Friday, May 14, 2021

In Cilicia


Silver obol from Tarsus, 4th century BCE, showing an eagle with wings spread

Found on my phone -- a badly photographed coin from Tarsus in Cilicia (SE Turkey). It should really be pronounced "Kilikia" (I think). The coin comes from when Tarsus was part of the Persian empire. The god on one side of the coin was Baaltars, the tutelary deity of the city. (The Semitic word "Ba'al" is really a god's title rather than a god's name -- like "The Lord". Hence there were several gods around called Baal, and sometimes their cults merged. But I think this particular one related solely to Tarsus.)

Around 333 BCE Tarsus became part of Alexander the Great's conquests, and thereafter it was a Hellenic city, becoming steadily more significant (it was on the river Cydnus, where sea vessels could intersect with land routes to Syria and elsewhere). 

Then Cilicia was taken over by the Romans, originally because they were fed up with the pirates who operated from the mountainous western part of the region.  When Pompey completed the job in 64 BCE, Tarsus was made the capital of the new Roman province of Cilicia. (Previously the region's chief city had been nearby Adana, as is now the case again.) 

It was at Tarsus that Cleopatra first met Mark Antony. 

When she first met Mark Antony, she pursed up
his heart, upon the river of Cydnus.
There she appeared indeed; or my reporter devised
well for her.
I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

(Antony and Cleopatra 2.2)

Later, this was where St Paul was born -- he was "Saul of Tarsus", though he was educated in Jerusalem (Acts 9:11, 22:3), and that's where he first enters the New Testament story, as an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians. Like most cities at most times Tarsus was multi-faith, and Saul's family were Pharisaic Jews. The date of his birth is guesswork (generally placed between 5 BCE and 5 CE). Paul himself never refers  to his Tarsus connection, but it may explain why he held Roman citizenship. 

After his conversion to Christianity, when the authorities were trying to kill him, the apostles decided to pack him off to his hometown (Acts 9:30). That was in order to save his life, but perhaps it was also because Christians in Jerusalem "were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple" (Acts 9:26). 

Paul remained at Tarsus until Barnabas sought him out and they went together to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). What Paul did during this time at Tarsus is unknown. You can speculate that the new Paul, an outspoken Christian fugitive, might not have been particularly welcome. Some have wondered if Paul referred to a rupture with his family when he later wrote of "the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8). Though, according to Romans 16:7, he was not the first convert within his family.

Anyway, Paul's letters are the only vaguely Cilician literature on my shelves. Here's a fairly random passage:

It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)

How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.

For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing.

Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.

For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? forgive me this wrong.

Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.

And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.

But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile.

(The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 12:1-16, King James Version)

The drift of the argument is difficult to follow in these old translations: I'm hearing the vivid voice of a man who's annoyed about something and is being vehement and sarcastic, but it isn't obvious how it all hangs together. 

The New Living Translation makes better sense out of it, and it's still very lively: 

. . .  This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell. 

That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

You have made me act like a fool. You ought to be writing commendations for me, for I am not at all inferior to these “super apostles,” even though I am nothing at all. When I was with you, I certainly gave you proof that I am an apostle. For I patiently did many signs and wonders and miracles among you. The only thing I failed to do, which I do in the other churches, was to become a financial burden to you. Please forgive me for this wrong!

Now I am coming to you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you. I don’t want what you have—I want you. After all, children don’t provide for their parents. Rather, parents provide for their children. I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me.

Some of you admit I was not a burden to you. But others still think I was sneaky and took advantage of you by trickery.    . . . 

(2 Corinthians 12:1-16, New Living Translation) 


Here's another Cilician author, the poet Aratus of Soli (c. 315 BCE - before 240 BCE). ("Soli" is modern Mersin, on the coast near Tarsus.) His poem Phaenomena was concerned with astronomy and weather signs. (Though some think the weather part should be considered as a separate poem called Diosemeia.)

[933] But when from East and South the lightnings flash, and again from the West and anon from the North, verily then the sailor on the sea fears to be caught at once by the waves beneath and the rain from heaven. For such lightnings herald rain. Often before the coming rain fleece-like clouds appear or a double rainbow girds the wide sky or some star is ringed with a darkening halo.

[942] Often the birds of lake or sea insatiably dive and plunge in the water, or around the mere for long the swallows dart, smiting with their breasts the rippling water, or more hapless tribes, a boon to watersnakes, the fathers of the tadpoles croak from the lake itself, or from the lonely tree-frog drones his matin lay, or by jutting bank the chattering crow stalks on the dry land before the coming storm, or it may be dips from head to shoulder in the river, or even dives completely, or hoarsely cawing ruffles it beside the water.

[954] And ere now before rain from the sky, the oxen gazing heavenward have been seen to sniff the air, and the ants from their hollow nests bring up in haste all their eggs, and in swarms the centipedes are seen to climb the walls, and wandering forth crawl those worms that men call dark earth’s intestines (earthworms). Tame fowl with father Chanticleer will preen their plumes and cluck aloud with voices like noise of water dripping upon water.

[962] Ere now, too, the generations of crows and tribes of jackdaws have been a sign of rain to come from Zeus, when they appear in flocks and screech like hawks. Crows, too, imitate with their note the heavy splash of clashing rain, or after twice croaking deeply they raise a loud whirring with frequent flapping of their wings, and ducks of the homestead and jackdaws which haunt the roof seek cover under the eaves and clap their wings, or seaward flies the heron with shrill screams.

[973] Slight not aught of these things when on thy guard for rain, and heed the warning, if beyond their wont the midges sting and are fain for blood, or if on a misty night snuff gather on the nozzle of the lamp, or if in winter’s season the flame of the lamp now rise steadily and anon sparks fly fast from it, like light bubbles, or if on the light itself there dart quivering rays, or if in height of summer the island birds are borne in crowding companies. Be not heedless of the pot or tripod on the fire, if many sparks encircle it, nor heedless when in the ashes of blazing coal there gleam spots like millet seed, but scan those too when seeking signs of rain.    . . .

(1921 Loeb translation of Phaenomena by A.W. and G.R. Mair. The complete text is here. )

According to the Oxford Reference page on Aratus  "Phaenomena achieved immediate fame and lasting popularity beyond the circle of learned poets: it became the most widely read poem, after the Iliad and Odyssey, in the ancient world, and was one of the very few Greek poems translated into Arabic. Latin translations were made by Cicero, and Germanicus. It was read more for its literary charm than its astronomical content, but some commentaries criticized the many grave astronomical errors which it contains." (taken from the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World). 


Tarsus has retained its name and is still a thriving small city (hence most of ancient Tarsus has never been excavated). It's a part of the larger Adana-Mersin metropolitan area, a populous part of modern Turkey with around 3 million inhabitants. 

After Roman times Cilicia changed hands many times, sometimes Byzantine, sometimes Abassid, sometimes Armenian, sometimes Ottoman. Armenians were a strong presence in the region up until the Adana massacre of 1909 and the genocide of 1915. Most remaining Armenians fled in the 1920s, when the brief post-war French administration came to an end. 


Ümit Yaşar Oğuzcan (1926 - 1984) was born in Tarsus and was a prolific poet as well as an accountant and banker.

There's quite a few of his poems here: (in Turkish). I haven't been able to track down any English translations, so here's what Google Translate makes of four of them:

Get rid of me (Benden Kurtulmak)

I can't give up as long as I say no to you
I'm running after you to the pale cold
Your lips where I ate three meals
I'm drinking time from your eyes

Is it night and I'm glad
Your shadow falls on the walls
Your neck is getting longer and longer on me
Your neck is beautiful or more beautiful

I grab and strip your shadow
Your beauty is emerging
Those lines, those triangles, those circles
Those things you hide from me

All one by one becomes obvious
Away from you while you sleep
We share the same pillow every night
I'm in a bed, you're in a bed

Did you see you are hurt again
Kissing, making love, getting tired
At least say yes and get rid of
From being mine every night like this

One Day (Birgün)

If you wake up suddenly somewhere in the night
If your eyes dive into the long darkness
If you hear a warmth in your cold hands
And if the clocks steal the belated times
Know that I think of you

If a steamer approaches, get on the dock, open up
Cover the darkness in the deep blue seas
And listen to my heart, look how it beats
Where all the longings are dark
Know that I am waiting for you

Open your curtains at dawn one morning, look
If the seagulls are happily sitting on your balcony
Immerse yourself in a deep untapped pleasure
Let the most hopeful songs pour from your lips
Know I want you

You wake up suddenly one night from the nights
If in the distance a sorrowful strange bird sang
If a gazelle is crying all alone in the mountains
And one day a yellow flower grows on my grave
Know that I love you

Great Loneliness (Büyük Yalnızlık)

Despair knocked on the doors first
Poverty after
All the familiar faces erased from the mirrors
Suddenly the world was empty
We were left all alone

The thesis has run out, the bread of hope
The dream of the waters is over
We turned our eyes into a deep darkness
You great loneliness
You didn't leave us alone

Too Late (Çok Geç)

You can't say I'm fooled by your insistence, it's too late.
You can't just say I believed it, it's too late!
Where is the ember? Look, the ashes have cooled down ...
You can't say I burned like fire, it's too late!


Christine Stewart-Nuñez, now South Dakota's poet laureate, did a two-year teaching stint at the Tarsus American College. Here's one of her poems:

Breakfast for Supper

At IHOP, after the skinny brunette
with a band-aid covering her hickey
comes to whisk away burnt toast,
Mom mentions Theresa, face
brightening. She had a dream
about her—80s flip hair, smooth
complexion. I’ve been living
in Tulsa for eighteen years,
Theresa said. I understand.
Even as I watched men lower
her casket, I fantasized the witness
protection program had resettled her.

How funny we look, mother
and daughter laughing over
scrambled eggs, tears dripping
onto bacon, hands hugging
coffee mugs. For a moment Mom felt
Theresa there. Such faith. Freshen
your cup? the waitress asks me, poised
to pour. Cloudy in the cold coffee,
my reflection. I offer the mug.

(Poem source .)

(IHOP: pancake/breakfast diner chain; many locations open 24/7.)  

And here's one of her autobiographical pieces, about hiking in NE Turkey just after the teaching stint in Tarsus:


Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40 CE - c. 90 CE) was a Roman army physician who was born at Anazarbos and probably studied medicine at Tarsus. His five-volume compilation of medicines De Materia Medica was soon translated into Latin and Arabic and became the primary source of practical herbal knowledge throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. 

You can read it all here, in the English translation of Tess Anne Osbaldeston (2000): 

Here's a flavour. This extract comes from Book I (Aromatics), and it's talking about pitch from pine trees: organic pitch, as opposed to the mineral pitch (bitumen, naphtha) that Dioscorides also discusses. Other medicinable substances in this first book include of course spices and oils and fruits (the olive keeps recurring in different forms), but also papyrus, mangroves, dry rot, galls and fungal growths, and the scum scraped off the walls of baths and wrestling schools. 


SUGGESTED: Pinus mughus, Pinus nigra, Pinus maritima,
Pinus pinea, Pinus rigida, Peuce — Pitch Pine

Pix liquida (also called conum) is gathered from the
fattest wood of the pitch and pine trees. They reckon
the best is glittering, smooth and clean. A wine cupful
(taken with honey in a linctus [syrup]) is good in
antidotes for poisoning, pulmonary consumption
[wasting disease], purulent abnormal growths, coughs,
asthma, and fluids that are difficult to cough up from the
chest. It is good rubbed on with rosaceum [1-53] for
inflammation of the tonsils and uvula, as well as for
angina [spasmodic pains] and purulent [pus-filled] ears.
For snakebite it is applied with salt (ground fine). Mixed
with the same amount of wax it draws off pitted nails,
and dissolves tubercles [growths] on the vulva and
hardness on the perineum. Boiled with barley meal and
the urine of a boy it breaks up tumours [possibly goitre].
Rubbed on with sulphur, pine bark or bran it stops
snakebite ulcers. Mixed with manna of thus [1-81] and
waxy ointments and rubbed on it heals twisting ulcers,
and is good for split feet and a split perineum, and with
honey it fills up ulcers and cleans them. With raisins of
the sun and honey it covers carbuncles [infected boils]
[malignant skin tumours] and rotten ulcers with scars. It
is also effective mixed with antiseptic plasters.


SUGGESTED: Pinus mughus, Pinus nigra, Pinus maritima,
Pinus pinea, Pinus rigida, Peuce — Pitch Pine

Picinum is made from the watery matter of pitch which
swims on top (like whey on milk that has been
separated). This is taken away while boiling the pitch by
laying clean wool over it which is made moist by the
steam ascending up. It is squeezed out into a jar and this
is done for as long as the pitch is boiling. It is available for
the same purposes as liquid pitch. Applied as a poultice
with barley meal it restores hair fallen out from alopecia
[baldness]. Liquid pitch also cures the same, and rubbed
on them it cures boils and scabs on cattle.


SUGGESTED: Pinus mughus, Pinus nigra, Pinus maritima,
Pinus pinea, Pinus rigida, Peuce — Pitch Pine

Soot is made from moist pitch. Light a new lamp, put a
portion of pitch into it and cover the lamp with a new
ceramic jar made like a clibinus (above round and narrow
and with a mouth below like ovens have) and let the
lamp burn. When the first liquid pitch is used up put in
more until you have made enough soot, and then use it. It
is sharp and astringent and is used in medicines to make
the eyelids pleasing, for rubbing, and when hair must be
restored to eyelids that are filled with excessive watery
fluids. It is good for weak, weeping, ulcerated eyes.


SUGGESTED: Pinus mughus, Pinus nigra, Pinus maritima,
Pinus pinea, Pinus rigida, Peuce — Pitch Pine

Dry pitch is made from decocted liquid pitch. It is also
called palimpissa (that is, pitch boiled again). Some
of this (called boscas) is sticky like birdlime, and another
sort is dry. The good dry pitch is pure, fat, smells good,
and is golden underneath and resinous — such as the
Lycian and Brutian which share the two natures of pitch
and resin. It is warming and softening, removing pus,
dispersing tubercula [nodules] and pannus [opaque
thickening of cornea with veins], and filling up ulcers. It
is effective mixed with wound medicines. 


Other side of silver obol from Tarsus (4th century BCE), showing the tutelary deity Baaltars


Coincidentally, today's Guardian reports on a depressing Greenpeace investigation. While we've been unable to travel to the ancient world our rubbish has been flowing there. 

When you put waste plastic into a recycling bin in the UK, less than half is recycled here, most is shipped overseas. In 2020, 17.5% ended up in Cilicia (the Adana region). It's a popular destination for the waste from other European nations too. But once the waste gets there, not much is recycled (Turkey's own plastic recycling rate is only 12%). Most of the plastic is dumped or burnt or left to spill into the sea.

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