Tarsus-Ancient Tarsus in Asia Minor
Often overlooked in ancient history, the strategic city Tarsus, located in southern Asia Minor, may have been one of the first great “university towns.” Often associated with its “favorite son” Paul, the city was associated with a fair crop of ancient world notables. According the legend, Adam’s son, Seth, died in the region when it was a fourth millennium BC settlement. Fertile lands, a good port, and proximity to the roads connecting Asia Minor with Syria and Mesopotamia enabled Tarsus to prosper while escaping the fate of other great ancient cities during periods of competing conquests.
From the Assyrians to the Romans
Although it is agreed that Tarsus, as a city, was first established by the Assyrians in the 9th century BC, scholars conflict over which king was responsible. King Assurbanipal is given credit for founding the city in 820 BC, yet other ancient sources cite Sennacherib as the founder.
Built on the Cydnus River ten miles from the coast in the region of Cilicia, Tarsus eventually became part of the Persian Empire and furnished both tribute and fleets for Persian military adventures. Six miles from the city, the river became an expansive lake, giving the inhabitants a safe and accessible port. During the Persian period, Greek influence was already evident and would grow after Alexander defeated Darius III.
Tarsus also had a Jewish community, associated in large measure with the period of the Seleucids. The city is first mentioned in the Bible in Maccabees. Biblical scholars suggest that Paul’s Jewish ancestry may be traced to this early period.
During the Roman period, the city hosted Mark Antony, who bestowed upon it duty-free status. It was at Tarsus that Cleopatra sailed her barge up the river to meet Mark Antony and plan their power struggle with Octavian. Even after their defeat, however, Octavian continued the commercial preferences for the city.
The Latter Years Under Imperial Rome
Tarsus was one of the few ancient cities possessing schools – perhaps the equivalent of early universities of sorts, which held the highest reputations, surpassing even the learning centers of Athens and Alexandria. According to Marcus Tod of Oxford University and a Reader and Lecturer in Greek Epigraphy, the city became known for its schools of philosophy during the reign of Augustus and attracted students from throughout the empire. Additionally, Tarsus sent its young men to study aboard after a certain age. Paul, born in AD 10, was sent to Jerusalem to study, possibly with Gamaliel, according to Anna Edmonds, a scholar and expert on Turkish religious sites.
The Emperor Trajan died while visiting Tarsus with Hadrian at his side. Centuries earlier, Alexander the Great also came near death while in Tarsus after swimming in the frigid river and developing a fever. Ultimately, as the empire began to wan, silting decreased the convenience of the port. Despite attempts by the Emperor Justinian to create a new water channel in the 5th century AD, the utility of Tarsus as a vibrant port declined.
Tarsus’ Greatest Citizen
Paul, a Hellenized Jew who inherited his Roman citizenship through his father, remains as the greatest citizen of Tarsus. It was from Tarsus that Paul would accompany Barnabas and ultimately begin his missionary journeys that would end with his martyrdom in Rome during the persecutions of Nero.
Although it may not be possible to definitively trace the influence of Greek thinking and philosophy with Paul’s writings, scholars note that his initial education in this “university town” must have left some marks on his ability to later fuse Greek concepts with Jewish tradition.
Anna G. Edmonds, Turkey’s Religious Sites (Istanbul: Damko, 1998).
Michael Grant, The Ancient Mediterranean (New York: History Book Club, in association with Penguin Putnam 2002).
Marcus Niebuhr Tod, “Tarsus,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Volume V, James Orr, General Editor (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939) p 2914-2917.