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  • Writer's pictureJason Borges

Historical Sites in Tarsus

Tarsus was the Roman-era capital of Cilicia, a fertile plain in southeast Turkey. Although Tarsus’ ancient remains are not a spectacular draw for tour groups, the number of historical sites makes Tarsus a worthwhile visit. (Today, Tarsus is a working-class Turkish city with 350,000 people.) This post describes the historical sites in and around the city of Tarsus. A full day is sufficient to visit the sites.



The following sites are situated in the urban center of Tarsus and can be visited on foot. 


1.     St. Paul’s Well. This courtyard garden area is the so-called home of St. Paul. The main feature is a well that is 38 meters deep and still operational. When I visited with my kids, the guard offered to draw a bucket of water for us to drink. The course of ancient stone around the well’s neck and nearby excavation lend an aura of historicity, but the idea of this being Paul’s home is a recent development. The city of Tarsus has made the space a nice garden area for reflection and contemplation. Some ancient pillars and capitals have been placed along the walkway. This is an official site with entrance fees.


2.     Ancient Road. In 1993, the city of Tarsus began building a parking garage in the city center (Republic Square). In the process, they encountered and excavated a well-preserved strip of the ancient street. The road dates to the second century BCE. In the 160s BCE, the city of Tarsus experienced a building boom thanks to the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and this road might be from that period. The basalt road is 7 meters wide with side gutters and drainage underneath. In the second century CE, a colonnaded sidewalk with shops was added on the east side. This could have occurred when Emperor Hadrian visited Tarsus. A third- or fourth-century-CE house with mosaics was found to the southwest. Unfortunately, the area is fenced off, so the road is inaccessible.


3.     Tarsus Archaeology Museum. In 2022, the local municipality opened the Tarsus Archaeology Museum. It's located just southwest of the ancient road. Some of its highlights include Roman-era burial chambers in the courtyard, a video about the history of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, an inscribed pedestal for a statue of Septimus Severus that stood near Cleopatra’s Gate (pictures and text here), and coins minted in Tarsus celebrating Alexander the Great and the Imperial Cult Temple. The entrance fee is 3 Euros.


4.     Cleopatra’s Gate. The arch was the ancient gate leading to Tarsus’ harbor. Based on the shape and spolia in the wall, it dates to the fourth century. The city walls were removed in the 1800s during an Egypt–Ottoman battle, and only this gate survives. The west/harbor gate has been called Paul’s Gate, Lady’s Gate, and Cleopatra’s Gate. A heavy-handed reconstruction in 1994 covered the gate with limestone blocks. A portion of the original is still visible on the east side. Cleopatra’s Gate is situated in a roundabout and is easily accessible.


5.     Gözlü Kule Mound. The city of Tarsus has been inhabited for 5,000 years. Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age peoples resided on the raised mound in the city center. Hetty Goldman, a pioneering female American archaeologist, excavated the site in the 1930s and 40s. Boğaziçi University in Istanbul now leads the excavations focused on the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The space is located in the middle of the city, east of Cleopatra’s Gate. The site is accessible and free to enter but only from the north side. Besides a few covered trenches and a peaceful view of Tarsus, there isn’t much to see. Apparently, the ancient theater rested on the north slope, but I couldn’t locate its bowl shape.


6.     Roman Bath (Altından Geçme). The partial remains of a Roman bath stand in the old section of Tarsus on the north side of the Church Mosque. Based on its large size, it likely dates to the second or third century CE. Large sections of mortar and rubble walls stand, and excavations have revealed its foundation The street passing under the arch was once used for cars but is now only for pedestrians. The Roman bath continued westward to where the Ottoman-era Old Bath (Eski Hamam) is now located. When I visited the Turkish bath, two Corinthian capitals were carved out and used as water basins. Considering their weight, they were likely part of the Roman bath’s original decoration.


7.     Church Mosque (Kilise Cami). During the Crusader Era, the Kingdom of (Lesser) Armenia controlled Cilicia. The Armenian king Osin (1308–20) built this church in the city center (perhaps over a previous church). The basilica-style church faces east. A colonnade with three columns separates the central aisle from the small side aisles. The barrel-vaulted roof has a diamond opening covered with an octagonal tower. Above the doors leading to the east rooms on both side aisles, dedicatory inscriptions in Armenian were carved into the lintels. The church became a mosque in the Ottoman era. As with all mosques in Turkey (except Hagia Sophia), the doors are always open for people to enter for free, ideally in modest attire.


8.     Tomb of the Prophet Daniel (Makam-ı Şeref Camii) with Roman Bridge. According to Islamic tradition, the prophet Daniel was buried here. (How the fifth-century-BCE burial occurred several meters above the Roman-era remains was not explained.) The small prayer space connects to the burial shrine through an arch. As one would expect of a structure in the city center, ancient remains were discovered underneath. The south side features two long arches that formed a bridge over the Cyndus River, which bisected the city. A sacred site was identified directly under “Daniel’s Tomb.” The north side includes Roman and Late-Antique spaces. These were built after the river had been redirected, or at least at a point when it became only a small canal (which seems evident on the west side). The mosque and excavation area are free to enter. 



9.     Medrese. In 1550, Kubad Pasha, an Ottoman governor, constructed an educational center (medrese). As was typical, small domed rooms for study surround the central open courtyard. This medrese was the local archaeology museum, but it now contains exhibits about traditional Turkish culture, including some early pictures of Tarsus.


A large Roman inscription was used for the cornerstone of the entrance gate. The stone lies horizontally on the outside of the entrance’s south wall (the lowest stone in the picture right). The honorary inscription for Septimus Severus (222–35 CE) is similar to the inscription in the museum. It includes three of Tarsus’ favorite self-designations: “twice neokorate,” “the first, greatest, and most beautiful,” and “head (eparcheia) of Cilicia, Isauria, and Lycaonia.” Based on the Turkish text from the nearby yellow sign, the inscription reads:


Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, pious, happy high priest, who assumed the tribune of the people for the 5th time and the consulship for the second time, the father of the homeland, proconsul, the son of the deified Antonius [Caracalla], the great demiurge of the people of Tarsus. The city is the first, greatest, and most beautiful metropolis, maintaining its position as the administrative center of the administrative regions of Cilicia, Isauria, and Lykaonia, and having the right to maintain two temples of the imperial cult, presiding over numerous and very large and unusual privileges and free assemblies, the demiurge of Cilicia. The city honors [the imperial festivals of] Alexandriane, Severiane, Antoneiniane, and Hadriane. Tarsus is the only city among the provincial cities to be honored with the free assembly of the provincial assembly and many other greatest and most distinguished awards. [This was erected] during the reign of the glorious Praetor and consul designatus Ostorios Euodianus.

 

10.  Grand Mosque (Ulu Camı). This mosque was built in 1579 as the most important and imposing structure of the Ottoman city. Its open courtyard, with 17 domed bays, has a central wash area for ablutions. Two arcades with 10 arches divide the rectangular room into three narrow cross-sections. The arcade alternates between masonry pillars and spoliated Roman-era columns with capitals. A collection of Roman and Byzantine pillars stands in the courtyard on the west side (pictured).

In front of the Grand Mosque is Kırkkaşık Bedesten, an Ottoman-era shopping center. The interior has been nicely remodeled with souvenir shops, and the east side has a shaded coffee/tea area if you need a break.


Though not historical, I must mention my favorite site to visit in Tarsus: Keravan Humus, a restaurant that offers fresh hummus with various toppings. Located in the city center near the main sites, it’s the real reason I visit Tarsus!

 

The following sites are located outside the city and are best reached by car.


1.     Dokuntaş. A massive structure in the east suburbs of Tarsus, this was one of the largest temples in the Roman Empire. The entire structure measures 98 x 43 meters. The concrete-built walls are 7-8 meters wide and have a marble facade. A sequence of three walls on the northwest end was originally the arched substructure for the temple’s ramped entrance. Prof. Baydur, the Turkish archaeologist who excavated it in the 1990s, uncovered the foundation of the raised altar inside the entrance. Opposite the entrance is a massive base (9 x 14 m) for the cult statue. The layout is confusing. I’m unclear whether this structure comprised (a) the entire sanctuary with an altar in the open courtyard and temple building or (b) the temple building set within the larger termenos. My sense is (a), but most literature explains it as (b). Regardless of its design, the monumental temple was clearly important. The city of Tarsus was awarded the right to have an imperial cult temple (neokoros) in the 130s (Hadrian) and 180s (Commodos). Dokuntaş is probably one of those imperial cult temples. The temple was the “Common (Temple) of Ciliica” and had 10 pillars across the entrance, as seen in the Hadrianic tetradrachm below (source). Early French excavators found a large finger, which could have been part of the cultic statue. You can walk around three sides of the towering structure but must contact the local officials to access the interior.



 2.     Cydnus River Waterfall. The city of Tarsus was built both geographically and socially around the Cyndus River. The city grew up along its banks, and the people of Tarsus took great pride in its pure water. Chrysostom teased the people of Tarsus because they expected orators to praise their Cydnus, saying “how the most kindly of all rivers and the most beautiful and how those who drink its waters are affluent and blessed” (Oration 33.2). The water flows from the foothills of the Taurus mountains, through the Cilician plain, and into the Mediterranean. In the Greco-Roman era, the river split into three courses before Tarsus; two flowed around the city, and the other flowed through the city center. In the early sixth century, Emperor Justinian redirected the river to its current course so that the urban center would not flood. On the northeast side of town, the Cydnus cascades down around rocks in impressive form. Locals enjoy visiting the area, especially in the summer to enjoy the misty breeze and picnic areas. In the Roman era, this area was Tarsus’ northern necropolis. Some underwater sarcophagi become visible when the water level lowers in the summer. A large rubble wall, perhaps a Roman aqueduct, remains 500-600 meters northeast of the waterfall, but I could not locate it. The area is free to visit.


3.     Justinian’s Bridge. On the east side of town remains a nice Roman bridge. The so-called Justinian Bridge was constructed when the Cydnus was redirected in the sixth century CE. Two arches flank the large central passageway. The bridge marks the location of the road connecting Tarsus and Adana. The local government did a nice job uncovering the bridge’s lower portions. The bridge is open and free to visit.


4.     Rhegma Harbor. Although the city of Tarsus was located several kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, it was a harbor city. The Cydnus River was navigable by boat, which allowed Cleopatra to sail her ornate vessel into the city. For trade, Tarsus had a harbor area called Rhegma. This lagoon was a wide part of the Cyndus River that functioned as a harbor for docking ships and trading. A city called Aulai surrounded the harbor. The exact shape and location of the harbor are hard to determine, as the river’s course and coastline have continually changed because of the alluviation.


Ramsay noted remains when he visited the area around the 1890s. During my walk there, I met an elderly shepherd who had grown up in the area. When I asked him about remains, he recalled only a Greek church that had been destroyed during his childhood. He had not encountered any historical remains for decades. Today, the ancient harbor area is a large eucalyptus forest with a 2.8-km walking path in the Karabucak neighborhood.


5.     Roman Road. In the village of Sağlıklı, 20 km north of Tarsus, a marvelous section of Roman roads remains. The standing arch (fifth century CE?) functioned as the entrance to the unpreserved foothill community that was one day’s journey from Tarsus. The road is 3-4 meters wide, with nice curbing. Though a modern farm road takes over parts of it, you can follow the ancient road for over one mile. 


 The sites of Tarsus played a role in the lives of many illustrious people: Alexander the Great almost died in Tarsus after bathing in the Cyndus River, Cleopatra sailed into Tarsus for her famous encounter with Mark Antony, and the apostle Paul grew up in Tarsus. Fortunately, enough of the ruins remain to convey the city’s history.

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