Eight Days Journey Through Four Millennia of History (1) From Tarsus o Mount Ararat

By Ferrell Jenkins

For many years I had wanted to visit Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. When I planned the Steps of Paul and John tour of Greece and Turkey for 1995 I determined that this would be the year to see my dream fulfilled. Prior to this tour, on four previous tours, I had visited all of the places mentioned in the book of Acts. But certain Old Testament sites had eluded me because they were far away in eastern Turkey near the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Soviet Union (now Armenia). I asked Curtis Pope and his brother Kyle if they would like to join me for this adventure.

Our tour of Greece and Turkey, with forty tour members, ended in Athens and all of the people returned to the United States with the exception of the three of us. We took a flight from Athens to Samos and then a ferry to Kusadasi, Turkey, and from there by car to Izmir for the night. The next morning we took a flight of about an hour and a half on the Turkish Airline to Adana. It was a beautiful flight and we could see the Taurus Mountains and the Cilician Gates as we approached Adana. Our Avis rental car, a Fiat with air conditioning (a rarity in Turkey), was ready upon arrival.

The Cilician Gates: Corridor of History

Twice previously I had been to Tarsus and the Cilician Gates but I wanted Curtis and Kyle to see them. Leaving Adana we headed west through the plains of Cilicia and took the old road (instead of the new toll road) northwesterly through the Cilician Gates, one of the three passes through the Taurus Mountains which connect the Anatolian plateau, with an elevation of about 3000 feet above sea level, with the Mediterranean coast. We admired the beauty of the snow-covered Taurus mountains, some peaks more than 11,000 feet above sea level, and talked a lot about the importance of this pass. We knew that the Hittites, Alexander the Great, the Romans, and the Crusaders had gone this way before us. Most likely Paul and Silas went this way as they went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches, at the beginning of the second preaching journey (Acts 15:40-41).

The distance from the Anatolian plateau to the Cilician plain is about 70 miles. In ancient times this was a journey of nearly five days. As we drove through the most narrow part of the pass on the modern widened highway we saw the natural pass an area about wide enough for a four-lane highway  and the river flowing through it. We remembered Paul’s statements about being in “dangers from rivers” and “dangers from robbers” (2 Cor. 11:26). We knew that places like this could be what he was describing.

Throughout eastern Turkey one sees men (and sometimes women) wearing baggy pants and both men and women riding donkeys. Turkey grows a tremendous amount of grain and much of the agricultural work is done with tractors today. When we turned around to go back to Tarsus we were not far from the Galatian cities of Derbe, Lystra and Iconium  cities visited by Paul on his first journey (Acts 14; Gal. 1:2).

Tarsus: City of Paul

Tarsus was an important city on our list because it was the native home of Paul. In the city we saw the stone arch which was probably the Sea Gate to the old walled city. It is popularly known as Cleopatra’s Gate; some call it St. Paul’s Gate. The modern city, which now boasts a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants, covers the city of Paul. Also in Tarsus one may see a well which is called Saint Paul’s well. The city of Tarsus put up a plaque by the well in 1980 commemorating the work of Paul. The keeper says the well is 30 meters deep. Selcuk University has been conducting some excavations in the city. We saw a mosaic floor, a basalt street and columns along one side of the street, apparently from the Roman period.

East of the city we came to the River Cydnus which had once brought Cleopatra to Tarsus to meet Mark Antony. We saw the stone-arched bridge built during the time of the Emperor Justinian (6th century), and the beautiful water-falls. We imagined that all of the great armies must have stopped here for rest and refreshment before or after traversing the Cilician Gates; we imagined the young Saul must have played here as a boy just as many young people do today.

Tarsus had been important historically. Because of its position on the River Cydnus near the Mediterranean about 30 miles below the Cilician Gates, Tarsus in Cilicia served as one of the great crossroads of history. Paul described his hometown as “no insignificant city” (Acts 21:39; 9:11; 22:3). It was a fortified city and trade center as early as 2000 B.C. It was captured by the Assyrian kings Shalmaneser III (833 B.C.) and Sennacherib (698 B.C.), and had seen the likes of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

Tarsus was commercially important. Ancient writers mention the linen woven here from flax which grew in the fertile plain. A material called cilicium was woven from goat’s hair and used to make coverings which would protect against cold and wet. The city was culturally important. Strabo describes the people as being avid in the pursuit of culture. Tarsus was a university town, and was noted as the home of several well-known philosophers, especially of the Stoic school. Barclay says: “If a man was destined to be a missionary to the world at large, there was no better place in all the east for him to grow to manhood than in Tarsus” (The Mind of St. Paul, 25-26). Barnabas came to Tarsus to find Saul to help in the new work at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). The letter from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem was sent to the brethren “in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (Acts 15:23).

One more thing. Solomon is said to have imported horses from Kue (qweh, l Kings 10:28). The KJV translated the Hebrew word qweh as “linen yam.” Scholars now believe, based on inscriptions from the eighth and ninth centuries B.C., that the word is used of Cilicia (so the Jerusalem Bible).

Heading East to Karatepe: Stronghold of the Hittites

On the third day of our excursion we drove east on the E-90, an excellent new road. Most of the east-west roads in Turkey are in valleys between mountain ranges. Had we turned south we could have gone past the plain of Issus, where the armies of Alexander and Darius fought in 333 B.C., and on to the city of Antakya (Biblical Antioch of Syria, Acts 11:19-30). We continued east to Osmaniye and turned north to Karatepe. We saw a lot of farm life and some bad gravel roads before reaching Karatepe and a beautiful artificial lake. Some ladies were gathering sheaves just as Ruth and Naomi did in the fields of Boaz (Ruth 2). Karatepe is noted for its neo-Hittite ruins. The Hittites are mentioned more than 40 times in the Old Testament. Their main area of activity was centered in Hattusas, modern Bogazkale, about 100 miles east of Ankara. The ruins at Karatepe have been displayed in an open air museum where they were uncovered by the archaeologists. The reliefs show scenes of war, daily life and feasting, along with Hittite and Phoenician script.

We were impressed with the power of the Hittites during the period of the United and Divided Kingdoms of ancient Israel. Reliefs showing horses reminded us that Solomon bought horses and chariots from the Egyptians and sold them to the Hittites (2 Chron. 1:17).

A few miles south of Karatepe is the site of Hierapolis Kastabala. Only a few Roman and Byzantine ruins may be seen at the foot of the acropolis. Here, or on the southern boundary of this territory, Alexander joined forces with Parmenion in 333 B.C. From here they marched south to the Plain of Issus followed by Darius and the Persian army.

More to Come: In future parts we plan to tell about Mount Nemrud, the Euphrates River, Sanliurfa, Haran, Padan Aram, Mesopotamia, the Tigris River, Urartu (Ararat), and Mount Ararat. My thanks to Curtis Pope for suggesting the title, “From Tarsus to Mount Ararat.”

Guardian of Truth XL: 5 p. 10-11
March 7, 1996