The mosaics of Antioch

In the words of the noted 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus: “No other city in the world can surpass this one in terms of the fertility of its lands or the richness of its trade.” Antakya, which possesses the world's largest mosaic museum after the city of Bardo in Tunisia, is an impressive monument in its own right.

Known as the 'Queen of the East' in the language of the travelers and emperors that were awed by it, Antakya (ancient Antioch) was a major place of settlement for all the civilizations in history. Traces of all the civilizations founded in Anatolia can be found in this city on the banks of the Asi River between Mts. Amanos and Habibi Neccar. Exhibiting vestiges of countless civilizations, cultures and religious faiths from the 4th century B.C. up to our own day, Antakya heads the list of major cities whose historic riches left those who saw them awestruck. The city's historic monuments display the relics of those civilizations before our very eyes. And the innumerable artifacts and monuments unearthed following research and studies carried out in the past century constitute a summary of that history.
The mosaics that testify to the splendor of this city in various periods throughout its history were unearthed in the archaeological excavations that got underway in 1932. The studies carried out in Hatay, which was under French rule at the time, were done by M. Claude Prost, then-Inspector of Antiquities. During this period excavations were undertaken in various parts of Antakya, which had attracted the attention of the departments of archaeology of the leading western universities. It was decided to build a museum to conserve and exhibit the dazzling mosaics that had been unearthed in work done at Tainat, Çatalhöyük, Dehep and Cüdeyde on
the Plain of Amik by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, at Açana Höyük in the El-Mina area of Samandağı on behalf of the British Museum, and in the Antakya region under the auspices of Princeton University. Construction of the museum building was started in 1934 by architect M. Michel Ecocherde and continued at Hatay, which subsequently became a small, independent state. When Hatay was annexed to Turkey in 1939, efforts continued to organize and exhibit the artifacts uncovered in the excavations. When the museum construction was complete and the new galleries were ready for exhibiting the monuments, the museum was opened to the public on 23 July 1948, the anniversary of the annexation of Hatay to Turkey.
It is mainly mosaics recovered from Roman and Byzantine structures built between the 2nd and 5th centuries A.D. that form the exhibitions at the Hatay Archaeological Museum. The mosaics on display in the museum's spacious galleries tend to be representational mosaics made between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, during the reigns of Antoninus and Severius, which is known as the classical period of Roman art. One of the most popular places where mosaics are found is Daphne (Harbiye) with its magnificent period palaces and dream villas of legendary beauty built for the emperors, princes and princesses, and wealthy individuals and prominent figures of the day. Famous people from all over were entertained here, where a temple to the wood nymph Daphne and the goddess Diana was also located, and the buildings erected in this period were adorned with mosaics of incomparable beauty. Becoming a center of artistic activity in time, Antakya earned well-deserved fame in the world for its mosaics. Mosaics, the first examples of which were encountered at the Temple of Uruh in Mesopotamia, originally consisted of black, white and red geometric designs affixed to columns semi-embedded in the walls by nails with heads of red clay. In time new colors were added to these mosaics, which consisted in the beginning of simple colors, and human and animal figures to the geometric shapes. Made for the most part of colored stones, the Roman-period mosaics found in the Antakya region consist of human and animal figures and scenes from mythology surrounded by geometric borders.

A variety of subjects was treated in the mosaics that adorned the walls and floors of homes, baths and palace chambers in the Roman and Byzantine periods. On the mosaics produced up to the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, mythological heroes, legends, gods and goddesses and incidents from the lives of the heroes were depicted. Events from the lives of the gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Tethys Okeanos, Apollo, Psyche, Eros, Satyr, Aphrodite and Bacchus are seen portrayed on most of these mosaics.  Some specific scenes include those of Narcissus, who was in enamored of his own reflection in the water, the wood nymph Daphne fleeing from Apollo who was in love with her, and of the strongman Hercules. With conversion to Christianity, the mythological elements in mosaics declined and mosaics depicting religious subjects and the seasons began to be produced.

The mosaics exhibited in the museum have a prominent and worthy place among the world's historic artifacts for their size, quality and sheer numbers. The city's importance in history and its location at a crossroads of cultures ensured that all this richness would also be reflected in its works of art.  Ancient Antioch is said to have been founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals, Seleucus, Satrap of Babylon. Later a province of the Roman Empire, Antioch became the world's third largest city after Rome and Alexandria. It is possible to see in Antakya historic monuments reflecting the concepts of art of all civilizations from the Mitanni to the Hittites, from the Assyrians to the Urartu's, from Rome to Byzantium.
There is hardly any empty space left in the Archaeological Museum where the mosaics unearthed in the digs are exhibited. Close to 120 mosaics in the form of panels are displayed on the museum's walls and in its spacious galleries, while another seventy wait in storage due to shortage of space. The world's third largest coin collection is also found in this museum, which boasts a number of historic monuments from pre-history and from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods as well.  There are close to 19.000 archaeological artifacts, more than a thousand ethnographic finds, close to 14,000 coins and more than a thousand seals here. Upwards of a hundred thousand tourists a year, Turkish and foreign, visit this museum, which is home to over 35,000 historic monuments. With its mosaic panels of almost two square meters, its sarcophagi, its ceramics, its ornamental glassware, its coins and its statues large and small, Antioch is a virtual cradle of civilizations.