Ancient road in Tarsus
|• Mayor||Burhanettin Kocamaz (MHP)|
|• Kaymakam||Mehmet Gödekmerdan|
|• District||2,019.43 km2 (779.71 sq mi)|
|• District density||160/km2 (410/sq mi)|
Tarsus (Hittite: Tarsa, Greek: Ταρσός) is a historic city in south-central Turkey, 20 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea. It is part of the Adana-Mersin Metropolitan Area, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in Turkey with a population of 3 million. Tarsus District forms an administrative district in the eastern part of the Mersin Province and lies in the core of Çukurova region.
With a history going back over 6,000 years, Tarsus has long been an important stop for traders, a focal point of many civilisations including the Roman Empire, when Tarsus was capital of the province of Cilicia, the scene of the first meeting between Mark Antony and Cleopatra, where Paul the Apostle was born.
Located on the mouth of the Berdan River (Cydnus of the antiquity), which empties into the Mediterranean Sea, Tarsus is a junction point of land and sea routes connecting the Cilician plain (today called Çukurova), central Anatolia and the Mediterranean sea. The climate is typical of the Mediterranean region, summers very very hot, winters chilly and damp.
Tarsus has a long history of commerce and is still a commercial centre today, trading in the produce of the fertile Çukurova plain; also Tarsus is a thriving industrial centre of refining and processing that produces some for export. Industries include agricultural machinery, spare parts, textiles, fruit-processing, brick building and ceramics.
Agriculture is an important source of income, half of the land area in the district is farmland (1,050 km²) and most of the remainder is forest and orchard. The farmland is mostly well-irrigated, fertilised and managed with the latest equipment.
The ancient name is Tarsos, derived from "Tarsa", the original name of the city in the Hittite language, which was possibly derived from a pagan god, Tarku, as Hittites were the first settlers. At other times the city was named Tarsisi; Antiochia on the Cydnus (Greek: Αντιόχεια του Κύδνου, Latin: Antiochia ad Cydnum); Juliopolis, Տարսոն, Darson in Western Armenian and Tarson in Eastern Armenian.
Foundation and prehistory
The settlement was located at the crossing of several important trade routes, linking Anatolia to Syria and beyond. Because the ruins are covered by the modern city, archaeology has barely touched the ancient city. The city may have been of Semitic origin; it is mentioned as Tarsisi in the campaigns of Esarhaddon, as well as several times in the records of Shalmaneser I and Sennacherib. A Greek legend connects it with the memory of Sardanapalus (Ashurbanipal), still preserved in the Dunuk-Tach, called 'tomb of Sardanapalus', a monument of unknown origin. Stephanus of Byzantium quotes Athenodorus of Tarsus as relating another legend:
|“||Anchiale, daughter of Iapetus, founded Anchiale (a city near Tarsus): her son was Cydnus, who gave his name to the river at Tarsus: the son of Cydnus was Parthenius, from whom the city was called Parthenia: afterwards the name was changed to Tarsus.||”|
Much of this legend of the foundation of Tarsus, however, appeared in the Roman era, and none of it is reliable. The geographer Strabo states that Tarsus was founded by people from Argos who were exploring this coast. Another legend states that Bellerophon fell off his winged horse Pegasus and landed here, hurting his foot, and thus the city was named tar-sos (the sole of the foot). Other candidates for legendary founder of the city include the hero Perseus and Triptolemus son of the earth-goddess Demeter, doubtless because the countryside around Tarsus is excellent farmland. Later the coinage of Tarsus bore the image of Hercules, due to yet another tale in which the hero was held prisoner here by the local god Sandon. Tarsus has been suggested as a possible identification of the biblical Tarshish, where the prophet Jonah wanted to flee, but Tartessos in Spain is a more likely identification for this. (See further)
Early antiquity, Greece and Persia
In historical times, the city was first ruled by the Hittites, followed by Assyria, and then the Persian Empire. Tarsus, as the principal town of Cilicia, was the seat of a Persian satrapy from 400 BC onward. Indeed, Xenophon records that in 401 BC, when Cyrus the Younger marched against Babylon, the city was governed by King Syennesis in the name of the Persian monarch.
At this period the patron god of the city was Sandon and a large monument to Sandon existed at Tarsus at least until the 3rd century A.D. Coins showed Sandon standing on a winged and horned lion and it is now thought likely that the Lion of Saint Mark on the pillar in the Piazza San Marco in Venice was in origin a winged lion-griffin from such a monument at Tarsus.
Alexander the Great passed through with his armies in 333 BC and nearly met his death here after a bath in the Cydnus. By this time Tarsus was already largely influenced by Greek language and culture, and as part of the Seleucid Empire it became more and more hellenized. Strabo praises the cultural level of Tarsus in this period with its philosophers, poets and linguists. The schools of Tarsus rivaled Athens and Alexandria. 2 Maccabees (4:30) records its revolt in about 171 BC against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had renamed the town Antiochia on the Cydnus. The name didn't last, however, due to the confusion of so many cities named Antioch. At this time the library of Tarsus held 200,000 books, including a huge collection of scientific works.
Pompey subjected Tarsus to Rome, and it became capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, the metropolis where the governor resided. In 66 BC, the inhabitants received Roman citizenship. To flatter Julius Caesar, for a time it took the name Juliopolis. It was also here that Cleopatra and Mark Antony met and was the scene of the celebrated feasts they gave during the construction of their fleet (41 BC). In William Shakespeare's 1606 play Antony and Cleopatra (Act 5, Scene 2), after Antony's death Cleopatra says she is going to Cydnus to meet Antony, i.e., she will commit suicide to meet him in the afterlife; "Go fetch / My best attires: I am again for Cydnus, / To meet Mark Antony"
When the province of Cilicia was divided, Tarsus remained the civil and religious metropolis of Cilicia Prima, and was a grand city with palaces, marketplaces, roads and bridges, baths, fountains and waterworks, a gymnasium on the banks of the Cydnus, and a stadium. Tarsus was later eclipsed by nearby Adana, but remained important as a port and shipyard. Several Roman emperors were interred here: Marcus Claudius Tacitus, Maximinus II, and Julian the Apostate, who planned to move his capital here from Antioch if he returned from his Persian expedition.
Tarsus was the city where, according to the Acts of the Apostles, "Saul of Tarsus"[Acts 9:11] was born, but he was "brought up" ([Acts 22:3]) in Jerusalem. Saul became Paul the apostle after his encounter with Christ (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), and he briefly returned here after his conversion (Acts 9:30). From here Barnabas retrieved him to help with the work in Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:25).
Already by this time a Christian community probably existed, although the first recorded bishop, Helenus, dates only from the third century; Helenus visited Antioch several times in connection with the dispute concerning Paul of Samosata. Later bishops of Tarsus included Lupus, present at the Council of Ancyra in 314; Theodorus, at the Council of Nicaea in 325; Helladius, who was condemned at the Council of Ephesus and who appealed to the bishop of Rome in 433; above all the celebrated exegete Diodorus, teacher of Theodore of Mopsuestia and consequently one of the fathers of Nestorianism. From the sixth century the metropolitan see of Tarsus had seven suffragan bishoprics; the Greek archdiocese is again mentioned in the tenth century (), and existed until the twentieth century upheavals, part of the Patriarchate of Antioch.
At about the end of the tenth century, the Armenians established a diocese of their rite; Saint Nerses of Lambroun was its most distinguished representative in the twelfth century.
A cave in Tarsus is one of a number of places claiming to be the location of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, common to Christianity and Islam.
The first bishop, Helenus, dates from the third century; he went several times to Antioch in connexion with the dispute concerning Paul of Samosata. Le Quien mentions twenty-two of its bishops, of whom several are legendary. Among them are:
- Lupus, present at the Council of Ancyra in 314;
- Theodorus, at the Council of Nicaea in 325;
- Helladius, condemned at Ephesus, and who appealed to the pope in 433;
- the exegete Diodorus, teacher of Theodore of Mopsuestia and consequently one of the fathers of Nestorianism.
From the sixth century the metropolitan See of Tarsus had seven suffragan bishoprics (Echos d'Orient, X, 145); the Greek archdiocese is again mentioned in the tenth century (op. cit., X, 98), and has existed down to the present day, being comprised in the Patriarchate of Antioch. The Arabs took possession of Tarsus from the seventh century.
Islam and beyond
The Tarsus region was annexed by the Forces of Rashidun Caliphate under the command of Khalid ibn Walid in 637. Tarsus was on the edge of the de facto border with the Byzantine empire in this period of the Taurus Mountains range separating the Armeniac and Anatolic themes from Cilicia, Syria and northern Iraq. Tarsus was near the strategically important Cilician Gates which passed through the Taurus Mountains as well as access to the Mediterranean Sea which was used for both land and naval operations further in the Byzantine territory. While the region was lost by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 637, it is unclear when the city was permanently occupied by the Arabs as sources indicate the city was garrisoned and retaken multiple times until the 9th century. It was also ruled by Tulunids and Hamdanids before Byzantine reconquest.
According to the Arabic geographer Ibn Hawqal and the accounts of Arab historian Abu Amr Al-Tarsusi, Tarsus was a stronghold of Muslim forces with thousands of volunteers from across the Islamic world coming to fight in jihad against the Byzantine Empire. The city was a base of operations for the regular summer raids (ṣawāʿif) into Byzantine lands through the Cilician Gates when the mountain snows had melted and passage was possible. Later the city was used in defense of the frontier in response to a resurgent Byzantine empire in the mid-10th century. The city was lost in 965, when Nicephorus Phocas returned it to the Byzantine Empire for nearly a century. The area was retaken by the Seljuk Turks, recaptured in 1097 during the Crusades and then disputed between Latins, Greeks, and Armenians of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (Kingdom of Lesser Armenia); these last became definitively masters until about 1359, when it was captured by the Ramadanids with Mamluks. Finally, the area was brought under the control of the Ottoman Empire by Selim I in 1516.
In the Middle Ages Tarsus was renowned throughout the Middle East; a number of Arab writers praised it as a beautiful and well-defended city, its walls being in two layers with five gates and earthworks outside, surrounded by rich farmland, watered by the river and the lake. By 1671 the traveller Evliya Çelebi records "a city on the plain, an hour from the sea, surrounded by strong walls two-storeys high, moated on all sides, with three distinct neighbourhoods inside the walls".
Despite its excellent defences, Tarsus was captured from the Ottomans in 1832 by the Mamluks of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, son of Muhammad Ali, and for 8 years remained in the hands of the Egyptians, who began growing cotton on the surrounding plain. Upon the return of the Ottomans this cotton drove a substantial growth in the economy of the area, due to increased world demand for the crop during shortages caused by the U.S. Civil War. A new road was built to the port in Mersin and the city of Tarsus grew and thrived. Still today many large houses in the city stand as reminders of the wealth generated during this period. However after being a port for 3,000 years, by the end of the 19th century neglect resulted in Tarsus no longer having access to the sea, and the delta became a swamp. At this point Tarsus was a typical Ottoman city with communities of Muslim Turks, Christian Greeks and Armenians. At the founding of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s the swamp was drained and the River Berdan was dammed to build Turkey's first hydro-electric power station. Irrigation, roadworks and a railway brought the economy of Tarsus back to life, with new factories, particularly producing textiles.
The local cuisine includes: chargrilled chicken; hummus; şalgam (pickled turnips); tantuni (a sandwich of grilled meats); the tiny pizzas (lahmajoon) called "fındık lahmacun"; and cezerye (a confection made out of carrots).
Places of interest
Tarsus has a great many ancient sites of interest, with many in need of restoration and research. These have been well described by travellers over many years. For instance Blackwood's Magazine (Edinburgh) in 1890,  and H. V. Morton's In the Steps of St Paul in 1936. 
The best known include:
- Cleopatra's Gate - to the west of the city, the only ancient city gate still standing, where Anthony and Cleopatra entered the city in 41 BC, though the "restoration" of this structure has involved covering much of it over with shiny new stone (see  for a picture of the gate before the work was done).
- The Roman bridge of Justinian over the Berdan River. Still in good condition.
- Tarsus Museum - contains lots of ancient coins and a severed mummified arm.
- Roman road north of Tarsus
- Ancient road another Roman road within Tarsus.
Sites of religious interest and pilgrimage:
- The St. Paul's Church and well (it is now a museum, but occasionally Christian services can be performed there).
- The mosque said to be the burial place of the Prophet Daniel.
- The ancient story of Pegasus, the winged horse, also concerns Tarsus. Because of Pegasus' faithful service to Zeus, Pegasus was honored with a constellation. On the last day of his life, Zeus transformed him into a constellation, then a single feather fell to the earth near the city of Tarsus.
From the Turkish era:
- Tarsus Grand Mosque and Kırkkaşık Bedesten
- The old baths; the dark brown spots on the white marble walls are said to be the bloodstains of Shah Meran, the legendary Snake King who was killed in an ambush in the baths.
- Tarsus American College; founded in the Ottoman period, still active today.
- "Nusret (Nusrat)" the minelayer used to defend the straits before the Battle of Gallipoli is being restored in Tarsus; it is to be part of a memorial park to those lost in the fighting.
Places of natural beauty include:
- Tarsus Waterfall; since the construction of the Berdan dam the water of the Tarsus river has been distributed in canals for irrigation, with the result that the waterfall can now be seen only in seasons of very heavy rainfall.
- Karabucak Forest; popular picnic area a few kilometers south of the city center
- Antipater, Stoic philosopher
- Caliph Al-Ma'mun died near Tarsus
- CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent, attended Tarsus American College
- Journalist Oral Çalışlar was born in Tarsus.
- Chrysippus, Stoic philosopher
- Zeno of Tarsus, philosopher
- Lokman the Physician
- Mark Antony
- Saint Nerses of Lambron, Archbishop of Tarsus in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia
- Paul the Apostle (Saul of Tarsus), Christian apostle, missionary, martyr, and saint, was born here and returned for a brief period later in life.
- Saint Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Tarsus is one of a number of cities that claims to be the burial place of Bilal ibn Rabah, first muezzin, or caller to prayer, in Islam.
- Tarsus Idman Yurdu is the local football team.
- "Area of regions (including lakes), km²". Regional Statistics Database. Turkish Statistical Institute. 2002. Retrieved 2013-03-05.
- "Population of province/district centers and towns/villages by districts - 2012". Address Based Population Registration System (ABPRS) Database. Turkish Statistical Institute. Retrieved 2013-02-27.
- Sirkeli Archaeological Project
- Jonah 1:3 and the entry for Jonah in the Jewish Encyclopedia
- See The Lion of Venice: edited by Bianca Maria Scarfi (Venice. 1990) pp.101 & 110
- Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999) p. 40.,
- "I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day." --Acts 22:3
- Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, VI, xlvi; VII, v). Le Quien (Oriens christianus, II, 869-76)
- Echos d'Orient, X, 145
- Echos d'Orient, X, 98
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI, xlvi; VII, v.
- Oriens christianus, II, 869-76.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Tarsus
- Annuario Pontificio 2013 (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013, ISBN 978-88-209-9070-1), p. 984
- Bosworth, C.E. (1996). The Arabs, Byzantium and Iran. Aldershot, Hampshire: Variorum. pp. XIII:10–11,XIV:270–276. ISBN 0-86078-583-1.
- Bosworth, C.E. (1996). The Arabs, Byzantium and Iran. Aldershot, Hampshire: Variorum. pp. XIV:270–286. ISBN 0-86078-583-1.
- Prothero, G.W. (1920). Anatolia. London: H.M. Stationary Office. p. 113.
- Bent J T. Tarsus - Past and Present. Blackwood's Magazine (Edinburgh) Volume 148, 1890 pp 616-625
- H. V. Morton. In the Steps of St Paul, London: Rich & Cowan, 1936
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.
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