emperor Tacitus visit to Pisidia. He arrived in Asia Minor together with his half-brother Florian to fight the Goths and the Alans. As part of the reorganisation of the Roman Empire, in 292 BCE, Antioch became the capital (lat. metropolis) of the newly created province of Pisidia.

Byzantine Period

Coins of Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik / British Museum, London

Antioch was the seat of the bishops of Pisidia. From the church records, it is known that the city of Antioch was an important settlement in the 5th century CE. Its position was significantly weakened after the earthquakes that hit the region in the years 518 and 529. In the middle of the 6th century, the city’s population was decimated by an epidemic.

In the early 7th century, the threat of a Persian invasion caused political instability in the region and sparked a series of local revolts. In the mid-seventh century, Arab raids began in Asia Minor, and their intensity increased in the 8th century. In 713, Antioch was besieged by Al-Walid I, the son of Caliph Abd al-Malik of the Umayyad dynasty. After this blow, Antioch never regained its former glory. In the eleventh century, Turkish tribes arrived in this region of Asia Minor. Seljuk settlers did not rebuild ruined Antioch. They founded a new city in the valley where they could develop intensive agriculture. This new village was called Yalvaç that is Prophet, perhaps as an echo of the visits of St. Paul.

Archaeological Research

Left: Francis Vyvyan Jago Arundell, by William Brockedon, 1829 / National Portrait Gallery, London

In the modern era, the first person who was attracted to the ruins of Antioch of Pisidia, was Francis Vyvyan Jago Arundell. He was a chaplain employed in 1822 by the Levant Company in Smyrna (now Izmir). His position offered him an excellent opportunity to organise a number of expeditions in Asia Minor. He visited, among other places, the so-called Seven Churches of Asia, and carried out the exploration of Pisidia. He described his findings in great detail in the book Discoveries in Asia Minor: Including a description of the ruins of several ancient cities and Especially Antioch of Pisidia, published in 1834. Another traveller, who came to Antioch of Pisidia in the 19th century, was an English geologist William John Hamilton. In 1835, he took a trip combined with geological surveys through the Levant, Armenia and Asia Minor. His journey was described in the book Researches in Asia Minor, Pontus, and Armenia, published in 1842. In this book, he recalls aqueducts, baths, and a basilica, that he had seen in Antioch.

In the 19th century, Antioch of Pisidia was visited by numerous European scholars and travellers. Among them, one should mention a French archaeologist and explorer Léon de Laborde, and a Russian geologist Pyotr Alexandrovich Chikhachyov. However, the person who contributed most to the knowledge about Antioch of Pisidia, was William Mitchell Ramsay, a Scottish archaeologist and a scholar of the New Testament. He came to Asia Minor in order to confront the geographical descriptions given in the Acts of the Apostles with reality. In the late 19th century, the location of many of the cities mentioned in the Acts was unknown. Ramsay’s original intention was to prove that this book provides information not reflected in the geography of Anatolia. In the years 1881-1882, he travelled in the company of an American archaeologist, John Robert Sterrett. They made two long trips to the west of Asia Minor together and visited Antioch of Pisidia during both of them. Ramsay soon learned that the Acts are extremely accurate in geographical terms, and he devoted the next 50 years of his life to the study of ancient towns and documents originating from Asia Minor. For many years, Ramsay was considered the chief authority on the issues related to the history of Asia Minor during the journeys of St. Paul and early Christianity in the Roman Empire. The results of his discoveries up to 1905 were published in the book The Cities of St. Paul.

Ramsay returned to Antioch of Pisidia many times, conducting archaeological research supported by the University of Princeton. Just before the First World War, his team discovered fragments of the biography of Octavian Augustus – Res Gestae Divi Augusti – hidden near the monumental gate. After a forced break in the excavations of Antioch, caused by the war, Ramsay continued to work in this location in 1923. In 1924, he was a member of the research expedition organised by the University of Michigan, under the leadership of Francis W. Kelsey. The excavations were carried out in Antioch on a massive scale, employing the local workforce. More than 200 men from Yalvaç were hired, enabling the excavation of the Great Basilica, the Tiberius Square, the Propylon, and the remains of the monumental western gate.

Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons bromide print, c.1916 / National Portrait Gallery, London

The Tiberius Square is related to the history of the conflict between Ramsay and D.M. Robinson. During the excavations in 1924, an inscription containing the contents of the edict for grain storage, issued by the governor of the province of Galatia-Cappadocia, L. Antistius Rusticus, was discovered. It enabled the researchers the determination of the name of the square. Ramsay and Robinson both published independent articles on this inscription at the same time, in two different magazines. Both of them claimed the right to exclusivity for this discovery, and the conflict between them quickly escalated. As a result, the archaeological work in Antioch was stopped just after one year. Ramsay returned to Antioch in 1925 and 1927, but he did not make any breakthroughs. The famous inscription can now be seen in the Archaeological Museum in Afyon.

After the abandonment of archaeological work by the Americans, Antioch of Pisidia had to wait for another round of work until the 60-ties of the 20th century. In the meantime, this archaeological site became a convenient source of building materials used for the expansion of houses and roads in the nearby town of Yalvaç. Decorative fragments obtained from the Temple of Augustus, the Tiberius Square and other structures of ancient Antioch can easily be seen while walking along the streets of this city. In the 60s and 70s of the 20th century, archaeological surveys and measurements in Antioch were conducted by M.H. Ballance, A. Frazer, and K. Tuchelt. In the years 1982-1983, Stephen Mitchell and Marc Waelkens drew up the new documentation of the monuments of Antioch. They gathered all the information about this ancient city in a book entitled Pisidian Antioch. The site and its monuments, published in 1998.

The latest round of systematic archaeological work has been carried out in Antioch of Pisidia continuously since 2009. The work was initially led by Mehmet Taşlıalan, the director of the Museum in Yalvaç. Currently, the director of excavations at Antioch of Pisidia is Mehmet Özhanlı, the head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Süleyman Demirel in Isparta. Every year, these excavations bring many unexpected discoveries, and subsequent ground-breaking results can be expected in the future, as only a few percent of the area of the ancient city have been excavated so far.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered two mass graves, suggesting an ancient crime riddle. Human bodies were hidden in two wells, one of which was located in a Roman villa, and the second – along Cardo Maximus street. In 2015, a rock relief, 1800 years old, was found. It depicts angels picking grapes from the basket. In the same year, one of the biggest discoveries made in Pisidian Antioch so far has been announced. Researchers unearthed the remains of the fourth church in the city. Because archaeologists have determined that the city had seven districts, the search for the other three churches continues. In 2017, archaeologists have managed to identify reliefs depicting gladiatorial combat, demonstrating the presence a gladiator school in Antioch. They have also shown that the theatre was the place where in addition to artistic performances, gladiatorial combats were organised.


Defensive wall ruins at Pisidian Antioch / Wikimedia Commons

Antioch was founded on a hill, at an altitude of 1,235 meters above the sea level. The city was surrounded by defensive walls, about three kilometres long. Not all sections of the walls have been uncovered so far. The most prominent fragment of these walls can be seen in the south-western part of the city.

The walls demarcated the area of the city, approximately 47 hectares. The width of the walls ranged between 1.5 meters and 5.5 meters, depending on the terrain and the steepness of a slope. The first walls were built in the Hellenistic period. They were extended in the Roman times, and then in the Byzantine period.

Currently, two gates leading to the area of Antioch have been identified. One of them is located in the south, and the other – in the west. The western gate was a monumental structure in the form of a triple triumphal arch, which was supported on both sides on the walls. The building was erected on a rectangular plan with sides of length 12 and 24 meters. The gate was built after 120 CE. It was dedicated to Emperor Hadrian. At the beginning of the 3rd century, it was rebuilt, as a triumphal arch. Currently, it takes a lot of imagination, aided with reconstruction provided on the information board, to see a magnificent triumphal arch rising from the ruins scattered on the ground.

The Western City Gate, Antioch in Pisidia (Yalvac, Isparta) / Wikimedia Commons

A sightseeing tour of Antioch begins at the western gate of the city. From this point, one of two main streets of the city, known as Decumanus Maximus, runs in the south-eastern direction. Antioch was planned from the beginning on the well-known principles of the Hippodamian plan or grid plan, known since the 5th century BCE. The plan charted main thoroughfares, intersecting at right angles, dividing the settlement into residential quarters and a central administrative and cultural district. The names of seven districts (lat. vicus) from the Roman period are known from the inscriptions discovered in Antioch: Venerius, Velabrus, Aediculus, Patricius, Cermalus, Salutaris, and Tuscus.

In the area of Antioch, two main roads have been excavated so far. One of them is Decumanus Maximus that has been mentioned above, and the other one – Cardo Maximus. Decumanus Maximus starts from the western gate and ends after 320 meters, near the Tiberius Square. At this point, this road intersects with Cardo Maximus that goes to the north-east, to the nymphaeum, located 400 meters away. In the case of both roads, the researchers found the remains of the drainage system that prevented the flooding during heavy rains. On both sides of the roads, there were numerous shops and workshops, the creation of which dates back to the first and second century CE. If you look carefully, it is possible to discern the ruts made by the wagons that delivered goods to the shops in Antioch.

Following Decumanus Maximus road, the visitors reach a theatre, located midway between the western gate and the Tiberium Square. This building of an impressive size is situated on the northern side of the road. The auditorium of the theatre rests on a hillside, so only the highest rows of seats required additional support system of arches and vaults. Unfortunately, the façade of the theatre has not been preserved to our times. Discovered fragments of the building revealed that the façade was adorned with richly carved friezes. The theatre was built in the Hellenistic period, and from the discovered inscription it is known that the building underwent renovation and expansion in the years 311 – 313 CE. The weak degree of preservation results from the fact that in later times the building served as a convenient source of building materials, both for the residents of Antioch, and the nearby town of Yalvaç. Apparently, a pupil of St. Paul, Tekla, was thrown to the wild animals in this theatre. Her miraculous escape is presented in the article on Saint Thecla Church and Cave in Silifke.

Decumanus Maximus street, Antioch in Pisidia / Wikimedia Commons

Decumanus Maximus street, ascending the hill, leads to the Tiberius Square (lat. Tiberia Platea), located in front of a monumental gate, leading to the Temple of Augustus. The Tiberius Square is a rectangle with sides 30 and 70 meters long. Its construction is dated to the years 25-50 CE. The central location and the proximity to the temple suggest that the square was the heart of urban life in Antioch. Archaeological work has shown that along the sides of the square there were grocery stores, restaurants, and bars. In this location, archaeologists unearthed plates, cups, kitchen utensils, and hundreds of coins. The inscription in the shape of a shield, found in front of a monumental gate, announces that Aedile Titus Baebius Asiaticus paid from his own pocket for the paving of two major roads and the Tiberius Square.

A monumental gate or a propylon leading to the Shrine of Imperial Cult, was located at the end of the Tiberius Square. The gate stood on a podium, which was accessed by a flight of twelve steps. As in the case of the western gate, the propylon of the Temple of Augustus also had the form of a triple triumphal arch, supported by columns in the Corinthian order. The central arch of the gate was 4.5 meters wide, and the side arches were 3.5 meters wide each. Above the arches, there was a bas-relief depicting prisoners of war, the goddess of victory Nike, and Eros – the god of love.

The propylon was built in honour of Emperor Augustus. The inscription placed above the central arch, lined with bronze letters, proclaimed, “For the Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of a god, Pontifex Maximus, consul for the 13th time, with tribunician power for the 22nd time, imperator for the 14th time, father of the country”. During the excavations conducted in the area of the propylon, researchers discovered tables containing the autobiography of the first Roman emperor, Octavian Augustus, known as Res Gestae Divi Augusti. The most famous version of the text was found in the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and the version from Antioch is one of two found in the area of Phrygia and Pisidia. The second text was found in the ancient Apollonia. The tablet of Antioch, in almost sixty fragments, is now displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Yalvaç.

Ruins of the Temple of Augustus at Antioch of Pisidia / Wikimedia Commons

The Temple of Augustus, also known as the Imperial Sanctuary, was built at the highest point of the city. Its foundations were dug in the rock, and the temple was built on a podium with a height of 2.5 meters. Twelve steps lead into the temple. The podium had dimensions of 26 to 15 meters. The vestibule decorated with four columns in the Corinthian order led into the interior of the temple led. The cella, that is the most important room of the temple, had a plan close to a square with sides about 11 meters long. It was decorated with friezes carved with garlands and leaves.

Behind the temple, there was a two-storey gallery carved in the rock wall. Its first storey was decorated with a colonnade in the Doric order, and the second floor had a colonnade of the Ionic order. The researchers speculate that the ground floor of the gallery served the residents of the city as a place for walks and exchange of ideas.

Opposite the Tiberius Square, on the other side of Cardo Maximus road, stand the ruins of the central church. The building was called this way by the researchers, because of its position in the city. A Scottish archaeologist, William Mitchell Ramsay, who spent 50 years studying the historical geography of Asia Minor, published in 1927 an article devoted to Pisidian Antioch. He suggested that a small apse, located on the southern side of this church, belonged to an earlier church, built in the place of the synagogue where St. Paul preached. Ramsay found an iron seal bearing the names of the three martyrs of the reign of Emperor Diocletian: Neon, Nikon, and Heliodorus, on the premises of the church. The central church, now also known as the Church of St. Bassus, was probably built in the 4th century.

Cardo Maximus street, Antioch of Pisidia / Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, when we visited Antioch of Pisidia, further walk down Cardo Maximus street was not possible due to ongoing excavations. In 2015, archaeologists announced the discovery of a three-aisled basilica, located on the eastern side of the road. Its floor was lined with marble slabs, and the walls were covered with frescoes depicting Christian symbols and geometric patterns. This church was built in the place where previously stood the temple from the period of Antonine dynasty, that is in the 2nd century CE.

Cardo Maximus street ends at the monumental fountain or nymphaeum. The modest remains of this building indicate that it was built on the U plan. It consisted of a richly decorated façade with a height of 9 meters and a water tank, with the sides 27 and 7 meters long, and 1.5 meters deep. The water was brought from the mountains via the system of aqueducts. From the area near the nymphaeum extends an excellent view of the valley, with a long and well-preserved aqueduct.

From the area of the nymphaeum, a narrow path goes in the north-western direction. It leads to one of the best-preserved buildings in Antioch, often described as the Roman baths. The building occupies an area measuring 80 to 55 meters. Only seven of its numerous rooms have been excavated. Most probably, it was erected in the first century CE. In fact, it is not certain whether this building was a bath or served an entirely different purpose. The doubts of the researchers result from the location of the entrance and the lack of significant traces of heating system and water distribution in the building. Perhaps, the fragments preserved to our days were only foundations of a larger building, as in the case of the substructure of the Temple of Trajan on the acropolis of Pergamon.

Ruins of the northern church, Antioch of Pisidia / DHA Photos, Hurriyet Daily News

On the eastern side of the building, there are traces of another church. It is known as the northern church. It was a three-nave basilica with a length of 42 meters and a width of 23.5 meters. The building has been preserved to the level of the stylobate that is the top layer of its stone base. Therefore, the exact appearance of the whole building it unknown. The most significant fragment visible is the main apse of the temple. In the southern nave, small fragments of a mosaic floor have been found. It is known that capitals of the columns obtained from older buildings were used for the construction of the church. On the basis of comparison with other churches from the area of Antioch, researchers speculate that this basilica was erected at the earliest at the end of the 6th century.

From the area of the northern church, the path leads to the south-west, to another church, known as the Great Basilica or the Church of St. Paul. The building was also a three-nave basilica with a semicircular apse. From the outside, the apse was surrounded by a hexagonal wall. The main nave was separated from the aisles by the rows of 13 columns on hexagonal bases. The building had dimensions of 70 to 27 meters. It also had a vestibule, measuring 27 to 13 meters, supported on the city walls.

The floor of the central nave was covered with a mosaic depicting floral and geometric motifs, in yellow, red, white, and black colours. The mosaic also reveals the name of the archbishop Optimus, who represented the Antioch of Pisidia at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. On this basis, the researchers determined the approximate date of construction of the church at the end of the 4th century. Therefore, the Great Basilica is one of the earliest examples of monumental churches in Anatolia. It is also known that the church underwent renovation in the fifth or sixth century.

A large aqueduct that was built early in the first century A.D. brought water to the city from springs in the hills / Wikimedia Commons

An ancient aqueduct is located outside the area of the archaeological site. To see it closely, walk or drive the distance of 1.5 km from the entrance to Antioch in a northeasterly direction. To our times, 19 arches of the aqueduct have been preserved. In the 19th century, 21 of them were still visible. In ancient times, the aqueduct supplied water to the city from a distance of 10 km and the altitude of 1,465 meters above the sea level. It consisted of a series of bridges, tunnels and syphons. Its daily capacity was estimated at 3,000 cubic meters. It was probably destroyed by an earthquake in the sixth century CE.

About 3.5 km to the south-east of the ruins of Antioch, on Karakuyu Hill, stand the ruins of the temple of Men Askaenos. Men was one of the most mysterious deities worshipped in Asia Minor. His cult as a god of the moon was widespread especially in the western parts of Anatolia. The Temple of Men in Antioch was a peripteros in the Ionic order. Along its longer walls there were 11 columns, and along the shorter walls – 6 columns. The building stood on the podium with dimensions of 31 to 17.5 meters. On the walls surrounding the sacred district or temenos many inscriptions and symbols of the moon, probably left there by pilgrims, were discovered. In addition to the ruins of the temple in this location, it is possible to see several other buildings, including the houses of priests and guest rooms.