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Ancient Antioch: From the Seleucid Era to the Islamic Conquest

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

Ancient Antioch: From the Seleucid Era to the Islamic Conquest

By Andrea U. De Giorgi. Pp. xvi + 226, figs. 57, maps 15. Cambridge University Press, New York 2015. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-107-13073-9 (cloth).

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The reader expecting a critical review of the archaeological evidence brought to light solely in Antioch might be misled by the title of this book. In fact, De Giorgi’s work also focuses its attention on the Antiochene hinterland in an attempt to link Antioch to its surroundings through a comprehensive historical narrative ranging from the Seleucid era to the Islamic conquest. The introduction is a manifesto that sets the pace and provides the necessary methodological framework for the whole work. De Giorgi is interested in cultural processes and settlement trends that go beyond any fixed dates, and he analyzes them with “frequent forays into eras that either preceded or followed the unfolding of Hellenistic/Roman Antioch” (4)—a narrative that might be difficult for students not familiar with the region to follow.

Chapter 1 presents a critical scrutiny of a selected number of excavations and surveys conducted in the area under examination. The focus is on works conducted in the Antiochene hinterland, specifically the surveys by Robert Braidwood in the Amuq Plain and those of Georges Tchalenko in the so-called Dead Cities of the Massif Calcaire. Also discussed here is the Amuq Valley Regional Survey project, the data from which are used extensively in subsequent chapters, and a section of this chapter deals with the Princeton excavations of the 1930s at Antioch. The writer recounts both the vicissitudes these early explorations had to endure due to the unstable geopolitical situation of the time and also the methodological problems connected with the interpretation of their fieldwork results.

Chapter 2 deals with Antioch. It explores the foundation of the city, its gradual expansion, and its overall plan, arguing that the Seleucid urban legacy survived throughout antiquity. The growing community of Antioch in the Roman period might well have surpassed the limit of the Seleucid foundation, but the Hellenistic armature of the city would pervade the history of Antioch and its hinterland for centuries to come. Eventually, the countryside would become the main outlet for the overgrown urban community. In this chapter, the author rarely gives details on single buildings, instead favoring a much wider narrative that includes comparison with other sites and an excellent balance between written sources and the archaeological record (an approach that is justified by the focus of the volume).

Chapters 3–5 form a coherent section dedicated to the surroundings of Antioch. Data are presented synthetically in order to draw a historical narrative of the plain of Antioch and the Amuq Valley (ch. 3), the districts of the Amanus Mountain and the Jibāl (ch. 4), and the region to the west of Antioch and the lower Orontes (ch. 5). The occupational history of the central and eastern Antiochene is explored in detail. The Amuq Valley saw a veritable explosion of rural settlements in the first century C.E. A few of these settlements show continuity in occupation from the Hellenistic period, but many were built ex novo to exploit the rich and fertile lands of the plains. This frantic occupation seems to have reached a peak in the fourth century C.E. and was followed by a drastic drop in the number of villages in late antiquity due to factors attributed to the changing ecosystem and overexploitation of the soil. Nonetheless, the plains did not turn into a demographic vacuum, and a number of rural settlements located along main road axes consolidated and grew in size. The attention of the communities living in the countryside gradually moved to the highlands as early as the second century C.E., but only in late antiquity did these regions experience a surge in the number of the settlements. If the rich archaeological record of these central and east Antiochene regions allows for a reconstruction of their diachronic evolution, the lacunose state of the evidence does not enable us to do the same for the western districts. The western Antiochene is, nonetheless, discussed in the volume through a number of sites located on Mount Casius, the lower Orontes Valley, the Thaumaston Oron, and the coast. These include also Seleucia, a veritable coastal appendix of Antioch in antiquity, and Daphne, Antioch’s suburb. This narrative is nicely intertwined with that of Antioch to demonstrate how the city was strongly connected to its vast landscape to the point that changes in the urban politics were manifested in the city’s hinterland.

Chapter 6 explores the rather slippery, but undoubtedly intriguing, theme of identity. It investigates how much the Hellenism visible in the built environment and the visual culture of Antioch was perceived by the people living in the countryside and how a sense of Antiochene identity might have pervaded them. The work ends with a short conclusion that summarizes the main threads of the book plus notes, bibliography, and a useful index.

In conclusion, the work presents a good summary of the archaeological surveys and excavations conducted in Antioch and, more specifically, its surroundings. It attempts to draw a bridge between two entities—town and countryside—which have too often been considered distant realities both by modern scholarship and in ancient written sources. An important drawback of the volume is the illustrative apparatus, which is of crucial importance for the archaeologist. Although the numerous maps of the Antiochene are well drawn and informative, many of the photographs are too small (some less than 4 cm wide) and legible only with difficulty. However, the text, which is addressed primarily to a scholarly audience, reads well; it presents an up-to-date discussion of the evidence from this region whose reading would certainly be beneficial not only to those interested in the Antiochene hinterland but also to those looking for fresh methodological approaches to bridge the research gap between town and countryside in antiquity.

Emanuele E. Intagliata
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
University of Edinburgh

Book Review of Ancient Antioch: From the Seleucid Era to the Islamic Conquest, by Andrea U. De Giorgi

Reviewed by Emanuele E. Intagliata

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Intagliata

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