Seleucia Pieria Church

In 1938 and 1939, during the Antioch expedition, an ancient church building was excavated at the town of Seleucia Pieria, the port town of Antioch. The building has been razed to the ground, but its plan could be reconstructed from the remains.

Though there is no longer anything to see at the site, the church at Selecuia Pieria is included here as an interesting example of early church architecture near Antioch and because a number of pieces of early Christian church art were found at the site. These artifacts can be seen in museums and in our Antioch Artifacts Gallery.

Located just inside the walls of the city, the Church at Seleucia Pieria occupied a prominent position near the main colonnaded street leading to the harbor and not far from the Market Gate. It was originally built in the late 400s and was rebuilt once, probably after the devastating earthquake of 526.

This church is often referred to as "the Martyrion," but there is no evidence that a martyr's relics were associated with the site. It was probably the local cathedral.

The church's shape (seen in the floor plan above) was a "freestanding double-shelled tetraconch" with a large square presbytery and apse projecting towards the east. The double shell forming an ambulatory is omewhat similar to that seen in the Dome of the Rock.

The interior shell was supported by columns (seen in the computer model above) and L-shaped piers at the corners. The piers also supported either a pyramidal wooden roof or, more likely, a wooden dome, that was about 41 feet in diameter. Wooden ceilings covered the ambulatories. In the center of the church was a U-shaped bema about 50 feet long, facing west. Such structures are widely known in church buildings in northern Syria and their precise function continues to be debated.

Enough fragments of decorationshave survived to give us some idea of what the church looked like inside. The inner columns had capitals carved with acanthus leaves and the columns that decorated the outside of the church were carved with angels, chalices or birds. The walls were decorated with marble revetments bearing images such as a Greek cross, rams, a shepherd playing a flute, St. Paul, David and Goliath. No traces of wall mosaics turned up at the site.

The inner area of the church was paved in marble, while the ambulatories were decorated with floor mosaics of animals (see the floor plan, above). These mosaics are now in the garden of the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Antakya, where they are exposed to the weather (a fact this author finds a little distressing). These mosaics are interesting in that they adapt the favorite theme of the hunt mosaic (such as this one) to a Christian context. In the church mosaic, the animals are often tame and the animals probably celebrate Creation as God's domain.


Quick Facts on Seleucia Pieria Church

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Names:Seleucia Pieria Church
Status: site only
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Coordinates:36.117424° N, 35.927610° E
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© Holly Hayes

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