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AC 21:39 Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people."

Tarsus, best known as the home of the Apostle Paul, was the principal city of the eastern Cilician plain. A city renowned in antiquity as a center of culture and learning, Tarsus was visited by such figures as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. Recent excavations have uncovered more remains of the city from Hellenistic and Roman times, including a paved, colonnaded street.

Location and History

Tarsus, the capital of the ancient province of Cilicia, is located near the eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Situated today 10 miles inland from the sea, Tarsus served as a port city because the Cydnus River passed through Tarsus on its way to the sea. The river was navigable by ships from the Mediterranean coast to Tarsus. Lake Rhegma, a lagoon near the Mediterranean coast into which the river flowed, served as the harbor for Tarsus. During the 6th century C.E., Emperor Justinian moved the course of the Cydnus River to the east of Tarsus, while leaving several minor branches of the river to flow through the city. The city of Tarsus belonged to the region of Asia Minor known as Cilicia. Ancient Cilicia was composed of two parts, Cilicia Pedias (“flat” or “smooth” Cilicia) and Cilicia Trachaei (“rough” Cilicia). Cilicia Pedias was a fertile plain in the eastern part of the region, whereas Cilicia Trachaei was a rugged, heavily forested mountainous region in the western part, dominated by the Taurus Mountains.

Tarsus, the major city of Cilicia Pedias, was located just south of the Cilician Gates, the main pass through the Taurus Mountains. Through this pass ran the major road connecting Syria to Asia Minor, thus providing Tarsus access to trade and travel over land as well as over the Mediterranean. The earliest settlement at Tarsus was likely at Gozlu Kule, a tumulus on the southeast side of modern Tarsus. Excavations under the direction of Hetty Goldman of Princeton University before and immediately after World War II at the tumulus discovered evidence that the site was occupied from Neolithic to Islamic times.

At least as early as the 3rd millennium B.C.E., a fortified town existed at the site of Tarsus. According to Hittite records, during the 2nd millennium Tarsus (known then as Tarša) was one of the important cities, and possibly even capital, of the country of Kizzuwatna (ancient Cilicia). The Sea Peoples, during their invasion and conquest of the region, destroyed Tarsus around 1200 B.C.E., but the city was subsequently refounded by Greek settlers. During the 9th century, all of Cilicia came under the control of the Assyrians. Later the Persians controlled the region, including Tarsus. In 333 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered Cilicia and defeated the Persians. His visit to Tarsus almost ended disastrously for him when he became seriously ill as a result of bathing in the cold waters of the Cydnus.

After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.E., Tarsus came under the rule of the Seleucids, who gave the city a new name—Antioch on the Cydnus. By 67 B.C.E., Rome had taken control of the area and made Tarsus the capital of the province of Cilicia. Cicero lived in the city from 51 to 50 B.C.E., when he served as proconsul (governor) of Cilicia. In 47 B.C.E. Julius Caesar visited the city, which Tarsus changed its name to Iuliopolis in his honor.

A few years later, in 41 B.C.E., the city was the site for the famous rendezvous between Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra, dressed like Aphrodite, sailed up the Cydnus on a barge to meet Antony, who was visiting the city. Under the Romans, Tarsus prospered and was a city of culture and learning.

Paul the Apostle, the most famous citizen of the city, reportedly described Tarsus as “no ordinary city” (Acts 21:39), a modest description of the city that Strabo described as having “surpassed Athens, Alexandria, or any other place that can be named where there have been schools and lectures of philosophers” (Geography 14.5.13). During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, several Roman emperors visited Tarsus and bestowed various honors on the city. After the Romans, the city was controlled by Byzantine, Arab, Seljuk, and Ottoman rulers.

Biblical Significance

In none of Paul’s letters contained in the New Testament does he ever mention Tarsus as the place of his birth. That information comes from the book of Acts, which several times names Tarsus as Paul’s hometown (Acts 9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3). According to Acts, Paul left Tarsus and was educated in Jerusalem, studying under the famous Jewish teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). After his conversion/call to Christianity, he returned to Tarsus for a brief period prior to becoming the important missionary of the Christian church. While the accuracy of the information in Acts about Paul’s stay in Jerusalem has been seriously questioned by some scholars, there is no reason to doubt the tradition of Tarsus as his birthplace and possibly the place where he spent all his formative years.

The only other reference to Tarsus in biblical literature is in 2 Maccabees 4:30, which tells that the citizens of Tarsus, along with the citizens of Mallus (east of Tarsus), revolted against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV “because their cities had been given as a present to Antiochis, the king’s concubine.” Some readers have tried to identify Tarsus with the city of Tarshish, mentioned several times in the Bible (e.g., Jonah 1:3; Jer 10:9; Ezek 27:12). The location of Tarshish is uncertain. The most likely suggestion is that it refers to a port city in Spain and not to Tarsus.

Site Visit

Because the modern city of Tarsus is built over the location of the earlier phases of the city, little can be seen today of the ancient Hellenistic and Roman structures. Whatever ancient ruins may still exist lie mostly unexcavated under the modern city. (For example, the foundation of a 1st-century-C.E. Roman hippodrome lies under part of the grounds of the Tarsus American College, whose campus, not far from the town center, is located on the periphery of the slopes of Gozlü Kule; across the street, some exposed portions of a Roman theater are visible.) The tumulus of Gozlü Kule, where the earliest archaeological work at Tarsus was performed, has now been planted with trees and is used as a park.

In the middle of a traffic circle in Tarsus on the road to Mersin is a Roman gate called, variously, Kancik Kapïsï (“Gate of the Bitch”), Cleopatra’s Gate, and St. Paul’s Gate. The gate actually has no historical connection to either Cleopatra or Paul. Rather, it is likely a 4th-century C.E. gate set in the ancient city walls to provide access to the harbor.

North of the gate, in the Camii Cedid district of the city, is the St. Paul’s Well. Tradition claims that Paul used this well frequently and that it has special curative powers. The well, which is claimed to be over 100 feet deep, is supposedly built where Paul’s house once stood. Although there is no historical basis for these claims, the well apparently dates back at least to Roman times, since about three feet underground it is surrounded by Roman paving.

Source: STM Turkey Study Trip 2013 booklet

Park where St. Paul's well is located

walking in the park

St. Paul's well

foundations of a house

St. Paul's Well - clear, fresh water

lowering the bucket

about St. Paul's Well

sharing at St. Paul's Well

foundations of another house

Roman road to harbour, Tarsus

another view of the Roman road

Roman road

Roman road with some ruins

Cleopatra's Gate. 4th cent.

also called St. Paul's Gate

leading to harbour

River Cydnus where Alexander the Great bathed and then became severely ill

note about Alexander's bath

clear cold water


30 May 2013

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