If we believe ancient Egyptian, Ugarian and Hittite texts, Apamea goes back to 2,000-1,000 BC. Under Persian rule, it was called Pharnake, but the city really enters my field of interest with Alexander the Great, who left a garrison behind and renamed the city Pella after his own hometown. The name Apamea appears in 300/299 BC when Seleucus, a successor of Alexander, created one of the grandest cities in the east.
We have to go back to the mass-wedding in Susa in 324 BC when Alexander arranged a mixed wedding party for about one hundred of his close friends and generals in order to bring Greece and Persia together. Seleucus' bride was to be Apame, the daughter of Spitamenes of Bactria. This union must have been a happy one for it is the only one to survive Alexander's untimely death in 323 BC. Apame accompanied her husband during all of his expeditions and campaigns, and that cannot have been very comfortable traveling. In any case, after conquering the east, Seleucus decided to move the capital of his empire from Babylon to Antioch-on-the-Orontes, today's Antakya, Turkey. The region pleased him so much that he decided to build another beautiful city further inland which he named Apamea after his wife. In fact, the first fundaments of the city had already been laid by his mortal enemy, Antigonus, but that is only a matter of detail. Apamea became his most important city, together with Antakia mentioned above. Laudetia, as Antakya was known by Seleucus, was named after his mother and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris was named after himself – yes, his empire reached all the way from the Mediterranean to the Indus! Seleucus truly moved in Alexander's footsteps!
The location of Apamea is worthy of Alexander, high above the fertile valley of the Orontes River, right on the junction of the busy road that connected the east with Antioch. Approaching today’s town of Afamia, the visitor will see antique Apamea atop of a trapezoidal hill sitting just behind the new settlement – shining like a crown-jewel. Huge parts of the 16 km-long city walls from the 2nd century BC and more than one hundred watch-towers can still be seen, at times reaching as much as 10 meters high. Apamea, I’m told, is four times the size of the more familiar Palmyra.
This was the time to reform Apamea from a typical Hellenistic city into a Roman one. We may owe it to Emperor Trajan who resided in nearby Antioch-on-the-Orontes at the time of the earthquake and nearly lost his life in the disaster, to rebuild Apamea. He kept the original Hippodamian plan which fitted the known Roman pattern anyway with a Cardo and a Decumanus. Apamea was enhanced with bath houses and public fountains, and near the original Hellenistic agora, a new temple was dedicated to Belos or Baal. Near the city-walls, a huge theater was built on the prior Hellenistic foundations and it equaled the theater of Ephesus with a seating of over 20,000 persons! Roman/Byzantine Apamea lasted until it was conquered by the invading Muslims in 636 AD.
I have great expectations when I finally visit Apamea since for years I have been in awe for the magnificent columns and mosaics that are the showpieces at the Archeological Museum in Brussels. It was there that I saw the spiral columns for the first time and when I met them later on in Sardes and in Ephesus, I mentally kept calling them “Apamea columns”. It is worth mentioning that the area was first excavated by Belgian archeologists in the 1930s and that the first restorations started in the 1970s – hence the museum pieces.
I enter Apamea from the north, next to the Antioch Gate. I immediately stop in my tracks since what I’m seeing is a Hellenistic city-gate, two round towers just like the better-preserved ones that guard the entrance to Perge, Turkey – definitely a piece of the heritage left by Alexander through Seleucus, of course.
Turning to the south, I face the most impressive Cardo Maximus, once a busy commercial through road and as Roman as you can find. And impressive it is: nearly two kilometers long and 38 meters wide, originally lined with 1200 columns of which 400 are still standing, each approximately 9 meters high and generally crowned with Corinthian capitals. The spiral columns I am expecting show up further down the road next to the agora, till then they are just plain.
The Cardo which almost looks like a boulevard is crossed by two Decumani. The first crossing is marked by a 14 meters high votive column resting on a triangular base, smack in the middle of the straight road – something I haven’t seen anywhere before. It is quite something to walk over this centuries-old pavement flanked by these giant guards looking down on you! The gray clouds blend in with the gray weathered columns and contribute the melancholic atmosphere.
Further down the Cardo, I find the Roman Baths built by Emperor Trajan (116-117). I am told that they are positioned in such a way that the water could flow down with gravity from the city walls. They have been rebuilt and renewed time and again until the 7th century and were still functioning during the rule of the Ayubbids and Mameluks. Excavation works are still in progress and earthen water and sewage pipes have recently been exposed. A little further on, I recognize the inevitable Nympheion and behind it I discover the public latrines fit to receive 80-90 people – a cozy place. Closer to the city center stands a column decorated with a relief of Bacchus carrying the thyrsus staff and framed with vine motives. This once was the basis of an arch signaling the entrance to a side street.
Finally, I reach the immense Agora (300 x 45 meters) where the typical spiral columns along the Cardo replace the otherwise unfluted ones. For me, this is how Apamea should be! After closer scrutiny, I notice that the spirals twist alternatively to the right and to the left, which from a distance make a V-pattern creating a zigzag effect. Apparently, they date back to 166 AD. Three of these columns have a console that held a statue of respectively Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Another one carried a statue in honor of Lucius Julius Agrippa, a leading citizen of Apamea, set up by Quintus Munatis Marinus, who carried the title of Beneficiarius as he helped to rebuild the city after the devastating earthquake of 115 AD. Further West are the remains of the famous Temple of Zeus Belos, known for its oracles and heavily visited by the believers, which included Emperor Septimus Severus. This temple was used without interruption till Christianity took over in 384-385 AD.
This is where I have to end my visit. The day is hiding behind the lead-coloured clouds and I deeply regret that I cannot take a picture of the golden sunrays illuminating these majestic colonnades. It is too late to walk down to the famous and grand theater at the end of the next Decumanus.
Apamea is absolutely a top location to visit as the remains from Hellenistic and Roman times are so vividly present. As I mentioned above, the city suffered heavily from the Muslim invasion leading to the decline of its wealth. During the 7th century, however, Apamea knows a short revival with the coming of the Crusaders. In 1106 Prince Tancredi from Normandy arrives here at the head of the First Crusade – later to be promoted to Prince of Galilea and Regent of the Princedom of Antioch. In 1157 and again in 1170, northern Syria is being hit by a series of severe earthquakes, destroying Apamea, together with cities like Hama, Emesa (Homs) and Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Antakya).
It is certain that even in antiquity Apamea appealed to everyone’s imagination and received many important guests. Cleopatra VII stopped here on her way back from the Euphrates when she accompanied Marc Anthony on his campaign against the Armenians. Septimus Severus arrived in 179 in his capacity of Legatus of the Fourth Scythian Legion and later, in 215, Emperor Caracalla paid a visit on his way home after staying in Egypt. And now it is my turn!
At the foot of this marvelous city lies a caravanserai built around 1524 by the Ottomans, where merchants and pilgrims could rest and spend a night on their way to the Orontes Valley. The building has recently been restored and serves as a museum for the finds from Apamea, mainly grave steles and mosaics from private houses, among which the exceptional mosaic of Socrates and the Wise Men. However, the largest and probably the best-preserved mosaic is to be found in the Archaeological Museum in Brussels.
[Click here to view all the pictures of Apamea]
[Click here to view all the pictures of Apamea]