The Mediterranean’s Hidden Treasure Tarsus

Harboring all the characteristics typical of the Mediterranean, Tarsus is a geography that has embraced civilization in both nature and history.

Tarsus is one of Anatolia’s major gateways to the Mediterranean. As Turkey’s largest township, it exceeds     many provinces in terms of both population and area. Smack dab between Adana and Mersin, Tarsus lies equidistant from both. And when its friendly people are added to the legends, historic sites and palate-busting flavors, you are going to want to get lost in this city in order to find yourself.  

Tarsus, whose name has come down to our day unchanged for thousands of years, is a perfect open air museum. Excavations conducted in the first half of the 20th century at Gözlükule Mound take the city’s history back to 8,000 B.C. Vestiges of the civilizations that thrived in the city, which was called Taşra by the Hittites and Tarzi by the Assyrians, are still visible today. In short, history whispers on every side here as you walk down a street of everyday life and observe the columns of an historic mosque or hamam. Hosting a university and a library of 200,000 volumes in Antiquity, the city became a center of learning and philosophy that trained the famous philosophers of the Stoic school. Situated on the road that joined Anatolia to Jerusalem in the Roman era, it became Eastern Anatolia’s largest port city. Only a 150-meter section is still open of the ancient way that is thought to have extended for five kilometers.

Six years after the powerful Roman Emperor Julius Caesar came to Tarsus on holiday in 47 B.C., another very important visitor arrived from Egypt. When the gold gilded ship with silver oars and sails of purple satin arrived carrying Queen Cleopatra, her lover, the Roman commander Mark Antony, was ready to meet her in this city famous for its strong walls. The arched, stone Cleopatra Gate at the entrance to Tarsus, where the Egyptian queen is rumored to have set foot inside the city under a clear blue sky, preserves the memory of that happy reunion.

The name of Tarsus is remembered as much in the holy books of the monotheistic religions as it is in the ancient texts. Tarsus, where those religions met and intersected, is a very important city for the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions alike.

During the Roman era, seven young defenders of belief in   one God took refuge from the emperor’s wrath in a cave. By a miracle of Allah, they slept in that cave for more than three hundred years, thereby being saved from the cruel emperor. The sources point to Tarsus as the place where this incident, which is also described in the Quran, took place. Known as the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, it is thronged with visitors both Turkish and foreign every day of the year.

The Prophet Daniel, who lived in the 7th century B.C. in the time of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.), is known as the prophet who rescued the Hebrews from their Babylonian exile. Finding richness and plenty in Tarsus on a visit he made during a period of drought, he did not return to Babylon but at the insistence of the people lived in Tarsus until his death and, according to belief, was buried where the Makam Mosque now stands. Excavations are currently under way in the area where Daniel, who accepted and showed respect to the three great monotheistic religions, is buried. Apart from the Makam Mosque, the Cami-i Nur, also known as the Great Mosque, the Old Mosque and the reputed tomb of Bilal the Abyssinian should also be seen while you are in Tarsus. The shrines of Seth, one of the sons of Adam and Eve and also regarded as a Prophet, of  Luqman the Wise, a medieval Muslim sage, and of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mamoun, founder of the famous school of philosophy, Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), at Baghdad, are also worth a visit.

Saint Paul, one of the leading figures in Christianity, is from Tarsus. The church bearing his name is open to visitors today as a monumental church-museum. Immediately adjacent to it, St. Paul’s Well is at least as noteworthy as the church. A major point of pilgrimage for many Christians, the St. Paul of Tarsus Church also has a positive effect on tourism.

This stone structure dating to the early Roman period is distinguished by its thick walls and original architecture. Thought to have been built as a temple, it is certain to emerge more comprehensively in the archaeological excavations to be conducted here in the future.

Tarsus was founded in the eastern part of Çukurova province on the banks of the Berdan River, which means ‘cold water’ in Arabic. The branches of the great Taurus mountain range against which it rests, with their summits exceeding three thousand meters, their endemic plant species, their glacier lakes and their unique villages, offer rich opportunities for lovers of nature and adventure tourism.