Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Decline and Fall

When to write off Antioch? Well, the most obvious time to look for would be to identify when the city ceased to be Antioch the Great and instead became an also ran amongst cities. Some may care to differ but you can't get much more of a fall from greatness than effecting a name-change to reduce the threat of earthquakes. Thus I would be sorely tempted to date the "end" of the city's greatness to just after 528 AD when the name change to Theopolis was effected. We stand ready however to also plump for 540 AD when Chosroes devastated the city and carried off its population to his ersatz Antioch on the banks of the Euphrates.

We keep coming back to our simile of Berlin in the 20th century. The period 528-540 AD was very similar to 1933-45. The creative element was shipped out, scared away or destroyed while the physical nature of the city was transformed by destruction of the urban fabric of the metropolis. Rebuild and repopulate as one might the elements that came together to make, however flawed, the shining moments of the city's history could never be replaced in the former combination. Antioch went from metropolis or Weltstadt to provincial humdrum. The sole consolation was that the stupid Theopolis name went the way of all things and today's Antakya still harks back to the founding in 300 BC while Theopolis just looks like superstitious mumbo jumbo.

Even Berlin's travails pale into insignifigance compared to Antioch's. Warsaw or Konigsberg might be better simile. The 6th century was an unremitting litany of disaster.
  • A devastating fire in 525
  • the massive earthquake of 526 that destroyed the Island
  • the quake of 528 with even wider damage
  • the burning and looting by Chosroes in 540 with the wholesale transhipment of the population
  • bubonic plague in 542
  • another earthquake in 551
  • a cattle plague in 553
  • another earthquake in 557
  • more bubonic plague in 560
  • Persians burned the suburbs in 573
  • another earthquake in 577
  • a more damaging earthquake in 588
  • a drought killed the olive trees in 599
  • a weevil infestation ruined the crops in 600
Frankly with all this in prospect after 540 the lucky ones were the locals who were shipped off to "Better-than-Antioch" for there could scarcely be anywhere worse than the old Antioch!
These tribulations must have left the city massively denuded of population with the attendant collapse in services and output. I discussed elsewhere tha "big mistake" of abandoning the Island and focusing on building the Walls of Justinian which were promptly proved to be useless. 
There is very little information on what the city was like by the time it fell to the Arabs in 638 AD (after a series of passing back and forth between Byzantine and Persian control). There can scarcely have been much of the classical city left or even of the later Christian establishment. The Domus Aurea never recovered from the 588 AD quake when the structure, damaged in 526 AD, finally collapsed. Swathes of other churches and civic buildings must have been destroyed and the retreat of the city from occupying the limits of the Walls of Justinian must have begun. The inhabited area seems to have not stretched much beyond the Parmenios when the Crusaders arrived in 1098. Water supply must have been compromised, the Island was clearly stripped to provide building material after the earthquakes of the 520s when it was left outside the reduced circuit of the Walls. The acropolis and temples had their building materials "recycled" for other uses in the city. The population might have fallen by 2/3rds via these various ravages and certainly cutting of the aqueducts or reduction in their capacity would have made the city less able to carry as much population as it once did.
The city was intellectually and culturally denuded by the events between 536 AD and 540 AD. It may have been repopulated with peasants from elsewhere (the Byzantine version of Lebensraum as related by Cyril Mango) but they just weren't the cheeky, saucy, inspired popluation of the past. No wonder the city scarcely warranted a mention ever again for its intellectual or cultural output.
The city went from being a "city" to being a provincial town and a rapidly declining and peripheralised one at that. The Crusaders gave it a new burst of political life and presumably some artistic revival (as much as could be managed in the medieval context) but that was shortlived and then the really Dark Ages from Baibars victory through to the 20th century fell upon the town like an impenetrable fog. 

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