Charmed Lives

Antioch: The Lost Ancient City

an exhibition originating at the Worcester Art Museum, October 7, 2000–February 4, 2001; the Cleveland Museum of Art, March 18–June 3, 2001; and the Baltimore Museum of Art, September 16–December 30, 2001

Antioch: The Lost Ancient City, catalog of the exhibition

edited by Christine Kondoleon
Princeton University Press/Worcester Art Museum,253 pp., $65.00; $29.95 (paper)


In his later years, the humorist Robert Benchley was in the habit of blaming the paucity of his visual imagination on the fact that he had grown up in Worcester, Massachusetts. A mind nourished from youth on the prospect of Front Street, Worcester, he affirmed, found it impossible to conjure up more stirring scenes, such as occurred in The Adventures of Ivanhoe or in the murmurous Paris of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In the exhibition Antioch: The Lost Ancient City, organized by the Worcester Art Museum, the humorist might have found, in Worcester itself, a little something with which to reinvigorate his sadly stunted faculty. In four cool and airy rooms on the second floor of the museum, the visitor could find a collection of carefully arranged fragments of artifacts of all kinds from Antioch, supplemented by elegant and instructive models, from which the visual imagination is challenged to conjure up the life of what was once the fourth greatest city of the Roman world.

The subtitle of the catalog of the exhibition, edited by Christine Kondoleon, speaks rightly of Antioch as “The Lost Ancient City.” Although the fourth great city of the Roman world, Antioch has achieved little or no purchase on the modern imagination. The ancient past remains an overpowering presence in Rome and in Istanbul. For Alexandria, we like to think that we can conjure up the ancient city from the poems of Cavafy and the Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell. Carthage, at least, inspired Flaubert’s Salammbô. Antioch, though, in its time, an equally vibrant presence, a city of some 200,000 inhabitants situated at the joining point of Asia and the Mediterranean, has always remained strangely out of focus. It is the purpose of the exhibition to remedy this oversight.

What needs to be stressed, at the outset, is how extremely difficult it is to do so. After the end of antiquity Antioch became a non-place. The Arab conquests of the seventh century left the once-great city a messy frontier town, perched on the war-numbed edge of an Asia-wide empire. Armies came and went. Water buffalo taken all the way across the Middle East from the Punjab came to wallow in the once-famed Orontes River. Beside them, ancient Antioch slowly sank into the mud. For Antioch had always nestled elegantly against the neighboring Mount Silpios. Over the centuries, the torrents from the mountain slopes washed down piles of silt that settled in deep layers over the classical city. All that has survived is the trace of the central colonnade, clearly visible from the air, like a scar line drawn from one end to the other of the huddled modern city. A French-Levantine avenue of the 1920s, with palm trees and diminutive traffic circles reminiscent of Babar’s Célesteville, covered the area of the imperial palace and of the great octagonal Golden Church founded by Constantine the Great.

More significantly, by becoming part of the Turkish Republic, Antioch, modern Antakya, has come to lie on the frontier between Turkey and Syria. In the modern…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.