Tarsus - Home Again
Paul described his hometown of Tarsus as "no insignificant city" (Acts 21:39). During the Roman period, Tarsus was one of the leading cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, with an economy based on agriculture and an important linen industry. Early Greek geographer Strabo (c. 62 BC-23 AD) described its citizens as being avid in the pursuit of culture. It had a famous university, noted for its flourishing school of Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism.
Growing up in Tarsus
Saul's childhood is sketchy. His birth date is unknown, anywhere from 3 BC to 5 AD have been proposed. His family was of the tribe of Benjamin and his father was a Pharisee. We do not know how his parents or forbearers came to live in Tarsus. In the centuries before Christ many Jewish families emigrated from their homeland willingly or as a result of foreign incursions. Saul had at least one sister and one nephew, but their names are not recorded (Acts 23:16).
Growing up in a Jewish family meant that Saul studied the Jewish Scriptures and tradition. At an early age he entered the synagogue day school where he learned to read and write by copying Scripture passages. His later writings indicate that he was at least trilingual in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Probably he spoke a local dialect as well. Every Jewish boy learned a trade — his was tent-making or more properly tent-cloth weaving. He was likely a weaver of the course goats-hair cloth known as "Cilicium," a name derived from the province of Cilicia where Tarsus was located. The felt-like cloth was preferred for tents and sails because of its toughness and the way it withstood weather. Like canvas, it was airy enough to allow air to escape in hot weather, yet in the rain the goat's hair swelled up and became waterproof. Bedouin throughout the Middle East still use it for their tents. The manufacture of this material was his means of support during his missionary travels.
Perhaps he even attended the great university in Tarsus, second only to those in Athens and Alexandria, with its gymnasia, theater, school of art and stadium. He inherited Roman citizenship from his father, a great privilege at the time and one which he used to his advantage on several occasions. At Tarsus he witnessed Greek influences and saw the convergence of the Jewish conservatism and the pagan Greek world.
Eventually Saul's parents shipped him off to Jerusalem (perhaps at about age 19, maybe 22/23 AD) to study under the eminent rabbi Gamaliel. Despite the liberal tolerance of his teacher, Saul became a fire-breathing conservative totally committed to the law and conservative Judaism:
"I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers" (Galatians 1:14).
In the footsteps of Saul — Tarsus
Modern Tarsus is still a bustling city of over 187,000, a few miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea.
The city continues to be a prosperous agricultural and cotton-milling center. The Taurus Mountains, 30 miles to the north, rise over 13,000 feet. The river Cydnus, fed by the melting snows, comes rushing down to water the plain, and is led off into a thousand channels, converting the country into a virtual paradise. Everywhere there are groves of oranges, lemons, figs and mulberry.
The modern city now covers most of the city of Paul. The hippodrome of ancient times lies under the campus of Tarsus American College (below) and the ancient theater is under the playground of the school across the street.
The ancient city lies buried 23 feet beneath the alluvial plain of the Tarsus Çayi (Cydnus River) (below). In the summer of 333 BC Alexander the Great was passing through Tarsus with his armies on the way to Persia. The day was warm and he was covered with dust and sweat. The clear water of the river tempted him. He stripped off his clothing and went down into the icy cold water. But hardly had he entered it when his limbs began to stiffen with a sudden chill. His attendants caught him in their arms and carried him almost unconscious into his tent. This incident is depicted in Alexander the Great Rescued from the River Cydnus by Pietro Testa (Italian, Lucca 1612–1650 Rome), displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
When Alexander recovered sufficiently, he proceeded eastward to Issus (close to present-day Turkish town of Iskenderun), where he defeated the Persian army under Darius III.
Because Tarsus was invaded and destroyed on several occasions, only a few monuments from the city's heyday in the early years of Christianity remain.
Stone arch, probably the Sea Gate to the old walls (below), one of the three gates that led into the city at the time of Paul. It is popularly known as Cleopatra's Gate, and the story is told that it was erected by the local government in honor of the state visit of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra in 38 BC. Some call it St. Paul's Gate.
Below, Roman Public Bath, dated to the 2nd century BC, constructed of concrete, bricks and rough hewn stones.
Below, remains of a Roman temple dating to the 2nd century AD
Excavations in Republic Square (Cumhuriyet Meydani) in the city center of modern Tarsus have revealed an ancient street, probably constructed in the late Hellenistic period (below). It is 40 feet long and covered with basalt stones.
Below, "Saint Paul's Well" where the city of Tarsus put up a plaque in 1980 commemorating the work of Paul. It is claimed that Paul drew water from this well. The keeper says it is nearly 100 feet deep.
Below, Adjacent to the well are the foundations of a structure said to have been St. Paul's childhood home.