The Cilician Plain and Tarsus

Throughout Bible times the region encompassing the plain of Cilicia and the surrounding mountains was sought after by various world powers. Over many centuries the Cydnus, Sarus, and Ptyramus Rivers deposited rich, fertile silt on the plain from the mountainous regions to the north, and the temperate climate provided sufficient rain for growing grains and pasturing horses. Key international routes also passed through the region, with strategic mountain passes located at the Cilician Gates through the Taurus Mountains and the Amanian and Syrian Gates through the Amanus Mountains. By 1650 B.C. the region likely belonged to the Hittite Empire, although local Cilician rulers exerted varying degrees of independence until the thirteenth century B.C., when Sea Peoples overran the entire plain and displaced the population. In the tenth century B.C., King Solomon of Israel, who controlled most of the land between Cilicia and Egypt, imported horses from Cilicia and paired them with chariots he acquired from Egypt. He kept some for his own forces, and others he exported to the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Aram (1 Kings 10:26-29). During the eighth century B.C. Cilicia came under Assyrian domination, but it regained independence once again after Assyria fell to the Babylonians. Cilicia then came under Persian rule, but later Alexander the Great seized it from the Persians, defeating a significantly larger Persian force by constricting them between the sea and the mountains just south of Issus. After Alexander’s empire was divided among his generals, control over Cilicia repeatedly traded hands between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Around 67 B.C. the Romans took control of the Cilician plain and made Tarsus the capital, and it was at Tarsus that Cleopatra famously sailed up the bay of the Cydnus River to meet with Mark Antony, where the two formed a romantic relationship and a strategic alliance. Around A.D. 5 the apostle Paul was born in Tarsus, which he later described as “no ordinary city” (Acts 21:39). Less than 90 miles (144 km) to the southwest lay Antioch, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire and the place where believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

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