Antioch and the First Christian Church

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Flag of Turkey  ,
Monday, March 3, 2008

As Christianity began to spread throughout the world, its epicenter was Jesus Christ, but the first place where the name Christian came to be was in Antioch, the capital of Rome's eastern Mediterranean holdings. Two thousand years ago Antioch was a larger city than today, with a Jewish quarter where St. Peter preached and established a church--a congregation--that prayed together in a cave overlooking the city.

St. Peter, once a fisherman, is revered among Christians for this and is seen as the founding father of the Christian churches, including the Syriac and the Catholic, who both have active congregations in town. The Pope wears a ring with a fish and the fish as the Greek acronym Ichthys is a prominent Christian symbol, partly alluding to St. Peter, but also alluding to many other fish proverbs and sayings in the Bible.

The cave church still exists today, with fragments of old mosaic and the ghostly remains of a fresco, alcoves carved into the cave, and smaller cave rooms carved into the cliffs above.  These are all hints of what the simple cave would have been, back when St. Peter preached.  The Crusaders added some walls and an altar during their time.  The first flowers of spring clung to the cliffside.  I walked up here on a Sunday, but there was no service. 

Instead, the service was down below, in town, at the Syriac church, where the congregation sang to Illah, easily seen as the Aramaic form of Allah, or God.  Contrary to many Western beliefs, Allah and God are the same in meaning.  Even pre-Allah idols were called allah, just like gods were gods before God.  The singing was of two parts, with men and women droning on octaves and another group singing the verses.  At the same time, the priest chanted psalms.

At the same time as the church cave, the Romans were firmly established in Antioch, called Antakya.  A large number of well-preserved mosaics and sculpture testify to this, housed in the city museum. 

The Mediterranean-feeling streets were crowded with people walking in the warm sunny spring air, as chicken and kebap grilled on spits in the restaurants, both served fresh with a salad topped with lemon juice and parsley and served with another plate full of tangy greens and pide bread.  Small narrow streets wandered amongst residences, mosques, and a couple of churches.  Though the Asi River was once important for trade, I would imagine, today it was confined to a concrete channel that divided the new and old towns.

One of the nights, the rain fell hard on the restaurant awnings, needed for the newly-planted crops.

From here, I left Monday morning for the Syrian border to get a visa.  I waited for four hours, as they needed to fax Damascus and get permission, then they stamped my passport and I was in Syria, after a couple of weeks in eastern Turkey.
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