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in the footsteps of paul
 Tarsus
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 Home | History | Series
 Introduction
 Tarsus (Birth - 30CE)
 Jerusalem (30-34)
 Antioch (34-43)
 Spreading the Word (43-48)
 The Wider World (49-50)
 Corinth (50-52)
 Ephesus (52-56)
 Into the Fire (56-70)
Tarsus: Geography and History
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 Pages
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As for Tarsus, it lies on a plain, founded by Argives wandering in search of Io. The Cyndus River flows through the middle, past the gymnasium of the young men. Because the source of the river is not far off, and its course flows through a deep ravine before it falls into the city, the current is both cold and fast, and soothes the swollen nerves of men and livestock in its current.
–Strabo Geography 14.5.12

Scenic coastline around Tarsus
Scenic coastline around Tarsus
(photo courtesy Ministry of Tourism, Ankara)

Gate on a Roman road outside Tarsus
Gate on a Roman road outside Tarsus
(photo courtesy Ministry of Tourism, Ankara)

The pirates first grew strong in Cilicia, and were elusive. But then, when the Romans were engaged in civil war, they grew bold and began to attack not just ships at sea, but islands and cities along the coast as well. More hateful than fear they inspired was their extravagance -- with gilded masts and purple sails and silver-plated oars. They were a disgrace to Roman supremacy -- with drunken revels on every shore.
–Plutarch Pompey 24

Among the men of Tarsus the zeal for philosophy and other kinds of education surpasses that in Athens and Alexandria and any other place renowned for schools and occupation in philosophy
–Strabo Geography 14.5.13


t
arsus in the first century was one of the urban centers of the Eastern Mediterannean. The Southeastern coast of modern Turkey was known as Cilicia and was divided into two halves: a rugged mountain coastline on the West -- notorious as a hideout for pirates -- and a smooth fertile plain on the East. Boundaries defining regions were not fixed, permanent borders between nations. Rather, they were fluid, and often overlapping. A region was identified by its inhabitants, or geography, or occupying forces, and names could change at times of natural disaster, invasion, or immigration. Cities were defended by massive fortifying walls, and supported by what outlying resources and agricultural areas they could control.

The ancient geographer Strabo claims a mythical foundation for Tarsus, and modern archeology shows that the site had been inhabited since at least the third millennium BCE. Located on the river Cydnos, and near a mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates, it was an important hub for traffic of goods and people to and from the interior of modern Turkey. Since the conquests of Alexander in the fourth century BCE, Greek had been the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Tarsus was no exception. At Alexander's death, his generals carved his empire into kingdoms, and the period and its culture are called Hellenistic. Like all the cities of the Hellenistic world, Tarsus' fortunes would rise and fall depending on political alliances with the players in Rome's foreign and civil wars. Rome annexed the city in 67 BCE as part of a campaign against piracy. After the assassination of Julius Caesar rival Roman generals rushed to carve their personal empires out of the territories he had controlled. One of these, Marc Antony, took a special liking to Tarsus, and it was here that he and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra struck an alliance. Their defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE secured the full circumference of the sea for Julius Caesar's heir, Octavian -- soon to be the first emperor, Augustus. The city was also known for its philosophers; whether Paul was familiar with Greek philosophical traditions from his mother-city Tarsus is open to speculation.

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