Settlements > Tarsus



TARSUS (mod. Tersous), an ancient city in the fertile plain of Cilicia. The small river Cydnus flowed through the centre of the town, and its cool swift waters were the boast of the city (though visitors like Dion Chrysostom thought it far inferior to the rivers of many Greek cities). The harbour, Rhegma, below the city, was originally a lagoon, though it is said also to be supplied by springs of its own. The Cydnus flowed into the lake (where were the arsenals) and thence into the sea, about 10 m. from Tarsus. The city is first mentioned on the Black Obelisk, as captured by the Assyrians along with the rest of Cilicia about 850 B.C. It was probably an old Ionian colony, settled (like Mallus) under the direction of Clarian Apollo.

Its importance was due (1) to its excellent and safe harbour, (2) to its possession of a fertile territory, and (3) to its command of the first waggon-road made across Mount Taurus, which was cut through the Cilician Gates, a narrow gorge 100 yards in length, originally only wide enough to carry the waters of a small affluent of the Cydnus. The greatness of Tarsus rested therefore mainly on the two great engineering works, the harbour and the road.

That the latter was due to Greek influence is shown by the village Mopsucrene on the southern approach to the Gates: Mopsus was the prophet of Clarian Apollo. Few mountain passes have been so important in history as this road (seventy miles in length) over Taurus. Many armies have marched over it; those of Cyrus the Younger, Alexander the Great, Cicero, Septimius Severus and the First Crusade may specially be mentioned.

Tarsus is most accessible from the sea or from the east. Even after the "Cilician Gates " were cut, the crossing of Taurus was a difficult operation for an invading army (as Xenophon and Arrian show). Hence Tarsian history (where not determined by Greek maritime relations) has been strongly affected by Semitic influence, and Dion Chrysostom, about A.D. 112, says it was more like a Phoenician than a Hellenic city (which it claimed to be). After the Assyrian power decayed, princes, several of whom bore the name or title Syennesis, ruled Tarsus before and under Persian power.

Persian satraps governed it in the 4th century B.C.; and struck coins with Aramaic legends there. The Seleucid kings of Syria for a time kept it in a state of servitude; but it was made an autonomous city with additional citizens (probably Argive Greeks and Jews) by Antiochus IV. Epiphanes in 171 B.C.; and then it began to strike its own coins. It became one of the richest and greatest cities of the East under the Romans after 104 B.C., and was favoured by both Antony and Augustus: the reception there by the former of Cleopatra, who sailed up to the city in a magnificent vessel, was a striking historic event.

In spite of its oriental character, it maintained a university where Greek philosophy was taught by a series of famous Tarsians, who influenced Roman history. Chief among them was Athenodorus Cananites (q.v.), teacher and friend of Augustus for many years, a man of courage and power, who remodelled the Tarsian constitution (making it timocratic and oligarchic). The picture which Philostratus, in his biography of Apollonius Tyanensis, draws of the Tarsians as vain, luxurious and illiterate, represents the general Graeco-Roman conception of the city.

The legend which was believed to be graven on the statue of Sardanapalus at Anehiale (12 m. S.W. from Tarsus) might have been the motto of most Tarsians: "Eat, drink, play, for nothing else is worth this (gesture)" (referred to by St Paul, 1 Cor. xv. 32). The statue was probably an archaic work, with Hittite or- cuneiform inscription, representing a figure with right hand raised: the letters and the attitude were misunderstood; the figure was supposed to be snapping the fingers and uttering this expression of effeminate and weary sensualism.

Tarsus depended for its greatness on commerce, peace and orderly government. It was not a strong fortress, and could not be defended during the decay of the empire against bar- barian invasion. The Arabs captured the whole of Cilicia shortly after a.d. 660; and Tarsus seems to have been a ruin for more than a century after the conquest. But Harun al- Rashid rebuilt its walls in 787, and made it the north-western capital of the Arab power in the long wars against the Byzantine empire. All the raids, which were made in Asia Minor re- gularly, year by year, sometimes twice in one year, through the Cilician Gates and past the fortress Loulon, issued through the north gate of Tarsus, which was called the " Gate of the Holy War."

The western gate is still standing, and is mis- named " St Paul's Gate." The caliph Mamun died on such a foray in a.d. 833, having caught a chill at a great spring north of the Cilician Gates beside Ak-Keupreu. He was brought to Tarsus where (like the emperor Tacitus) he died, and (like the emperor Julian) was buried. His illness recalls the fever which Alexander the Great contracted from bathing in the Cydnus. Nicephorus Phoeas reconquered Tarsus and all Cilicia for the empire in a.d. 965. In the First Crusade Baldwin and Tanered captured Tarsus a.d. 1099, and there the two leaders had a serious quarrel. It formed part of the kingdom of Lesser Armenia fcr great part of the three centuries after a.d. 1180, and it was fortified by Leo II. and Hethoum I. But Turkoman and Egyptian invaders disputed its possession with the Greek emperors and Armenian kings, and with one another. Finally it passed into Ottoman hands about the beginning of the 16th century.

Most of the successive masters of Tarsus had their own legends about its origin, usually with a religious character justifying and explaining their possession of the city. The Assyrian Sardanapalus, the native gcd Sandan, the Greek hero Perseus, the Greek god Heracles, are all called founder of Tarsus. Iapetus, i.e. Japhet, father of Javan " the Ionian," was called the grandfather of Cydnus, who gave name to the river. A curious ceremony was practised in honour of Sandan (identified with the Greek Heracles): a pyre was periodically erected and the god was burned on it. It is said that the original name of the city was Parthenia, which suggests that a virgin goddess was worshipped here as in so many shrines of Asia Minor and Syria: the virgin goddess Athena appears on Tarsian coins. The Baal of Tarsus is named in Aramaic letters on many of its coins in the Persian period.

The ruins of the ancient city are very extensive, but they are deeply buried, and make little or no appearance above the surface except in the Dunuk Tash (popularly identified as the " Tomb of Sardanapalus," a monument which, however, was at Anehiale, not at Tarsus). This shapeless mass of concrete was probably the substructure of a Graeco-Roman temple, from which the marble coating has been removed. The modern town has considerable bazaars and trade; but the climate is very oppressive, owing to the proximity of vast marshes which occupy the site of the harbour and the lower part of the original Cyndus course.

The river was diverted from its former course by Justinian in the 6th century. The emperor's intention was only to carry off the surplus waters in time of flood and prevent inundations in the city, not to deprive Tarsus of what was its chief pride and boast; but gradually the neglect of subsequent centuries allowed the channel in the city to become blocked by accumulation of soil, and now the whole body of water flows in the new channel east of the city, except what is drawn off by an artificial irrigation course to water the gardens on the western side of the city. The population is about 25,000, including, besides Turks and Syrian Moslems, alsc Armenians, Greeks, Syrian Christians, Persians, Afghans, Ansaria (mostly gardeners) and even Hindus. There is a large American mission school called St Paul's Institute, giving a very comprehensive education to Armenians and Greeks drawn from an extensive district.


The literature regarding Tarsus is scanty, and few ancient inscriptions have been published. See W. B. Barker, Lares and Penates; G. F. Hill in the British Museum Catalogue of Coins; Six in Numismatic Chronicle, 1884, pp. 152 ft"., 1894, pp. 329 ff.; E. Babelon in the Catalogue Bibl. Nat., Perses Achemenides "; the numismatic works of B. V. Head, F. Imhoof Blumer, &c. ; Waddington in Bulletin de Corr. Hell., vii. pp. 282 ff. ; Ramsay, Cities of St Paul (1907), pp. 85-245, and "Cilicia, Tarsus and the Great Taurus Pass" in Geographical Journal (1903), pp. 357-410; R. Heberdcy and A. Wilhelm, " Reisen in Kilikien ' (in the Denkschriften d. kais. Akademie Wien, 1896, xliv.), with works of other travellers, especially V.Langlois and Macdonald Kinneir. Callander in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1904, pp. 58 ff., studied Dion Chrysostom's two Tarsian Orations.

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Secondary Sources

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26

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